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Jones v. Savage Services Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

May 9, 2019

ANOTONIO JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
SAVAGE SERVICES CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Antonio Jones filed this lawsuit against Savage Services Corporation (“SSC”) alleging race discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Doc. 1. Before the court is SSC's motion to dismiss Jones' complaint due to circumstances implicating the equitable principles of judicial estoppel and subject matter jurisdiction.[1] Doc. 24. The motion to dismiss is fully briefed and ripe for review, docs. 24 and 26, and is due to be granted in part.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) authorizes a motion to dismiss based on the defense that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Rule 12(b)(1) motions come in two forms-facial, where the inquiry is confined to the allegations in the complaint, or factual, where the court is permitted to look beyond the complaint to extrinsic evidence. Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990). When deciding a factual challenge, the court may hear conflicting evidence and decide the factual issues that bear on jurisdiction. Colonial Pipeline Co. v. Collins, 921 F.2d 1237, 1243 (11th Cir. 1991). In other words, “when a defendant properly [raises a factual] challenge[ ] [to] subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) ... ‘no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of the jurisdictional issue.'” Morrison v. Amway Corp., 323 F.3d 920, 925 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Lawrence, 919 F.2d at 1529). “In the face of a factual challenge to subject matter jurisdiction, the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that jurisdiction exists.” OSI, Inc. v. United States, 285 F.3d 947, 951 (11th Cir. 2002).

         However, the court “should only rely on Rule 12(b)(1) ‘[i]f the facts necessary to sustain jurisdiction do not implicate the merits of plaintiff's cause of action.'” Morrison, 323 F.3d at 925 (quoting Garcia v. Copenhaver, Bell & Assocs., 104 F.3d 1256, 1261 (11th Cir. 1997)). Instead, “[w]hen the jurisdictional basis of a claim is intertwined with the merits, the district court should apply a Rule 56 summary judgment standard when ruling on a motion to dismiss which asserts a factual attack on subject matter jurisdiction.” Lawrence, 919 F.2d at 1530. This approach is designed “‘to allow jurisdictional dismissals only in those cases where the federal claim is clearly immaterial or insubstantial.'” Garcia, 104 F.3d at 1261 (quoting Williamson v. Tucker, 645 F.2d 404, 416 (5th Cir. 1981)). Thus, “it is extremely difficult to dismiss a claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, ” at least when the jurisdictional challenge is intertwined with the substantive merits of the action. Id. at 1260. Here, SSC's motion relies on evidence outside the pleadings, and the court construes its jurisdictional challenge as factual.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Jones, who is African American, has worked since June 2012 at SSC. Doc. 1 at 3. His workplace trainer Randy Brisco, who is white, allegedly made disparaging comments about African American churches and conveyed his preference for hiring white applicants. Id. at 4. Jones complained about these comments to his General Manager apparently to no avail. Id. at 5. In June 2015, after Russ Shinert became the new General Manager, Jones again complained about Brisco and attempted unsuccessfully to contact SSC's corporate office after Shinert took no action. Id. That same month, SSC instructed Jones to sign a “responsibilities duties form” following a complaint by Brisco that Jones was purportedly leaving trucks without fuel. Id. at 6. Roughly a month later, SSC discharged Jones for “stealing time.” Id. at 7-8. Jones disputes this allegation, contending that Brisco, who is responsible for time cards, never raised any issues about time entries with Jones. Id. Jones subsequently filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Doc. 1 at 3.

         Nearly a year after filing his EEOC charge, Jones filed a Chapter 13 Voluntary Petition. Doc. 24-1. In response to the required disclosure of assets, liabilities, and creditors, Jones declared under the penalty of perjury that he was not a party in any lawsuit, court action, or administrative proceeding and that he had no claims against third parties, including lawsuits, employment disputes, or rights to suits. Doc. 24-1 at 14, 32. Approximately a year after the bankruptcy filing, the EEOC issued Jones a notice of right to sue, and Jones filed this lawsuit on the day after the bankruptcy court confirmed his Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.[2]Docs. 1; 24-2 at 12.

         III. ANALYSIS

         SSC raises two arguments in support of dismissal: (1) that Jones is judicially estopped from pursuing this lawsuit in light of his failure to disclose it as an asset in his bankruptcy case, doc. 24 at 5-13, and (2) that Jones lacks judicial standing because only his bankruptcy trustee can pursue legal claims that are the property of the bankruptcy estate, id. at 13-15. In response, Jones acknowledges his failure to disclose and asks to amend his bankruptcy filings to reflect his EEOC charge and this lawsuit. In lieu of dismissal, Jones asks the court to allow him to amend the complaint to include the trustee as a party plaintiff. Doc. 26 at 1-2. The court will address first the judicial estoppel contention in Section A, followed by the jurisdictional issue in Section B.

         A. Judicial Estoppel

         The doctrine of judicial estoppel “protect[s] the integrity of the judicial process by prohibiting parties from changing positions according to the exigencies of the moment.” New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 742, 749 (2001). “Judicial estoppel applies when (1) a party takes an inconsistent position under oath in a separate proceeding, and (2) the party's inconsistent positions were ‘calculated to make a mockery of the judicial system.'” Silva v. Pro Transp., Inc., 898 F.3d 1335, 1339 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Slater v. United States Steel Corp., 871 F.3d 1174, 1181 (11th Cir. 2017)). A plaintiff takes an inconsistent position when he “assert[s] in the civil lawsuit that he has a claim against the defendant while denying under oath in the bankruptcy proceeding that the claim exists.” Id.

         To demonstrate Jones' inconsistent positions under oath, SSC contends that Jones failed to disclose his EEOC charge in his initial bankruptcy petition and also failed to amend his financial statements to reflect this lawsuit as an additional asset. Doc. 24 at 6-8. Indeed, the evidence indicates that although Jones filed his EEOC charge before his bankruptcy petition, he declared under the penalty of perjury in his petition that he had no pending claims against third parties, including administrative proceedings. Doc. 24-1 at 14, 32. Thus, Jones violated his initial duty to disclose the pending EEOC charge. See Barger v. City of Cartersville, Ga., 348 F.3d 1289, 1292 (11th Cir. 2003), overruled on other grounds by Slater, 871 F.3d at 1174 (citing 11 U.S.C. § 541(a)) (The “property of the bankruptcy estate includes all potential causes of action that exist at the time petitioner files for bankruptcy.”); Casanova v. Pre Sols., Inc., 228 Fed.Appx. 837, 841 (11th Cir. 2007) (noting that “pending EEOC charges” constitute disclosable administrative proceedings and “other contingent and unliquidated claims.”).

         Moreover, Jones also had a continuing duty to amend his bankruptcy filings. This duty does not “end once the forms are submitted to the Bankruptcy Court; rather a debtor must amend his financial statements if circumstances change.” Robinson v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 595 F.3d 1269, 1276 (11th Cir. 2010) (holding that the doctrine of judicial estoppel barred plaintiff's action because she failed to disclose her workers compensation claim in the initial bankruptcy petition and her subsequently filed discrimination suit as a contingent asset). The record indicates that Jones failed to amend his bankruptcy petition to disclose this lawsuit as a legal or equitable interest in his bankruptcy case, and Jones never explains why he failed to do so. Docs. 24-2; 26. See Robinson, 595 F.3d at 1274 (noting that the continuing duty to disclose applies in both Chapter 13 and Chapter 7 bankruptcies alike due to the need for complete and honest disclosures in all types of bankruptcies). Because Jones signed his bankruptcy petition ...


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