Cause No. NA 01-159-C H/H
March 21, 2002
ENTRY ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT AND JOIN ADDITIONAL PLAINTIFFS
Plaintiff Jack Elliott has moved to amend his complaint by joining two additional plaintiffs, Damian Abell and Kenneth Groh. Defendant USF Holland, Inc. opposes the amendment and joinder.
Plaintiff Elliott worked as a supervisor for USF Holland. He asserts claims of age and disability discrimination arising from his involuntary termination by USF Holland in approximately October 2000. Abell and Groh also worked as supervisors at the same USF Holland facility. They resigned their employment, Groh in January 2001 and Abell in March 2001. Groh and Abell both claim they were constructively discharged based on their ages. Plaintiffs claim that they were all supervised by the same person, J.D. Barnes, to whom they attribute discriminatory animus.
All three plaintiffs also complain of "retaliation," though it appears that only Elliott has linked the alleged retaliation to any conduct protected by federal law, i.e., requests for accommodation of a disability. More general complaints by employees about the "terms and conditions of their employment" would not be conduct protected by federal law from retaliation.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20(a) provides in relevant part: "All persons may join in one action as plaintiffs if they assert any right to relief jointly, severally, or in the alternative in respect of or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences and if any question of law or fact common to all these persons will arise in the action." Plaintiffs Elliott, Abell, and Groh are seeking relief "severally." There are at least some questions of fact and law common to their claims of age discrimination based on actions of the same individual. The issue is whether plaintiffs' claims are "in respect of or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences."
Similar questions arise often in employment discrimination cases in a variety of factual contexts. Where several employees allege injury as a result of a single written and uniform company policy, for example, joinder will often be proper. See Mosley v. General Motors Corp., 497 F.2d 1330, 1333 (8th Cir. 1974) (reversing severance order as abuse of discretion: "`Transaction' is a word of flexible meaning. It may comprehend a series of many occurrences, depending not so much upon the immediateness of their connection as upon their logical relationship."), quoting Moore v. New York Cotton Exchange, 270 U.S. 593, 610 (1926); see also Ward v. Johns Hopkins University, 861 F. Supp. 367, 378 (D.Md. 1994) (denying severance where two plaintiffs alleged sexual harassment by same person a few months apart).
Where employees at different facilities allege similar types of discriminatory acts but at different times and/or by different supervisors, joinder is often denied. E.g., Johnson v. Indopco, 846 F. Supp. 670, 676 (N.D.Ill. 1994) (denying joinder where current employee claimed race discrimination in denial of promotion, former employee claimed that sexual harassment and race motivated denial of promotion, and claims arose at different times); Grayson v. K-Mart Corp., 849 F. Supp. 785, 788-89 (N.D.Ga. 1994) (granting severance where eleven plaintiffs lived in four states and worked in different stores, and demotion decisions originated with different district managers); Anderson v. Phelps, 655 F. Supp. 560, 565 (M.D.La. 1985) (severing claims of two plaintiffs alleging that state department discriminated on basis of religion where plaintiffs worked at different facilities); Weir v. Litton Bionetics, 1996 WL 11608, 41 F.E.P. Cas. (BNA) 1150, 1155 (D.Md. 1986) (severing claims of two age discrimination plaintiffs who were terminated at different times and worked in two divisions that operated independently of one another).
This case falls between those easier types of cases, but it appears to present claims that are closely related enough to permit joinder. Plaintiffs Elliott, Groh, and Abell allege that the same supervisor discriminated against all three of them on the basis of age within a few months. See Alexander v. Fulton County, 207 F.3d 1303, 1323-24 (11th Cir. 2000) (affirming joinder of plaintiffs who all sought relief "based on the same series of discriminatory transactions by the same decision-maker in the same department during the same short time frame").
This case is similar to Puricelli v. CNA Insurance Co., 185 F.R.D. 139, 142-43 (N.D.N.Y. 1999), which allowed joinder of two plaintiffs' age discrimination claims arising shortly after their employer was taken over by a new company. Both plaintiffs were reviewed by the same supervisor, and both chose to leave the employer within a month of one another. The district court found that the common ties were sufficient to support joinder.
This case is also similar to King v. Pepsi Cola Metropolitan Bottling Co., 86 F.R.D. 4, 5-6 (E.D.Pa. 1979). Four plaintiffs worked in the same unit and were all under the direct or indirect supervision of the same person who was alleged to have engaged in racial discrimination. The fifth plaintiff also claimed to have suffered racial harassment by the same person. The court denied severance and explained:
Even though proof of the discrimination will involve the various work records of each plaintiff, there will also be a substantial overlap in the evidence presented. Since these five plaintiffs worked in the same unit, many of the witnesses who will testify as to conditions within the unit and also the individual instances alleged by each will be the same. Further, each plaintiff alleges that Cliff Rissell played an integral role in carrying out the alleged discriminatory company policy. It follows, then, that each of the five will present evidence concerning Rissell's activities. The court can economically and expeditiously hear this evidence in one trial. The dangers of jury confusion are no greater here than in any other case. The claims here are not so diverse and multiple, centered as they are around a central theme of a company discriminatory policy, that a reasonable jury cannot segregate the evidence and decide the separate claims.86 F.R.D. at 6. Accord, Resnick v. American Dental Ass'n, 90 F.R.D. 530, 535 (N.D.Ill. 1981) (allowing joinder where two plaintiffs alleged sex discrimination by same personnel under same general policy); see generally United States v. Mississippi, 380 U.S. 128, 142-43 (1965) (allowing joinder of claims against six county voting registrars alleged to have engaged in various practices to interfere with black citizens' right to vote). In this case, similarly, there is a substantial potential for a great deal of repetitive evidence if separate trials were held.
Defendant correctly points out that Elliott's case presents issues of disability discrimination, which would not be part of Groh's and Abell's cases. Also, Elliott was actually terminated while Groh and Abell resigned and claim constructive discharge. Those differences add weight to the argument against joinder. Nevertheless, given the relatively short time frame, the common decision-maker, and the common allegations of age-based animus, the court believes that joinder is proper here. The risk of confusion and possible prejudice to defendant can be minimized with careful jury instructions. Federal courts regularly call upon juries in criminal trials to make careful and separate decisions about joined criminal charges in multi-defendant cases that present challenges far greater than may be presented here.
The Eighth Circuit explained in Mosley v. General Motors that the purpose of Rule 20 is "to promote trial convenience and expedite the final determination of disputes, thereby preventing multiple lawsuits," and noted that the Supreme Court has said that "joinder of claims, parties and remedies is strongly encouraged." 497 F.2d at 1332-33, quoting United Mine Workers of America v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 724 (1966). For the reasons explained above, plaintiff Elliott's motion to amend his complaint is hereby GRANTED, and the tendered amended complaint shall be deemed filed as of March 21, 2002. Of course, as Judge Shadur noted in Resnick v. American Dental Association, if later discovery shows that joinder for trial would be improper or uneconomical, defendant may move for a severance under Rule 21. 90 F.R.D. at 535 n. 6.