United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. Wier United States Magistrate Judge
moved for partial summary judgment on eleven affirmative
defenses asserted by Defendant Conley-Morgan Law Group, PLLC.
DE #70. Defendant responded, DE #71, and Plaintiff replied.
DE #72. The motion is ripe for consideration. For the
following reasons, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN
PART Plaintiffs' motion (DE #70).
Relevant Factual and Procedural Background
are citizens of Mexico. DE #1 (Complaint) ¶ 14. In June
2013, after Defendants McKenzie Farms, Gene McKenzie, and
Austin McKenzie (collectively, “Farm
Defendants”), with the assistance of Defendant
Conley-Morgan Law Group, PLLC, (“Conley-Morgan”)
secured temporary H-2A visas for each Plaintiff, Plaintiffs
began work as agricultural laborers at McKenzie Farms.
Id. ¶¶ 4, 32-33, 50. Plaintiffs sued under
various theories to recover damages for unpaid wages, breach
of contract, and forced labor resulting from the alleged
actions of Defendants during the Plaintiffs' employment
term with the Farm Defendants. Id. ¶¶ 1-8.
January 15, 2016, Plaintiffs and the Farm Defendants filed a
joint motion for review and approval of a settlement
agreement. DE ##39 (Motion); 39-1 (Settlement Agreement and
Release of Claims). Per the Agreement, Plaintiffs agreed to
dismiss all claims against the “McKenzie Defendants,
” a defined term, and release them from any future
liability in exchange for $55, 000. The Agreement allocated
$9, 945.25 to attorney's fees and allocated $45, 054.75,
all designated as back wages, among the various Plaintiffs.
DE #39-1, at 2-3, 5, 9. Conley-Morgan was not a party to the
agreement. Following a telephonic conference with counsel for
all settling parties, the Court approved the settlement
agreement. See DE ##41 (Minute Entry Order), 42
(Order Approving Settlement Agreement). Upon joint motion of
Plaintiffs and the Farm Defendants, the Court dismissed with
prejudice all claims against the Farm Defendants. DE #48
(Order and Entry of Judgment).
time, Plaintiffs' claims persist against Conley-Morgan.
Plaintiffs specifically assert two claims against
Conley-Morgan and seek damages for: (1) violations of the
Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act's
(TVPRA) prohibition against “forced labor, ”
see 18 U.S.C. §§ 1589, 1595; and (2)
tortious interference with the employment contract between
Plaintiffs and the Farm Defendants. DE #1 ¶¶
144-153, 163-171. In support of these claims, Plaintiffs
allege, among other things, that employees of Conley-Morgan
threatened Plaintiffs with revocation of their visas and
deportation if they refused to sign certain documents, turn
over visa and passport documents, and continue working at
McKenzie Farms. DE #1 ¶¶ 129-135.
Answer, Conley-Morgan pleaded various affirmative defenses.
DE #18 (Answer), at 4. Now, Plaintiffs move for partial
summary judgment on all eleven of these defenses (in the
“Second Defense”) arguing that Conley-Morgan has
failed to come forward with any evidence to meet its
affirmative burden of proof. In support of this argument,
Plaintiffs produced copies of Conley-Morgan's responses
and answers to Plaintiffs' requests for production and
interrogatories. DE ##70-2 (Interrogatories), 70-4 (Request
for Production). In each, when asked to produce documents or
identify particulars related to the affirmative defenses,
respectively, Conley-Morgan essentially answered that it had
neither documents nor facts to support the defenses.
Id. Conley-Morgan never supplemented these discovery
responses. DE #70-1 (Stevick Declaration).
discovery, for example, Conley-Morgan repeatedly stated
“none” relative to any documents it had
supporting affirmative defense. DE #70-4. It similarly
incanted “[n]one at this time” regarding factual
details pertaining to the listed affirmative defenses. DE
#70-2. The document response occurred on January 27, 2016,
and the interrogatory responses on March 15, 2016.
Importantly, Conley-Morgan answered the interrogatories only
after the Court ordered it to do so. DE #49. The Court
required Conley-Morgan to “completely respond”
regarding affirmative defenses, which was to include an
appropriate answer “[i]f facts exist to support an
affirmative defense.” Id. Needless to say, the
state of the record, never supplemented, is that
Conley-Morgan denied the existence of any facts or documents
relative to these defenses.
responded to the motion, DE #71, and Plaintiffs replied. DE
#72. The matter is ripe for decision.
Standard of Review
“shall grant summary judgment 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). A reviewing court must construe the
evidence and draw all reasonable inferences from the
underlying facts in favor of the nonmoving party.
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio
Corp., 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356 (1986); Lindsay v.
Yates, 578 F.3d 407, 414 (6th Cir. 2009). Additionally,
the court may not “weigh the evidence and determine the
truth of the matter” at the summary judgment stage.
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. 2505,
burden of establishing the absence of a genuine dispute of
material fact initially rests with the moving party.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553
(1986) (requiring the moving party to set forth “the
basis for its motion, and identify those portions of
‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate an
absence of a genuine issue of material fact”);
Lindsay, 578 at 414 (“The party moving for
summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing that
there is no material issue in dispute.”). If the moving
party meets its burden, the burden then shifts to the
nonmoving party to produce “specific facts”
showing a “genuine issue” for trial. Celotex
Corp., 106. S.Ct. at 2553; Bass v. Robinson,
167 F.3d 1041, 1044 (6th Cir. 1999). However, “Rule
56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a
party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the
existence of an element essential to that party's case,
and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at
trial.” Celotex Corp., 106 S.Ct. at 2552;
see also Id. at 2557 (Brennan, J., dissenting)
(“If the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the
non-moving party, the party moving for summary
judgment may satisfy Rule 56's burden of production in
either of two ways. First, the moving party may submit
affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the
nonmoving party's claim. Second, the moving party may
demonstrate to the Court that the nonmoving party's
evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of
the nonmoving party's claim.” (emphasis in
is “material” if the underlying substantive law
identifies the fact as critical. Anderson, 106 S.Ct.
at 2510. Thus, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might
affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will
properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual
disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be
counted.” Id. A “genuine” issue
exists if “there is sufficient evidence favoring the
nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that
party.” Id. at 2511; Matsushita Elec.
Indus. Co., 106 S.Ct. at 1356 (“Where the record
taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to
find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine
issue for trial.'”) (citation omitted). Such
evidence must be suitable for admission into evidence at
trial. Salt Lick Bancorp. v. FDIC, 187 F. App'x
428, 444-45 (6th Cir. 2006).
framework applies to summary judgment motions targeting a
defendant's affirmative defenses. See Resolution
Trust Corp. v. Metropole Bldg. Ltd. P'ship, 110 F.3d
64, 1997 WL 160330, at *1-2 (6th Cir. 1997) (table)
(“But Celotex held that there is ‘no
express or implied requirement in Rule 56 that the moving
party support its motion with affidavits or other similar
materials negating the opponent's claim.'
Appellants cite no authority whatever (which is not
surprising since there is none) in support of their claim
that because in this case the moving party is the plaintiff,
the rules are different.” (quoting Celotex
Corp. 106 S.Ct. at 2553)); EEOC v. Skanska USA
Bldg., Inc., 80 F.Supp.3d 766, 780 (W.D. Tenn. 2015)
(“When the nonmoving party in a summary judgment motion
bears the burden of proof at trial, Rule 56 requires them to
go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts showing
that there is a genuine issue for ...