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Pfeifer v. Federal Express Corporation

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 26, 2014



ERIC F. MELGREN, District Judge.

On August 13, 2009, Plaintiff Cynthia Pfeifer ("Plaintiff") filed a one-count Complaint against Defendant Federal Express Corporation ("Defendant") alleging a workers' compensation retaliation claim. This matter now comes before the Court on Defendant's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 60), filed on September 18, 2013, seeking to preclude Plaintiff from pursuing her retaliation claim on the grounds of judicial estoppel. On October 29, 2013, this Court granted a motion to intervene filed by Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee Laurie B. Williams ("Trustee"). Plaintiff and the Trustee now join in support of Plaintiff's October 30, 2013, motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 71), seeking dismissal of Defendant's motion for summary judgment on the judicial estoppel issue. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion is granted in its entirety. Plaintiff's motion is granted only so far as it allows the Trustee to pursue Plaintiff's claim for workplace retaliation in an amount not to exceed Plaintiff's current debt, $157, 489.68. The remainder of Plaintiff's motion is denied.

I. Factual and Procedural Background[1]

Defendant, a Delaware corporation, is a publicly held entity doing business throughout the United States, including in the city of Hays in Ellis County, Kansas. Defendant hired Plaintiff on January 17, 1994, and continuously employed her for over fourteen years, until May 2, 2008. On September 11, 2007, during the course of her regular duties, Plaintiff sustained an injury to her left knee, after which she sought medical treatment and care from a Defendant-approved physician. Plaintiff was thereafter placed on leave and was entitled to workers' compensation. On September 27, 2007, Plaintiff underwent a left knee arthroscopy, followed by several months of physical therapy. She was released to return to light work duty on November 7, 2007; however, Defendant informed Plaintiff that she could not return until she was medically released for full duty. Plaintiff obtained this full release on November 27, 2007.

Plaintiff returned to work for four months following her release. Following a quarterly audit on March 18, 2008, Defendant accused Plaintiff of falsifying her timecard. Plaintiff was thereafter placed on suspension until May 2, 2008, when she was terminated.

On August 13, 2009, Plaintiff filed suit alleging wrongful termination/retaliation in reaction to her workers' compensation claim. Plaintiff claimed Defendant terminated her employment and subjected her to repeated acts of retaliation, harassment, and intimidation because of her September 2007 work-related injury. She seeks front and back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees, and a directive ordering Defendant to remove or expunge any negative, discriminatory, retaliatory, or defamatory memoranda and documentation from her employment records.

On March 2, 2010, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss Plaintiff's workers' compensation retaliation claim. In its motion, Defendant alleged that Plaintiff failed to bring her claim within the six-month contractual limitations period, as agreed to by Plaintiff in her executed employment agreement with Defendant. On February 2, 2011, this Court granted Defendant's motion, finding that: (1) Defendant's six-month filing requirement did not violate Kansas public policy; and (2) Defendant's contractual limitation provision was reasonable. On February 9, 2011, Plaintiff filed a motion seeking to certify the following question to the Kansas Supreme Court:

[c]an a provision in an employee's written contract with her employer, which provides that any claim by the employee against the employer must be brought within six months after the claim accrues, be applied to supersede the Kansas two year statute of limitations which applies to the employee's claim against the employer for workers' compensation retaliatory discharge?"

Plaintiff's motion was denied. Thus, on February 25, 2011, Plaintiff appealed this Court's ruling granting Defendant summary judgment.

Following a November 9, 2011, oral argument, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals chose to certify Plaintiff's question to the Kansas Supreme Court. Both Plaintiff and Defendant filed briefs and, on May 22, 2012, participated in oral argument before the Kansas Supreme Court. On June 7, 2013, the Kansas Supreme Court answered the certified question in favor of Plaintiff, effectively reversing this Court's grant of summary judgment. The Appellate Court therefore remanded this case to this Court on July 23, 2013.

Meanwhile, on November 21, 2012, Plaintiff and her husband jointly filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Kansas.[2] In both her petition and corresponding financial affairs documents, Plaintiff failed to disclose her lawsuit against Defendant. On April 13, 2013, the Bankruptcy Court entered a Corrected Order Modifying and Confirming Plaintiff's Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Plan (the "Plan") which provided Plaintiff and her husband to "pay to the Trustee plan payments in the monthly amount of $100.00 for forty-four (44) months, but in any event no less than thirty-six (36) months and until a total of $4, 400.00 is paid under the Plan."

On August 14, 2013, after becoming aware of Plaintiff's omission, Defendant served Plaintiff with a Second Set of Requests for Admission requesting that Plaintiff admit that she did not disclose her lawsuit against Defendant in her Chapter 13 filings. On that same day, Defendant advised Plaintiff's counsel in writing that it intended to seek summary judgment on the basis of judicial estoppel. On August 15, 2013, Defendant filed a motion seeking leave to amend its Answer to include the following affirmative defense: "FedEx intends to file a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff failed to disclose this pending lawsuit as an asset in her Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings, in which her Chapter 13 Plan was confirmed and her consumer debts were greatly reduced."[3] On August 21, 2013, more than two months after the Kansas Supreme Court's decision, Plaintiff informed the Trustee that she would be amending her bankruptcy pleadings to include her claim against Defendant. On that same day, Plaintiff filed Amended Bankruptcy Schedules B and C.[4] On September 13, 2013, Plaintiff filed an Amended Statement of Financial Affairs.[5]

Defendant now seeks to foreclose, through a motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff's claim for workers' compensation retaliation on the grounds of judicial estoppel. Both Plaintiff and the Trustee object to Defendant's motion.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[6] A fact is "material" when it is essential to the claim, and the issues of fact are "genuine" if the proffered evidence permits a reasonable jury to decide the issue in either party's favor.[7] The movant bears the initial burden of proof and must show the lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim.[8] The nonmovant must then bring forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.[9] These facts must be clearly identified through affidavits, deposition transcripts, or incorporated exhibits - conclusory allegations alone cannot survive a motion for summary judgment.[10] The court views all evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.[11]

III. Analysis

Defendant argues that Plaintiff should be precluded from pursuing her retaliation claim against Defendant given Plaintiff's failure to list this lawsuit in her Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition. Specifically, Defendant seeks judgment on the legal theory of judicial estoppel. In return, Plaintiff seeks partial summary judgment on Defendant's judicial estoppel claim, contending that judicial estoppel is inappropriate in cases where, as here, the underlying claim was decided on its merits more than one year prior to a bankruptcy filing. In the alternative, Plaintiff argues: (1) that even if she took an inconsistent position by not disclosing this case in her bankruptcy filings, her failure to do so was based on inadvertence or mistake; (2) Plaintiff never misled the bankruptcy court by failing to disclose this claim; (3) Plaintiff has not received an unfair advantage by failing to disclose this claim; and (4) it is Plaintiff's creditors that will be harmed should this Court grant Defendant's summary judgment motion.

Judicial estoppel is an equitable doctrine that seeks "to protect the integrity of the judicial process by prohibiting parties from deliberately changing positions according to the exigencies of the moment... [and] to prevent improper use of judicial machinery."[12] Courts generally ...

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