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CHURCHILL v. STAR ENTERPRISES

June 22, 1998

MARY CHURCHILL
v.
STAR ENTERPRISES a/k/a STAR STAFF INC., et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BARTLE

MEMORANDUM

 Bartle, J.

 June 22, 1998

 This is an action under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., with pendent state law claims. Presently before the court is the motion of defendants to dismiss the complaint and for sanctions. Defendants contend that the action is barred by res judicata, that is, by claim preclusion.

 Defendants present their motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. However, any motion under Rule 12(b) must be brought prior to the filing of a responsive pleading. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b). Defendants filed and served their answer approximately one month before the instant motion to dismiss. For this reason, we will treat the motion as one requesting judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c).

 In ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the well pleaded facts of the complaint will be taken as true. In addition, we may consider matters of public record, and authentic documents upon which the complaint is based if attached to the complaint or as an exhibit to the motion. Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1391 (3d Cir. 1994); Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196-97 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1042, 126 L. Ed. 2d 655, 114 S. Ct. 687 (1994).

 According to the complaint, filed on April 2, 1998, plaintiff Mary Churchill was a station manager for defendant Star Enterprises, also known as Star Staff Incorporated ("Star"). Individual defendants Joseph Jantorno and David Smith worked as her regional manager and manager, respectively. In June, 1996, plaintiff was diagnosed with oral cancer and underwent three surgeries. From August through October of 1996, plaintiff received radiation treatment, as a result of which she suffered various side effects including fatigue. Plaintiff "requested reasonable accommodation by continually notifying her supervisor, Defendant David Smith [of] her need for staffing assistance in order to modify her work schedule so that she could work less hours." Compl. P 26. Her final request occurred on January 29, 1997, when she left a voice mail message on defendant Smith's answering machine again requesting assistance for staffing her store. This request, as well as all prior requests, went unanswered. Defendant Smith advised defendant Jantorno of plaintiff's requests for assistance. Defendant Jantorno then scheduled an "untimely evaluation" for plaintiff and asked defendant Smith to perform such evaluation. Compl. P 39. Defendants terminated plaintiff on February 7, 1997 "in an effort to avoid the obligation of providing Plaintiff a reasonable accommodation" and for "pretextual reasons." Compl. PP 31, 41.

 Plaintiff claims that her discharge violated the ADA, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, §§ 951 et seq. and the New Jersey Family Leave Act ("NJFLA"), N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 34:11B-1 et seq. She seeks reinstatement, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and counsel fees. Defendants argue, on the other hand, that the instant action is barred by claim preclusion because plaintiff could have raised these ADA, PHRA, and NJFLA claims in a prior lawsuit based on these same facts.

 On May 20, 1997, over ten months prior to filing the present action ("Churchill II "), plaintiff instituted a lawsuit in this court, entitled Churchill v. Star Enterprises, No. CIV. A. 97-3527 ("Churchill I "), against these same defendants asserting a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. The complaint in Churchill I contended that plaintiff, employed as a station manager for Star since July of 1991, was diagnosed and treated for oral cancer. After three surgeries, due to which she missed two and a half weeks of work, she commenced radiation treatment. On January 29, 1997 plaintiff put defendants on notice that she qualified for FMLA leave due to her "serious medical need." Compl. P 20. However, defendants discharged her on February 6, 1997 "for exercising her rights under the FMLA." Compl. P 23. Plaintiff sought equitable relief of reinstatement and restoration of health benefits, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. She also demanded liquidated damages pursuant to the FMLA, as well as attorneys' fees, expert fees, and costs.

 After a Rule 16 status conference on September 11, 1997 in Churchill I, this court entered a scheduling order with a December 31, 1997 discovery deadline. It placed the case in the court's February, 1998 trial pool. At trial, which commenced before the undersigned on February 11, the jury found that the defendants terminated plaintiff in violation of the FMLA and awarded damages of $ 8,609.02. The court then added statutory interest. Finding that the violation of the FMLA had not been made in good faith, we doubled this award as liquidated damages. See 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(iii). We entered judgment on February 13, 1997 in favor of plaintiff and against all three defendants, Star, Joseph Jantorno, and David Smith for $ 18,337.22, jointly and severally. We also ordered defendant Star to reinstate plaintiff to a position equivalent to the one she held as of February 5, 1997, with equivalent wages and benefits. Subsequently, we awarded plaintiff counsel fees and costs. See Churchill v. Star Enter., 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6068, No. CIV. A. 97-3527, 1998 WL 254080 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 17, 1998). As noted above, it was not until April 2, 1998, almost two months after the jury verdict in Churchill I, that plaintiff filed Churchill II.

 The primary purpose of claim preclusion is to prohibit piecemeal adjudication of claims arising out of the same transaction or occurrence. Board of Trustees of Trucking Employees of N.J. Welfare Fund, Inc. v. Centra, 983 F.2d 495, 504 (3d Cir. 1992). The Court of Appeals has defined claim preclusion as giving dispositive effect to a prior judgment if a particular issue, although not litigated, could have been raised in the earlier proceeding. Claim preclusion requires:

 
(1) a final judgment on the merits in a prior suit involving; (2) the same parties or their privities; and (3) a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action.

 Id. The first two elements are obviously met here. Churchill I resulted in final judgment after trial in favor of the same plaintiff and against the same defendants named in Churchill II.

 In order to determine whether claim preclusion bars the present action, we must decide whether Churchill II is based upon the "same cause of action" as Churchill I. This third element, however, does not mean that plaintiff must espouse the same legal theory in both lawsuits for claim preclusion to apply. Rather, "whether two lawsuits are based on the identical cause of action 'turns on the essential similarity of the underlying events giving rise to the various legal claims.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Athlone Indus., Inc., 746 F.2d 977, 983 (3d Cir. 1984)). The Court of Appeals has enumerated various factors we must consider. See Athlone, 746 F.2d at 984. The "focal points of our analysis are whether the acts ...


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