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Myers v. Autozoners, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 11, 2017

DAMON M. MYERS, Plaintiff,
v.
AUTOZONERS, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Nora Barry Fischer, United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This case arises from Plaintiff Damon M. Myers' allegations that his former employer, Defendant AutoZoners, LLC (“AutoZone”), discriminated against him because of his race and retaliated against him in violation of Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Immediately following the case management conference, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations. Although the parties agree that they entered into a valid and enforceable settlement agreement that day, they vigorously dispute whether Mr. Myers agreed to a general release as part of the settlement. AutoZone contends that he did; but, Mr. Myers is adamant that he authorized his attorney to settle this case only if the settlement did not affect a wrongful discharge claim that he was concurrently pursuing in the EEOC.

         Now pending before the Court is AutoZone's motion to enforce settlement agreement, wherein it seeks an order from the Court requiring Mr. Myers “to execute the Release agreed to by the parties and abide by the terms of the settlement agreement [] which are contained in the Release.” (Docket Nos. 42, 42-1). After the filing of AutoZone's motion, Mr. Myers' counsel withdrew his appearance and Mr. Myers has since been proceeding pro se. Mr. Myers has also filed a motion that is pending before the Court, entitled “Motion" Appeal & Plea to Judge [Fischer], ” which, among other things, does not oppose the Court enforcing the parties' agreement to settle this case but requests that the Court order that the settlement does not include the wrongful discharge claim that he was concurrently pursuing in the EEOC. (Docket No. 67). The Court has carefully considered the parties' legal memoranda and has held two hearings/arguments in connection with this dispute. At those hearings, AutoZone did not offer any evidence to support its position that Mr. Myers agreed to a general release. Mr. Myers, in contrast, provided his own sworn statements and testimony to support his position.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Mr. Myers did not agree to release the wrongful discharge claim that he was concurrently pursuing in the EEOC when the parties settled this case. Therefore, AutoZone's motion to enforce [42] will be GRANTED, insofar as it seeks to have the Court order enforcement of the settlement, but DENIED insofar as it seeks to have Mr. Myers execute its general release; and, Mr. Myers' motion [67] will be GRANTED, to the extent that he seeks to have the Court order that the parties' settlement does not include the wrongful discharge claim.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Personal Background and Nature of Allegations[1]

         Mr. Myers is a 54 year-old, African-American male. He attended and graduated from McKeesport High School. After high school, Mr. Myers earned an associate's degree from the Los Angeles Community College and also obtained a medical transcription certificate. At the time of the July 10, 2017 hearing, Mr. Myers was working as a patient-sitter at the VA Hospital and also working as a security guard at the Convention Center.

         Relevant here, Mr. Myers began working for AutoZone on a part-time basis in November 2011 as a Commercial Driver. After working there for approximately18 months, he sought to be promoted to a full-time position. Although his request for full-time employment was denied, he asserts that at least ten other newly-hired part-time Caucasian employees were promoted to fulltime employment status and/or provided with the benefits that he had requested during the same time period. Consequently, on February 21, 2014, Mr. Myers filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC for AutoZone's purported failure to promote him to a full-time position. According to Mr. Myers, AutoZone began to scrutinize his work and started taking retaliatory disciplinary actions against him over the next several months, which ultimately led to his termination in November 2014. AutoZone informed Mr. Myers that it was firing him for being rude and using profane language when speaking to a customer. Mr. Myers denies this conduct and instead claims that AutoZone terminated him in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge.

