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Lyles v. Brennan

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

September 30, 2019

EDWARD LYLES, Plaintiff,
MEGAN J. BRENNAN, Postmaster General, and UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Defendants.

          Steger, Magistrate Judge



         Before the Court is a motion by Defendant Megan J. Brennan, Postmaster General, for summary judgment on the specific issue of judicial estoppel. (Doc. 85.) Plaintiff has responded in opposition (Doc. 89), and Defendant has replied (Doc. 91). The Court will GRANT Defendant’s motion for summary judgment for the reasons set out below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 28, 2012, Plaintiff Edward Lyles (“Plaintiff”), a United States Postal Service (“USPS”) carrier, was involved in a mail truck accident, which resulted in injury to a minor child. (Doc. 2 at 2.) Plaintiff’s supervisors investigated the incident, ultimately recommending Plaintiff be removed from his position. (Id.) Plaintiff was terminated on September 13, 2012, and he filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on December 12, 2012. (Doc. 2 at 3.) Plaintiff alleged his termination was based on racial discrimination and was in retaliation for his prior complaints to the EEOC in March and October 2011. (Id.) The EEOC denied Plaintiff’s complaint in a Final Agency Decision on March 14, 2014, and he was advised of his right to file suit. (Doc. 85-1 at 6.) Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Office of Federal Operations, which affirmed the Agency’s decision on April 21, 2015. (Id. at 26.) Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the decision, but the request was denied on September 25, 2015. (Id. at 33.)

         During this time, Plaintiff’s union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, filed a grievance on Plaintiff’s behalf contesting his termination. (Doc. 54-3 at 3.) After reaching an impasse in November 2012, the union and USPS submitted the dispute for arbitration. (Id.) On March 4, 2013, the arbiter concluded that USPS failed to prove Plaintiff was at fault for the vehicle accident and thus he should not have been terminated. (Id. at 13.) Plaintiff was reinstated that same day and received full back pay. (Id.)

         On September 19, 2013, Plaintiff filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. (In re Lyles, No. 1:13-bk-14664-NWW, Doc 1.)[1] The bankruptcy court accepted his bankruptcy plan on November 8, 2013, but the case was ultimately dismissed on December 17, 2015, for failure to make plan payments. (In re Lyles at Docs. 25, 43.)

         On December 30, 2015, Plaintiff filed a civil suit against USPS raising the same claims he alleged in his 2012 EEOC complaint, namely that his termination was based on racial discrimination and in retaliation for prior EEOC activity in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Doc. 2.) Plaintiff is seeking equitable relief and compensatory damages. (Id.) Service of process was properly completed on April 25, 2017. (Docs. 27, 46.) Defendants answered on June 19, 2017 (Doc. 28), and amended their answer to raise the issue of judicial estoppel on June 21, 2019 (Doc. 83).

         Before the Court now is Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the specific issue of judicial estoppel. Defendant contends Plaintiff failed to include his claim against USPS in his Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing and thus is judicially estopped from raising that same claim in this case. (Doc. 85.)


         Summary judgment is proper when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of showing no genuine issue of material fact remains. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Leary v. Daeschner, 349 F.3d 888, 897 (6th Cir. 2003).

         If the moving party meets its initial burden, “the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and come forward with specific facts to demonstrate that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Chao v. Hall Holding Co., Inc., 285 F.3d 415, 424 (6th Cir. 2002). A genuine issue for trial exists if there is “evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 595 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)) (internal quotations omitted). In addition, should the non-moving party fail to provide evidence to support an essential element of its case, the movant can meet its burden by pointing out such failure to the court. Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479 (6th Cir. 1989).

         At summary judgment, the court’s role is limited to determining whether the case contains sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find for the non-movant. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248–49. The court should view the evidence, including all reasonable inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Nat’l Satellite Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis, Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th Cir. 2001). If the court concludes, based on the record, that a fair-minded jury could not return a verdict in favor of the non-movant, the court should grant summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251–52; Lansing Dairy, Inc. v. Espy, 39 F.3d 1339, 1347 (6th Cir. 1994).


         The Court will first address Plaintiff’s claim that the doctrine of laches precludes application of judicial estoppel. The Court will then discuss the application of judicial estoppel if laches does not preclude its consideration.

         A. Whether the Doctrine of Laches Precludes Application of Judicial Estoppel

         Plaintiff contends the doctrine of judicial estoppel should not even be considered because Defendant “failed to raise judicial estoppel for over three years of this litigation to the prejudice of [Plaintiff].” (Doc. 89 at 4.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues Defendant could easily have checked PACER for bankruptcy filings or served written discovery on Plaintiff and discovered his prior bankruptcy. (Id.) Instead, Plaintiff contends Defendant did not act with diligence by failing to take such steps to learn of his bankruptcy. (Id.) Plaintiff thus appears to be invoking the doctrine of laches.

         Defendant argues laches does not apply to judicial estoppel and, even assuming it could, it does not apply here. (Doc. 91.) Defendant notes service of process was not officially completed until April 2017, meaning Defendant has only been part of the lawsuit for about two years. (Id.) Defendant further explains that Plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment on March 6, 2018, which was not resolved until August 16, 2018. (Id.) The government shutdown further delayed proceedings until February 6, 2019. (Id.) Defendant contends that when she finally was able to engage in normal discovery, she learned of Plaintiff’s bankruptcy based on medical records received on May 28, 2019. (Id.) Defendant investigated the bankruptcy, learned the EEO claim had not been disclosed, and filed the amended answer on June 14, 2019. (Id.) Defendant asserts her choice not to serve written discovery on Plaintiff is not evidence of lack of diligence, but rather demonstrates an economical litigation strategy that benefited Plaintiff. (Id.) Defendant claims the record shows an active and diligent effort to defend the action. (Id.)

         “In this circuit, laches is ‘a negligent and unintentional failure to protect one’s rights.’” United States v. City of Loveland, Ohio, 621 F.3d 465, 473 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Herman Miller, Inc. v. Palazzetti Imp. & Exp., Inc., 270 F.3d 298, 320 (6th Cir. 2001)). “A party asserting laches must show: (1) lack of diligence by the party against whom the defense is asserted, and (2) prejudice to the party asserting it.” ...

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