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Rodriguez v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

March 16, 2017

PORFIRIO RODRIGUEZ PLAINTIFF
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC. DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Timothy L. Brooks United States District Judge

         Now pending before the Court are Defendant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.'s ("Walmart") Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 9), made pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and Brief in Support (Doc. 10); Plaintiff Porfirio Rodriguez's Response in Opposition to the Motion (Doc. 13) and Supplement to the Response (Doc. 14); and Walmart's Reply (Doc. 16).

         When the Court was initially reviewing the Motion and Response, it became evident that Mr. Rodriguez had referenced and attached a number of documents that were outside the pleadings and could not be considered unless the Court converted the Motion to Dismiss to one for summary judgment, as per the directives of Rule 12(d). The Court issued an Order (Doc. 18), notifying the parties that it intended to convert the Motion to one for summary judgment, and giving them until February 28, 2017, to either supplement the record with any further briefing or evidence they desired, or else inform the Court that they needed more time to provide a complete record.

         On March 1, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the Motion. Not having received any further evidence or briefing, the Court asked counsel directly whether they agreed that the Motion should be treated as one for summary judgment, and whether they also agreed that the summary judgment record was complete. Counsel voiced their agreement, and the Court then entertained oral argument on the Motion. After oral argument concluded, the Court granted the Motion from the bench and has prepared the following written opinion to memorialize its reasoning. To the extent anything in this Order conflicts with pronouncements made from the bench, the Order will control.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This lawsuit was filed on October 27, 2016, by Mr. Rodriguez, a former employee of Walmart. He alleged that Walmart violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") by discriminating and retaliating against him due to his disability, as well as by refusing to provide him with reasonable accommodations for his disability. (Doc. 1, p. 6). The parties agree that Mr. Rodriguez was terminated on November 12, 2013, and that his attorney filed an untimely charge of disability discrimination on his behalf with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The EEOC's rules require that a charge be submitted within 180 days of the date of the alleged discriminatory or retaliatory act-which in this case was the date of Mr. Rodriguez's termination. Accordingly, the EEOC charge was due to be filed no later than May 12, 2014, but Mr. Rodriguez did not file his charge until June 30, 2014.

         Because Mr. Rodriguez's counsel admits that he missed the deadline to file the EEOC charge, his only argument in opposition to summary judgment is that the doctrine of equitable estoppel should apply to toll the deadline. In particular, he argues that "Plaintiffs delay in filing his charge was the result of Defendant's counsel's own conduct during pre-EEOC settlement negotiations, which lured Plaintiffs counsel into the possibility of a resolution without having to file Plaintiffs EEOC charge." (Doc. 13, p. 9).

         During the Court's hearing on the Motion, the parties stipulated that the only evidence of their settlement negotiations was found in the letters and emails attached to Mr. Rodriguez's Supplement (Doc. 14). In reviewing those letters and emails, the Court has constructed a timeline of events. First, there appears in the file a letter dated March 26, 2014, written by a Walmart Project Manager and addressed to Mr. Rodriguez's counsel, Terrence Robinson. See Doc. 14-4. The letter advised Mr. Robinson that Walmart was in the process of "reviewing the allegations set forth ... so that we may formally respond, " and then recommended that he get in contact with Walmart's in-house attorney, Cynthia Scott, to discuss the matter further. Id. The next letter in the file is dated April 9, 2014. See Doc. 14-5. The letter, which was written by Ms. Scott, informed Mr. Robinson that Walmart disputed his client's claim of disability discrimination or other wrongdoing, but was willing "to confer with [Mr. Robinson] to determine whether we can resolve this dispute amicably." Id.

         The next letter in the file indicates that Mr. Robinson and Ms. Scott spoke by telephone on or about April 18, 2014, and at that time, Mr. Robinson told Ms. Scott that he would shortly send her a formal settlement demand. See Doc. 14-6, p. 1. That settlement demand was made in the form of a letter addressed to Ms. Scott, dated May 2, 2014-ten days prior to the EEOC filing deadline. Id. In the demand, Mr. Robinson warned Ms. Scott as follows:

Should this matter not settle at this early stage, Mr. Rodriguez intends to file his charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and thereafter file suit in U.S. District court to recover all damages available to him, including, back and future wages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees. However, prior to engaging in costly and time-consuming litigation, Mr. Rodriguez is open to discussing resolution.

Id. at 2.

         It is clear that in the next several days leading up to the EEOC filing deadline, Walmart did not respond in any way to Mr. Robinson's written settlement demand. Eleven days after the EEOC filing deadline had passed, Mr. Robinson's assistant placed a telephone call to Ms. Scott, asking for a response to the demand letter. Seven days after that, still not having received a response from Walmart, Mr. Robinson sent a letter to Ms. Scott that stated in relevant part:

As of today's date we have not heard from you. Please let me know if you intend to continue with settlement discussions. Prior to engaging in costly and time-consuming litigation, Mr. Rodriguez is still open to discussing a resolution, however, we cannot continue to wait on a response from Walmart for much longer.
Therefore, if we do not hear from you by Wednesday, June 4, 2014, we will assume that Walmart is not interested in settling the matter at this time and we will move forward with filing Mr. Rodriguez' charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and thereafter filing suit in U.S. District court to recover all damages available to him, including, ...

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