         B. Administrative Proceedings before the EEOC[2]

         Altogether, Mr. Myers filed three charges of discrimination against AutoZone in the EEOC. He filed the first two charges while he was still working for AutoZone, the first being filed on February 21, 2014, at Charge Number 533-2014-519, wherein he asserted that AutoZone's failure to promote him to a full-time position was discriminatory. See (Docket No. 60-1 at 5).[3]On July 14, 2014, Mr. Myers filed the second charge of discrimination, at Charge Number 533-2014-973, asserting that since he filed the first charge, three more similarly-situated white employees were promoted to full-time status and AutoZone was retaliating against him for filing the first charge. (Id.).[4] AutoZone responded to the first and second charges on August 13, 2014 and October 27, 2014, respectively. (Id. at 12-14, 22-26). In support of its position that its decisions were legitimate and non-discriminatory, it attached nine write-ups that were issued to Mr. Myers from November 9, 2013 to May 22, 2014. (Id. at 54-62).[5]

         Thereafter, in November 2014, AutoZone terminated Mr. Myers' employment. In a letter dated December 11, 2014, Mr. Myers notified the EEOC that his employment with AutoZone had ended because AutoZone accused him of swearing at a customer, which Mr. Myers denied, but stated that he was moving on with his career, having secured a position with FedEx. (Id. at 71). In January and February 2015, Mr. Myers sent the EEOC documents from his unemployment compensation proceedings, (Id. at 69-70, 73-77, 88), and on March 11, 2015, he requested a continuance of the EEOC investigation, asserting, among other things, that AutoZone's claimed reasons for terminating him were false. (Id. at 86).

         More than a year later, on June 30, 2016, Mr. Myers filed a third charge of discrimination, at Charge Number 533-2014-973 (Amended), which amended his second charge to include additional allegations of race discrimination and retaliation that allegedly occurred between filing his second charge in July 2014 and his termination in November 2014. (Id. at 3-4). The next day, on July 1, 2016, EEOC Investigator John Wozniak sent AutoZone's counsel the third charge of discrimination, with a letter stating:

In keeping with our last discussion during the conciliation conference with [Mr. Myers'] initial charge, I informed you that his second charge identified above would be amended to include new issues of alleged employment discrimination and retaliation that occurred during the time period between 07/15/2014 and ending with his termination effective 11/25/2014.

(Id. at 1).[6] AutoZone responded to the third charge on July 27, 2016, again denying discrimination and attaching an additional six write-ups that were issued to Mr. Myers from September 15, 2014 to November 20, 2014. (Id. at 17-21, 63-68).[7] AutoZone also stated in its letter that Mr. Myers' counsel informed it that he would be filing a federal lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Myers in this Court. (Id. at 17). Although Mr. Myers did, in fact, initiate the litigation in this Court approximately one month later in August 2016, Mr. Myers nevertheless continued pursuing the third charge in the EEOC concurrently with this litigation. The EEOC eventually issued a determination on August 31, 2017 and a right-to-sue letter on September 28, 2017 on the third charge (approximately six months after the parties agreed to settle this action). (Docket Nos. 67-1, 72).

         C. Procedural History in this Court

         Mr. Myers initiated his case in this Court on August 26, 2016 through his then-counsel, Darren K. Parr, Esq. (“Attorney Parr”). (Docket No. 1). Although the original complaint was organized as asserting only one count for “Racial Discrimination in violation of Title VII and PHRA, ” it included allegations relating to disparate treatment (unequal pay and benefits, failure to promote) and hostile work environment. (Id. at ¶¶ 26-31). The complaint characterized Mr. Myers' termination as “unlawful” but did not explicitly allege that AutoZone fired him because he was black, (Id. at ¶ 5), and it suggested, but did not specifically assert, that AutoZone's termination of Mr. Myers was retaliatory. (Id. at ¶ 15). In addition, it alleged that Mr. Myers had satisfied all relevant procedural and administrative requirements under Title VII. (Id. at ¶ 4).[8]

         Approximately two months later, AutoZone responded to the complaint by filing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, Rule 12(f) motion to strike, and/or Rule 12(e) motion for more definite statement, and brief in support. (Docket Nos. 11, 12). Therein, AutoZone argued that the complaint: (1) failed to state a PHRA claim for failing to allege facts relative to exhaustion and that the EEOC charge referenced in the complaint only discussed failure to promote, not unequal pay; (2) failed to state a claim for hostile work environment under both Title VII and the PHRA; and (3) to the extent that the complaint was asserting a claim for retaliation, such claim should either be stricken or Plaintiff should be ordered to clarify what claims he is asserting. (Id.).

