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Lincoln v. BNSF Railway Co.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 23, 2019

LARRY D. LINCOLN and BRAD C. MOSBRUCKER, Plaintiffs,
v.
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Daniel D. Crabtree United States District Judge

         This matter is before the court on remand from the Tenth Circuit after the Circuit held that “a plaintiff’s failure to file an EEOC charge regarding a discrete employment incident merely permits the employer to raise an affirmative defense of failure to exhaust but does not bar a federal court from assuming jurisdiction over a claim.” See Lincoln v. BNSF Ry. Co., 900 F.3d 1166, at 1186 (10th Cir. 2018) (also available as Doc. 98 on CM/ECF record of this case). On December 6, 2018, the court conducted a telephone status conference with the parties. The court directed the parties to file briefs addressing this question: “Should the court relieve defendant of the parties’ stipulation about plaintiffs’ exhaustion of administrative remedies, as stated in Doc. 13?” Doc. 103.

         Defendant filed a Motion for Relief from Stipulation on Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies (Doc. 104). Plaintiffs oppose defendant’s motion (Doc. 107). Defendant has replied (Doc. 112) and defendant also filed a Notice of Supplemental Authority (Doc. 113). For reasons discussed below, the court grants defendant’s motion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs Larry D. Lincoln and Brad C. Mosbrucker are former employees of defendant BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”). After a BNSF tank car sprung a leak near where plaintiffs were working in 2007, they sustained injuries that required medical leave and accommodations. Plaintiffs returned to work and applied for several positions with defendant that did not require significant outdoor exposure. Defendant did not hire either plaintiff for a new position. Later, plaintiffs brought employment discrimination and retaliation claims against defendant. Specifically, plaintiffs raised four claims: “(1) discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); (2) failure to accommodate under the ADA; (3) retaliation under the ADA; and (4) retaliation under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”).” Lincoln, 900 F.3d at 1176.

         In November 2016, defendant moved for summary judgment against both plaintiffs on all claims they had asserted. The court sustained the motion and entered judgment for defendants on all claims. Doc. 86. Relevant here, the court found plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies for certain claims. Id. at 20, 22. And so, following then-existing case law, the court held that it lacked jurisdiction over those claims. Id. Plaintiffs then appealed the court’s summary judgment order. Doc. 90.

         The Tenth Circuit affirmed some of the decisions in the summary judgment order but reversed some 40 years of precedent and held that exhausting administrative remedies is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit in federal court. Lincoln, 900 F.3d at 1186. Instead, the Circuit established a new rule. This new rule holds that “a plaintiff’s failure to file an EEOC charge regarding a discrete employment incident merely permits the employer to raise an affirmative defense of failure to exhaust but does not bar a federal court from assuming jurisdiction over a claim.” Id.

         The new rule adopted on appeal complicated the analysis governing this case. The complication originates in a stipulation made by the parties early during proceedings before this court. Specifically, at the motion to dismiss stage, the two plaintiffs and defendant stipulated that “[p]laintiffs Lincoln and Mosbrucker have exhausted their administrative remedies for employment actions occurring on or after April 16, 2012.” Doc. 13 ¶ 13. Recognizing the complication, the Circuit remanded the case and instructed this court to “consider what force to give the stipulation and conduct further summary judgment proceedings consistent with this opinion.”[1] Lincoln, 900 F.3d at 1214.

         The Circuit’s precedential shift now requires the court to decide a vexing issue. Before the Circuit’s decision adopting the new rule, the court could not consider whether the stipulation foreclosed defendant’s failure to exhaust defense for positions plaintiffs applied for on or after April 16, 2012. Under precedent now outdated, failing to exhaust served as an un-waivable jurisdictional bar. But now, the Circuit has held that exhaustion doesn’t present a jurisdictional bar issue. And, the Circuit held, the stipulation in this case is “best read as a waiver by [defendant] of its exhaustion defense for all employment actions occurring on or after April 16, 2012.” Lincoln, 900 F.3d at 1187. The Circuit thus concluded that the stipulation is unambiguous and-if enforced-would mean that defendant has waived its exhaustion defense for some claims. Id. at 1187–88.

         But, the Circuit also concluded that this court, on remand, should consider and decide whether to enforce the stipulation. Id. at 1188. Specifically, the Circuit directed “the district court should determine, in light of cases such as TI Federal Credit Union, Marshall, and O’Connor, what, if any, force should be accorded the stipulation.” Id. The court now addresses that question, and, for reasons explained below, declines to enforce the parties’ stipulation.

         II. Legal Standard

         ‘“[S]tipulations of attorneys made during a trial may not be disregarded or set aside at will.”’ TI Fed. Credit Union v. DelBonis, 72 F.3d 921, 928 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Marshall v. Emersons Ltd., 593 F.2d 565, 569 (4th Cir. 1979)). But, “‘a stipulation of counsel originally designed to expedite the trial should not be rigidly adhered to when it becomes apparent that it may inflict a manifest injustice upon one of the contracting parties.’” Id. (quoting Marshall, 593 F.2d at 568). “[A] party may be relieved of a stipulation for good cause-which means, in a nutshell, that good reason must exist and that relief must not unfairly prejudice the opposing party or the interests of justice.” Chao v. Hotel Oasis, Inc., 493 F.3d 26, 32 (1st Cir. 2007) (citation and internal quotations omitted). And, “[i]n principle, an intervening change of law might count as good cause.” Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Richard Lundgren, Inc., 314 F.3d 17, 21 (1st Cir. 2002) (citing Arizona v. Shamrock Foods Co., 729 F.2d 1208, 1215–16 (9th Cir. 1984)); see also Illig v. United States, 67 Fed.Cl. 47, 56 (2005).

         While “parties to a lawsuit are free to stipulate to factual matters, ” they “may not stipulate to the legal conclusions to be reached by the court.” Saviano v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 765 F.2d 643, 645 (7th Cir. 1985); see also O’Connor v. City and Cty. of Denver, 894 F.2d 1210, 1225–26 (10th Cir. 1990) (‘“Parties may not stipulate the findings of fact upon which conclusions of law . . . are to be based.”’ (quoting Platt v. United States, 163 F.2d 165, 168 (10th Cir. 1947))). So, “[r]elief from erroneous stipulations is especially favored where the mistake made concerns a legal conclusion.” TI Fed. Credit Union, 72 F.3d at 928; see also Saviano, 765 F.2d at 645 (holding that, though parties could stipulate to factual elements for terms used in a loan agreement, the characterization of the transaction for tax purposes involved a conclusion of law). Ultimately, “the district court is vested with broad discretion in deciding whether to enforce [the] parties[’] stipulation or not.” Miller v. Eby Realty Grp. LLC, 396 F.3d 1105, 1116 (10th Cir. 2005).

         III. ...


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