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Khair-Dorsey v. Health

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 28, 2017

AMANI KHAIR-DORSEY, Plaintiff
v.
WELLSPAN HEALTH, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         The virtue of consistent candor is a cardinal value in life, and litigation. This case comes before us on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendant, which invites us to invoke the doctrine of judicial estoppel, a form of judicial sanction designed to promote consistent candor, to dismiss this case as a sanction for alleged inconsistencies in positions taken by the plaintiff in course of this litigation and a separate bankruptcy petition which she has filed.

         The doctrine of judicial estoppel is premised on the concept of culpable inconsistency, the idea that parties should not be able to materially shift their positions in litigation in an expedient fashion that favors tactical advantage over the truth. In order to promote consistent candor in litigation, judicial estoppel permits courts to sanction parties who adopt irreconcilably inconsistent positions in litigation by precluding them from pursuing claims that are wholly inconsistent with the positions they have previously taken in some other lawsuit. Given the fundamental nature of this inquiry, an assessment of whether judicial estoppel should apply in a particular case entails both an understanding of the positions taken by a party over time in various litigation and an assessment of what their conduct implies regarding the parties' subjective intent.

         In this case, WellSpan seeks to assert the doctrine judicial estoppel as grounds to dismiss Khair-Dorsey's 2016 employment discrimination lawsuit, citing alleged material inconsistencies between the claims made by Khair-Dorsey in an EEOC administrative complaint which she filed in 2014; allegations leveled by Kahir-Dorsey in this lawsuit, which was filed in June of 2016; and averments made by Khair-Dorsey during a bankrupcty which she filed in 2015, which failed to disclose her pending administrative complaint and anticipated civil lawsuit. With respect to the chronology of these alleged inconsistencies, the court records reveal the following:

         In September of 2014, the plaintiff was employed as a physician office assistant by WellSpan. On October 9, 2014, Khair-Dorsey was terminated from her employment at WellSpan, an act which forms the basis for her employment discrimination claims in this lawsuit. (Doc. 1, ¶19.) Khair-Dorsey appears to have immediately recognized this event as the potential subject of litigation and a claim against WellSpan, since she retained counsel within eight days of this incident and her counsel presented the defendant with a settlement demand letter on October 17, 2014. (Doc. 14-3.) When these efforts were unavailing, Khair-Dorsey began the litigation process on December 14, 2014, by filing an administrative charge against WellSpan with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and cross-filing a similar claim with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”).

         While this administrative action was pending before the EEOC and PHRC, on October 16, 2015, Khair-Dorsey, represented by other counsel who was unrelated to this litigation, [1] filed a bankruptcy petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 14-4.) In this petition, which Khair-Dorsey filed under oath, she was instructed to disclose all “[o]ther contingent and unliquidated claims of every nature.” (Id.) In response to this inquiry Khair-Dorsey replied: “none.” (Id.) The Statement of Financial Affairs attached to this bankrupcty petition provided Khair-Dorsey with a second opportunity for transparency and candor when it asked her to “[l]ist all suits and administrative proceedings to which the debtor is or was a party within one year immediately preceding the filing of this bankruptcy case.” (Id.) Despite the fact that Khair-Dorsey had filed administrative complaints against WellSpan with the EEOC and PHRC within the time frame specified on her bankruptcy petition, which were still pending when she filed for bankruptcy, and had retained counsel in that employment discrimination case, she did not disclose these pending administrative proceedings in which she was a plaintiff and ultimately enjoyed the opportunity for a potential financial recovery. Instead, Khair-Dorsey merely disclosed her divorce proceedings, and a contract case in which she was a named defendant.

         One month later, on November 18, 2015, Khair-Dorsey filed an amended statement of financial affairs under oath in this bankruptcy proceeding. (Doc. 14-7.) Once again, she was instructed to disclose contingent and unliquidated claims of every nature along with all suits and administrative proceedings to which the debtor is or was a party within one year immediately preceding the filing of this bankruptcy case. Presented with these questions, Khair-Dorsey never disclosed her pending EEOC complaint, or this potential civil claim. (Id.)

         Khair-Dorsey's bankruptcy remained pending from October 2015 until February 8, 2016, when the case was terminated with Khair-Dorsey discharging some $200, 000 in debts, without ever disclosing the claims in this litigation as a potential asset. (Doc. 14 Ex. C.) While she enjoyed the financial benefits of the discharge of these debts, Khair-Dorsey never notified her creditors of the existence of this claim as a potential asset, and the docket of this case indicates that the bankruptcy trustee recommended discharge of these debts in the belief that Khair-Dorsey had made a full disclosure of her assets. Three months later, on May 2, 2016, Khair-Dorsey was advised by the EEOC of her right to sue in federal court. (Doc. 1, ¶9.) Having received this notice from the EEOC Khair-Dorsey then moved promptly, filing this lawsuit on June 7, 2016. (Doc. 1.)

         It is against the backdrop of these essentially undisputed facts that the defendant has moved for summary judgment (Doc. 12.), and we consider the application of the doctrine of judicial estoppel to Khair-Dorsey's claims. For her part, Khair-Dorsey has not in any meaningful way contested any of these material facts. (Doc. 16.) Notably Khair-Dorsey has not submitted any declaration or affidavit which attempts in any way to explain the circumstances surrounding these filings, assert an innocent intent, or rebut any of WellSpan's allegations of intentional misconduct, despite having been provided ample opportunity to do so. Thus, while Khair-Dorsey's counsel argues that these inconsistencies were the product of an innocent mistake, the plaintiff herself has taken no steps make any assertions, under oath, that would rebut the inference WellSpan invites us to draw from these facts.

         II. Discussion

         A. Summary Judgment-Standard of Review

         WellSpan has moved for summary judgment in this case. Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a court must determine “whether the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and whether the moving party is therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Macfarlan v. Ivy Hill SNF, LLC., 675 F.3d 266, 271 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). A disputed issue is only “genuine” if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis upon which a reasonable factfinder could find for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A factual dispute is “material” only if it could affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Doe v. Luzerne Cnty., 660 F.3d 169, 175 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Gray v. York Papers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070, 1078 (3d Cir. 1992)). The Court is not tasked with resolving disputed issues of fact, but only with determining whether there exist any factual issues that must be tried. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-49.

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Macfarlan, 675 F.3d at 271; Bouriez v. Carnegie Mellon Univ., 585 F.3d 765, 770 (3d Cir. 2009). Where there exist factual issues that cannot be resolved without a credibility determination, the court must credit the non-moving party's evidence over that presented by the moving party. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. However, if there is no factual issue presented, and if only one reasonable conclusion could arise from the ...


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