         In response to AutoZone's motion, Mr. Myers, through Attorney Parr, filed a first amended complaint on November 15, 2016, (Docket No. 16), resulting in AutoZone's motion being terminated as moot. (Docket No. 17). Like the original complaint, the first amended complaint contained allegations referencing failure to promote, unequal pay, and hostile work environment under the single heading, “Racial Discrimination in violation of Title VII.” (Docket No. 16 at ¶¶ 16-22). The first amended complaint again characterized Mr. Myers' termination as “unlawful” and further alleged that AutoZone's decision to terminate Mr. Myers' employment was retaliatory and based on Mr. Myers' filing of the first charge of discrimination with the EEOC. (Id. at ¶ 20). According to the first amended complaint, Mr. Myers had satisfied all procedural and administrative requirements of Title VII and the PHRA with respect to all claims set forth therein prior to filing suit. (Id. at ¶ 4).

         AutoZone responded to the first amended complaint by filing another motion under Rules 12(b)(6), 12(e), and/or 12(f), and a brief in support. (Docket Nos. 18, 19). AutoZone reasserted that, given the way that the first amended complaint was organized, it remained unclear if Mr. Myers was alleging claims for: (1) retaliatory discharge or (2) hostile work environment. (Id.). If so, AutoZone argued that Mr. Myers failed to state plausible claims for those causes of action. (Id.). In the alternative, AutoZone sought to have Mr. Myers provide a more definite statement and clarify what claims he was asserting against it. (Id.).

         Pursuant to the Court's standing order on motions practice, Mr. Myers' response to AutoZone's motion was due on December 20, 2016. (Docket No. 13). Attorney Parr, however, did not respond to the motion on behalf of Mr. Myers; instead, he informed the Court on January 3, 2017 that there was no opposition to it. Accordingly, on January 3, 2017, the Court signed AutoZone's proposed order that was attached to its motion, adding handwritten language reflecting the Court's discussion with Attorney Parr. (Docket No. 20). Said order dismissed Mr. Myers' hostile work environment claims, with prejudice, and struck all allegations relating to same, including paragraphs 18 and 19 of the first amended complaint.[9] (Id.). The order also dismissed Mr. Myers' retaliation claims, with prejudice, and struck all allegations relating to same, including paragraph 20 of the first amended complaint.[10] (Id.). Finally, the order required that Mr. Myers file a second amended complaint by January 23, 2017. (Id.).

         Mr. Myers, through Attorney Parr, filed the second amended complaint on January 23, 2017. (Docket No. 21). The second amended complaint not only asserted a claim for failure to promote, but also asserted claims for retaliation and hostile work environment, which the Court had just dismissed, with prejudice. (Id.). As such, on February 3, 2017, AutoZone filed another motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and brief in support. (Docket Nos. 23, 24). In addition to seeking dismissal of the retaliation and hostile work environments claims, AutoZone contended that the Court should dismiss “any potential race discrimination claims based on … discharge because Plaintiff has now had three opportunities to identify whether he is asserting such claims” but has only claimed that his termination was due to retaliation. (Docket No. 24 at 2, 5) (emphasis added). Thus, in its proposed order, AutoZone sought to have the Court “dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims, with prejudice, except for the Title VII race discrimination claim based on a failure to promote him to a full-time, non-management position within 300 days from the filing of his EEOC charge.” (Docket No. 23-1).

