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Lapic v. MTD Products

September 17, 2009

DENNIS P. LAPIC, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MTD PRODUCTS, INC., T/D/B/A LAWN AND GARDEN SERVICE CO., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Mitchell

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Dennis P. Lapic, brings this action against Defendant, MTD Products, Inc., t/d/b/a Lawn and Garden Service Co. ("MTD"), alleging that he was terminated from his employment with MTD as a result of being ordered to Active Duty Training by the United States Army, in violation of his rights under Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301-35 (USERRA).

Presently before this Court for disposition is Plaintiff's motion to strike Defendant's demand for fees and costs and the affirmative defenses asserted in Defendant's answer. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.

Procedural History

Plaintiff filed this action on June 12, 2009. Jurisdiction is based on USERRA, 38 U.S.C. § 4323(b)(3). (Compl. ¶ 4.) The complaint indicates that Plaintiff is a Master Sergeant with the United States Military who was hired by MTD as Junior Territory Sales Manager or February 23, 1999 and promoted to Intermediate Territory Sales Manager on December 15, 2003. Plaintiff alleges that in April 2005, he was ordered to attend a 4-day military conference and that he was then ordered to report to Active Duty Training on May 7, 2005, after which he returned to work on May 23, 2005.

He alleges that, after he returned to work, MTD twice postponed his mid-year performance review and then terminated his employment on June 14, 2005. Although MTD told Plaintiff that the reason for his termination was "performance," he notes that he had never received any warning, corrective action or discipline and that he had never been placed on a performance improvement plan. Rather, prior to that time, his performance was consistently rated as meets or exceeds expectations. Thus, he alleges that his termination was motivated by his military service, in willful violation of USERRA.. As damages, he seeks: full back pay and benefits, full front pay and benefits, pre- and post-judgment interest, an amount equal to his past and future lost wages as liquidated damages under § 4323(d)(1)(C), full attorney fees and costs of suit and such other legal and equitable relief as the Court finds just and proper. (Compl. at 10.)

On August 13, 2009, Defendant filed an answer to the complaint (Docket No. 5), which included fourteen affirmative defenses. On August 20, 2009, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Strike Defendant's Demand for Fees and Costs and Defendant's Defenses. He argues that: 1) Defendant's fifth defense should be stricken because contributory negligence is not a legally valid defense to a claim of discrimination under USERRA; 2) Defendant's first, seventh and eighth defenses should be stricken because they are not affirmative defenses, but merely statements that Plaintiff has failed to limn the elements of his discrimination claim; 3) Defendant's eleventh and twelfth defenses should be stricken because he has not requested punitive damages; 4) all of the affirmative defenses should be stricken on the ground that they have not been pled with sufficient particularity so that he has a fair opportunity to contest them; and 5) Defendant's request for attorney fees and costs should be stricken because USERRA expressly forbids fee and cost-shifting against plaintiffs.

In response, Defendant has agreed to withdraw its eleventh and twelfth defenses because Plaintiff is not seeking punitive damages and to withdraw from its answer any reference to shifting fees and costs. However, it argues that: 1) it is not alleging that his own conduct somehow induced MTD to violate USERRA, but rather that Plaintiff's termination was based on his own conduct and not his military status; 2) failure to state a claim may be raised as an affirmative defense; and 3) its defenses are sufficient under Rule 8.

Motion to Strike

Rule 12(f) allows the court to "order stricken from any pleading any insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). "While courts possess considerable discretion in weighing Rule 12(f) motions, such motions are not favored and will generally be denied unless the material bears no possible relation to the matter at issue and may result in prejudice to the moving party." Miller v. Group Voyagers, Inc., 912 F. Supp. 164, 168 (E.D. Pa. 1996) (citations omitted). The Court of Appeals has stated that courts "should not grant a motion to strike a defense unless the insufficiency of the defense is 'clearly apparent.'" Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 789 F.2d 181, 188 (3d Cir. 1986). See also Lakits v. York, 258 F. Supp. 2d 401, 409 (E.D. Pa. 2003).

Fifth Defense Defendant's fifth defense states that "Plaintiff's negligence or other wrongful conduct proximately caused and/or contributed to his alleged damages." (Answer at 5.) Plaintiff argues that this defense must be stricken because "contributory negligence" is not a defense to intentional discrimination. Defendant responds that it is not alleging that Plaintiff's own conduct somehow induced MTD to violate USERRA, but rather that Plaintiff's termination was the result of his own conduct and not his military status. Plaintiff has misunderstood the fifth defense and it should not be stricken.

First, Seventh and Eighth Defenses

Defendant's first defense states that "Plaintiff's allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." Its seventh defense is that "[a]ny act or failure to act by MTD was not the proximate cause of any damages suffered by Plaintiff." Its eighth defense is that "Plaintiff's claims are barred because any actions taken or not taken by MTD in connection with Plaintiff were taken or not taken for legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory, non-pretextual business reasons as determined by MTD based on its business judgment and in good faith."

Plaintiff argues that these are not affirmative defenses, but simply statements that he has failed to limn the elements of his discrimination claim. Defendant responds that an employer can set forth, and ultimately has the burden of proving, the affirmative defense that the action would have been taken anyway, absent the USERRA-protected status or activity. 20 C.F.R. ยง ...


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