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Johnson v. Golden Empire Transit District

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 7, 2015

LATOYA JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
GOLDEN EMPIRE TRANSIT DISTRICT, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION TO STRIKE AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSES (Doc. 8).

LAWRENCE J. O'NEILL, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

On November 20, 2014, Latoya Johnson ("Plaintiff") initiated this lawsuit against Golden Empire Transit District ("GET" or "Defendant"), alleging: (1) interference with rights under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2615; (2) discrimination based on a request for leave under the California Family Rights Act ("CFRA"), Cal. Gov. Code § 12945.2; (3) disability discrimination/ failure to accommodate/failure to engage in the iterative process in violation of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), Cal. Gov. Code § 12900, et seq.; (4) failure to prevent discrimination under FEHA. Doc. 1 ("Compl."). Defendant filed its answer on January 14, 2015. Doc. 7. Before the Court for decision is Plaintiff's motion to strike certain affirmative defenses asserted by Defendant. Doc. 8. Defendant filed opposition to the motion to strike, to which Defendant attached a proposed amended answer ("PAA"), modifying certain affirmative defenses and eliminating others. Doc. 11. Defendant also opposed striking certain affirmative defenses that it did not materially alter in the PAA. Id. Plaintiff replied, reiterating that most of the proposed amended affirmative defenses should be stricken. Doc. 12. In the interest of judicial economy and fairness, the Court permitted Defendant to file a sur-reply. Docs. 16 & 17. The matter was taken under submission without oral argument pursuant to Local Rule 230(g). For the reasons set forth below the motion to strike is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

Plaintiff was at all times material to this action employed by GET as a driver, a position she held since 2012. Compl. at ¶¶ 4, 8. In December 2013, Plaintiff requested a leave of absence under the FMLA due to a knee injury that, among other things, limited her ability to walk, kneel, or squat. Id. at ¶ 9. Plaintiff provided medical documentation in support of this request. Id. In January 2014, Plaintiff visited her doctor, who indicated she needed to take additional time off work due to her knee injury. Id. Plaintiff faxed a note from her physician to Defendant and called Defendant to request additional leave. Id. at ¶ 10. However, when Plaintiff visited Defendant's offices on or about January 9, 2014 to discuss modified duty and her injuries, Plaintiff was advised that she had been suspended from her position as driver. Id. On February 6, 2014, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment, claiming she violated rules on the day of the injury by allegedly leaving her bus unattended. Id. at ¶ 11. Plaintiff asserts that she and other drivers had engaged in similar conduct prior to December 2013 without discipline. Id. Plaintiff further alleges that she filed a claim with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and received a right to sue letter, which was served on Defendant. Id. at ¶ 12.

III. STANDARD OF DECISION

Rule 12(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that a district court "may strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter." "Whether to grant a motion to strike lies within the sound discretion of the district court." Neilson v. Union Bank of Cal., N.A., 290 F.Supp.2d 1101, 1152 (C.D. Cal. 2003). The grounds for a motion to strike must appear on the face of the pleading under attack. When ruling on a motion to strike, the Court must view the pleading under attack in the light most favorable to the pleader. Id.

Affirmative defenses plead matters extraneous to the plaintiff's prima facie case and operate to deny plaintiff's right to recover, even if plaintiff's allegations are true. Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Main Hurdman, 655 F.Supp. 259, 262 (E.D. Cal. 1987). An affirmative defense may be stricken as insufficient either as a matter of law or as a matter of pleading. Kohler v. Islands Restaurants, LP, 280 F.R.D. 560, 564 (S.D. Cal. 2012). "Motions to strike are not favored and should not be granted unless it is clear that the matter to be stricken could have no possible bearing on the subject matter of the litigation." In re New Century, 588 F.Supp.2d 1206, 1220 (C.D. Cal. 2008) (internal citation and quotation omitted). Unless the defenses seeking to be stricken are shown to be such, or to be insufficiently pled under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, the Court will simply consider them not as affirmative defenses, but as general denials or objections. See, In re Washington Mut., Inc. Sec., Derivative & ERISA Litig., No. 08-MD-1919 MJP, 2011 WL 1158387, at *2 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 25, 2011).