         Given the nature of the issues and repeated motions practice, the Court scheduled oral argument on the motion to be combined with a case management conference set for March 28, 2017. (Docket Nos. 28, 29). Thereafter, Mr. Myers, through Attorney Parr, responded to AutoZone's motion to dismiss on March 2, 2017, conceding the dismissal of the retaliation and hostile work environment counts and confirming that “the primary and now limited issue pending before this Court is whether the Defendant's consistent failure to promote the Plaintiff to a full time, non-management position for which he was clearly qualified was based upon the Plaintiff's race and thus a Title VII violation.” (Docket No. 30 at ¶¶ 5, 6). Based on Mr. Myers' response, the Court entered an order on the same date dismissing the retaliation and hostile work environment claims in the second amended complaint, with prejudice. (Docket No. 32). Notably, however, the Court did not enter AutoZone's proposed order dismissing all of Mr. Myers' unasserted claims, including the wrongful discharge claim, with prejudice. Nevertheless, the parties stated in their Rule 26(f) Report dated March 13, 2017 that “the only issue that remains is whether Plaintiff's Title VII failure to promote race discrimination claims are limited to promotion decisions within 300 days of when he filed his EEOC charge.” (Docket No. 33 at ¶ 5).

         The Court held the combined motion hearing/case management conference on March 28, 2017. (Docket No. 36). At this proceeding, the Court took AutoZone's motion under advisement but informed the parties that it was likely to deny the motion. (Id.). The Court then proceeded to enter a case management order and an order referring the parties to participate in a mediation with the Hon. Eugene F. Scanlon, Jr. (Dockets Nos. 38, 39). Later that day, AutoZone's counsel, Tracy E. Kern, Esq., informed the Court that the parties reached a verbal agreement to settle the case and that she would inform the Court as soon as the agreement is signed. (Staff Note from 3/28/2017). In any event, on March 31, 2017, the Court issued its Memorandum Opinion & Order denying AutoZone's motion to dismiss. (Docket No. 40). Therein, the Court noted that Mr. Myers' “sole remaining claim” - that is, Count I of the second amended complaint for failure to promote - needed to be developed through discovery. (Id.).

         On April 6, 2017, the Court administratively closed the case because counsel for the parties contacted the Court and advised that the case was resolved. (Docket No. 41).[11] But, when Myers was presented with the memorialized agreement a few days later, he refused to sign it because it contained a general release, which Mr. Myers claimed he did not authorize.

         Consequently, on May 26, 2017, AutoZone filed the pending motion to enforce settlement and brief in support. (Docket Nos. 42, 43). On June 12, 2017, Attorney Parr filed a response to the motion to enforce on Mr. Myers' behalf, (Docket No. 45), and AutoZone filed a reply on June 19, 2017. (Docket No. 47). On July 10, 2017, the Court held a hearing and oral argument on AutoZone's motion to enforce. (Docket No. 56). At this hearing, AutoZone's counsel, with permission from the Court, appeared telephonically. AutoZone presented no evidence. Mr. Myers, however, stated under oath that he explicitly informed Attorney Parr that he would settle this case only if it did not affect his wrongful discharge claim that was pending in the EEOC. (Hr'g Tr. from 7/10/2017 at pp. 13-14).[12] Mr. Myers also asserted that his text message communications with Attorney Parr would confirm that he did not agree to the general release; however, neither Mr. Myers nor Attorney Parr retained the messages. The Court informed the parties that it would take judicial notice of the pending EEOC charge and would contact the EEOC investigator to review the file. Moreover, at the same hearing, the Court granted Attorney Parr's motion to withdraw as Mr. Myers' counsel, and entered an order to the same effect the next day. (Docket No. 57). Since that July 10, 2017 hearing and argument, Mr. Myers has been proceeding herein pro se.

         On August 14, 2017, the Court ordered that the parties forward it a copy of Mr. Myers' EEOC file, as the EEOC representative advised that he was not authorized to provide same directly to the Court. (Docket No. 58). The next day, AutoZone filed a copy of Mr. Myers' third charge of discrimination and AutoZone's response to same. (Docket No. 59). Additionally, on August 21, 2017, Mr. Myers had his EEOC file docketed by the Clerk's Office;[13] in the same filing, he also requested that ...


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