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Cruz-Cruz v. Conley-Morgan Law Group, PLLC

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

May 15, 2017



          Robert E. Wier United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiffs 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).

         I. Relevant Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs 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.

         On 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).

         At this 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.

         In its 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).

         In the 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.

         Conley-Morgan responded to the motion, DE #71, and Plaintiffs replied. DE #72. The matter is ripe for decision.

         II. Standard of Review

         A court “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, 2511 (1986).

         The 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 original)).

         A fact 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).

         This 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 ...

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