A. Legal Insufficiency

Legal sufficiency of an affirmative defense is determined in light of the related claims. Thus, an affirmative defense is legally insufficient only if it lacks merit under any set of facts a defendant might allege. McArdle v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 657 F.Supp.2d 1140, 1149 (N.D. Cal. 2009), rev'd on other grounds, 474 Fed.Appx. 515 (9th Cir. 2012). When determining legal sufficiency on a motion to strike, the court "may not resolve disputed and substantial factual or legal issues." Whittlestone, Inc. v. Handi-Craft Co., 618 F.3d 970, 973 (9th Cir. 2010).

B. Pleading Insufficiency

Pleading of affirmative defenses is governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c), which provides, in pertinent part, that "a party must affirmatively state any avoidance or affirmative defense." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c). The Ninth Circuit has held that "[t]he key to determining the sufficiency of pleading an affirmative defense is whether it gives plaintiff fair notice of the defense." Wyshak v. City Nat'l Bank, 607 F.2d 824, 827 (1979) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47-48, (1957)). Fair notice generally requires that the defendant identify the nature and grounds for the affirmative defense, rather than plead a detailed statement of the facts upon which the defense is based. Dodson v. Strategic Restaurants Acquisition Co. II, LLC, 289 F.R.D. 595, 599 (E.D. Cal. 2013) (citation omitted). While a plaintiff does not need to provide detailed factual allegations, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), requires plaintiffs to establish grounds for entitlement to relief beyond mere recitation of elements of a cause of action. Wine Group LLC v. L. & R. Wine Co., No. 10-CV-02204 MCE-KJN, 2011 WL 130236 at *2 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 14, 2011). In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the Supreme Court expanded on this idea, stating:

The pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require detailed factual allegations, but it demands more than an unadorned... accusation. A pleading that offers labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement.

556 U.S. 662, 678 (2008) (citations and quotation marks omitted).

The Eastern District of California has affirmed that the Twombly/Iqbal "heightened" pleading standard applies to affirmative defenses. Mayfield v. Cnty. of Merced, No. 1:13-CV-1619-LJO-BAM, 2015 WL 791309, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 25, 2015); Wine Group LLC, 2011 WL 130236 at *2. Courts in this district have held that "to the extent that the heightened pleading standard announced by these cases is based on the wording of Rule 8, a sufficient textual basis lies in Rule 8(b)(1) for extending their holdings to the pleading of affirmative defenses." Dodson, 289 F.R.D. at 601. Applying this heightened standard will "serve to weed out the boilerplate listing of affirmative defenses which is commonplace in most defendants' pleading where many of the defenses alleged are irrelevant to the claims asserted." Barnes v. AT&T Pension Ben. Plan-Nonbargained Program, 718 F.Supp.2d 1167, 1172 (N.D. Cal. 2010). "Because the defendant bears the burden of proof on affirmative defenses, the defendant must plead "at least some valid factual basis" in support of its affirmative defense. Perez v. Gordon & Wong Law Grp., P.C., No. 11-CV-03323-LHK, 2012 WL 1029425, at * 7 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 26, 2012).

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Summary of Motion

Plaintiff's motion to strike attacked the sufficiency of the first through the thirty-sixth (36th) affirmative defenses pled in Defendant's original answer. Doc. 9. In its Opposition, Defendant concedes that some of its affirmative defenses are insufficient and seeks permission to file the PAA, which contains a total of eighteen (18) proposed amended affirmative defenses. Doc. 11. Plaintiff is correct that if a defense is insufficiently pleaded, the Court should freely grant leave to amend when doing so would not cause prejudice to the opposing party. Wyshak, 607 F.2d at 826. However, in reply Plaintiff again argues that the proposed amended affirmative defenses should be stricken. Doc. 12. Accordingly, the Court will evaluate each proposed amended ...


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