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Cobbs v. SEPTA

November 18, 2009

EUGENE COBBS, APPELLANT
v.
SEPTA, DAVID ABELL, JOHN BLEILER, AND SUSAN FLOWER-GRIFFIN, APPELLEES



Appeal from the Order entered March 25, 2008, Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No. 031203651.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donohue, J.

BEFORE: ORIE MELVIN, BOWES and DONOHUE, JJ.

OPINION

¶ 1 Eugene Cobbs ("Cobbs") appeals from the order of court entered granting the motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority ("SEPTA"), David Abell, John Bleiler, and Susan Flower-Griffin (collectively, "Appellees"). Finding no error by the trial court, we affirm.

¶ 2 The trial court aptly summarized the factual and rather complex procedural history of this case as follows.

[Cobbs], an African-American citizen and licensed master plumber, twice applied with [SEPTA] for a plumber's position, once in January 2000 and again in June 2001. He believes that SEPTA refused to hire him based upon his race, although he was qualified and superior to the Caucasian candidates hired for the two jobs . .

On July 19, 2001, [Cobbs] filed an administrative complaint ("Administrative Complaint") with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC") seeking remedies under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA") for, inter alia, race discrimination. The Administrative Complaint named SEPTA as respondent, and identified and complained about the other defendants in this case (David Abell, John Bleiler, and Susan Flower-Griffin), all SEPTA employees.

On June 19, 2002, the PHRC issued a Finding of Probable Cause, indicating that [Cobbs's] allegations were credible and a conciliation meeting would be held on July 19, 2002. Apparently the meeting did not lead to resolution of the issue, because it remained open on November 6, 2002, when the PHRC sent [Cobbs] notice of his rights under Section 12(c) of the PHRA, 43 P.S. § 962(c). This notice informed [Cobbs] that he now had 'the right to bring an action in the appropriate Court of Common Pleas based on the alleged violations of the PHRAct (sic) contained in his Commission complaint.' The notice continued by saying that filing in the Court of Common Pleas would result in the dismissal of his Administrative Complaint, but that if the Commission was not notified otherwise it would assume that [Cobbs] wanted it to continue handling his case.

[Cobbs] did not file with the Court of Common Pleas at this time. The PHRC continued handling his case, holding hearing on February 20, 2003 and March 25, 2003. Finally, on November 25, 2003, the PHRC issued its Findings and Opinion in which it found that no discrimination took place and entered a Final Order dismissing the Case. Cobbs v. SEPTA, No. E-100377-AD (Nov. 2003). This Final Order was not appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

On December 24, 2003, [Cobbs] commenced this action by filing a complaint ("Complaint") against [Appellees] in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. [Cobbs] alleged that [Appellees] treated him differently based on his race. [Cobbs] pled four counts of racial discrimination, each under a different theory of law. The first count was under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et. seq. ("Title VII"). The second count was brought under the PHRA. The third count alleged racial discrimination under Article 1, Section 265 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Finally, the fourth was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In his Complaint, [Cobbs] requests relief including that 'on all counts, . the Court reverse the [PHRC's] decision, and find and determine, after trial by jury as appropriate, that [Cobbs] has suffered substantial and continuing injury as a result of, inter alia, deprivation of his civil rights and racial discrimination and retaliation, and award . relief . against . [Appellees] .' In the PHRA count specifically [Cobbs] averred: '[Appellees], jointly and individually, intentionally discriminated against [Cobbs], because of his race' in violation of the PHRA; the PHRC 'rejected [Cobbs's] complaint by a split vote on November 25, 2003'; and, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 702, this court should reverse the PHRC for reasons including, '[Cobbs] is aggrieved by the November 25, 2003 adjudication .'; certain findings of fact of the PHRC were not supported by substantial evidence; the PHRC 'committed an error of law in concluding that [Cobbs] failed to prove that the purported legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons offered by SEPTA were pretextual' and the PHRC "committed an error of law in concluding that discrimination was not proved.'

Trial Court Opinion, 6/17/08, at 1-4 (internal citations omitted).

¶ 3 Appellees responded by filing preliminary objections arguing, inter alia, that the Court of Common Pleas lacked jurisdiction over the PHRA claim. In consideration of these objections, the trial court transferred the case in its entirety to the Commonwealth Court. However, the Commonwealth declined to exercise jurisdiction over this case because no state agency was named in the caption. Once the case was transferred back to the trial court, the trial court, per the Honorable Esther R. Sylvester, overruled Appellees' preliminary objections and permitted Cobbs to file an amended complaint.*fn1

¶ 4 Cobbs filed his amended complaint on October 25, 2004, raising the same claims as his original complaint. Appellees filed an answer raising as new matter the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata. On April 6, 2006, Appellees filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over Cobbs's claims and that the claims were barred by collateral estoppel and res judicata. The trial court, per the Honorable Esther R. Sylvester, granted summary judgment only regarding a claim for punitive damages asserted under the Title VII claim and otherwise denied Appellees relief. The trial court did not issue an opinion discussing these determinations.

ΒΆ 5 On June 26, 2007, Appellees filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. In support thereof, Appellees again asserted that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Cobbs's claims and that Cobbs's claims were barred by collateral estoppel and/or res judicata. On March 19, 2008, the trial court, per the Honorable Arnold ...


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