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Von Kaenel v. Armstrong Teasdale, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

July 30, 2018

JOSEPH S. VON KAENEL, Plaintiff,
v.
ARMSTRONG TEASDALE, LLP, Defendant.

          AMENDED OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HENRY EDWARD AUTREY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, [Doc. No. 25]. The matter is filed by Plaintiff under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is granted.

         Facts and Background

         Plaintiff Joseph von Kaenel (“Plaintiff”) began working as an attorney at Defendant Armstrong Teasdale LLP (“Defendant”) on June 1, 1972. Plaintiff eventually joined Defendant partnership as an equity partner. Plaintiff turned 70 years old in November 2014. Defendant has a policy requiring equity partners to leave the firm at the end of the calendar year in which the partner turns 70 years old. As such, Defendant informed Plaintiff that he would not be allowed to work past December 31, 2014. Plaintiff was entitled to severance benefits after this termination on the condition that he ceased the private practice of law. Plaintiff chose to continue the private practice of law, and Defendant terminated Plaintiff's severance benefits. Plaintiff claims that if Defendant did not have its policy requiring equity partners to retire at 70, he would have retired at 75, stopped practicing law, and received his severance benefits.

         On December 11, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (the “MCHR”) alleging employment discrimination by Defendant based on Plaintiff's age of 70. On February 17, 2015 MCHR issued a Notice of Termination of Proceedings informing Plaintiff that MCHR lacked jurisdiction over his complaint because he was 70 years old and therefore outside the protected age group under the Missouri Human Rights Act (the “MHRA”).

         On October 13, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus in the Circuit Court for Cole County, Missouri (the “Cole County court”) asking the court to issue a Writ of Mandamus directing the MCHR to either issue a Notice of Right to Sue Letter or reopen and fully investigate Plaintiff's case. The Cole County court held an evidentiary hearing on the Petition, at which the Defendant argued, inter alia, that Plaintiff was not an “employee” protected by the MHRA by virtue of his position as an equity partner of Defendant partnership. At the evidentiary hearing, Plaintiff testified as to his rights and obligations as an equity partner under the partnership agreement. The Cole County court's judgment, issued October 19, 2017, dismissed Plaintiff's Petition and found that “as an equity partner of Armstrong Teasdale LLP, [Plaintiff] is not a covered employee protected by the [MHRA.]” The EEOC issued a Notice of Right to Sue to Plaintiff for his ADEA claim on June 24, 2016. Plaintiff filed his Complaint in the instant action on September 1, 2016.

         In support of its motion for judgment on the pleadings, Defendant argues that the issue of whether Plaintiff was an “employee” of Defendant was already litigated by the Cole County court and thus Plaintiff is collaterally estopped from relitigating this issue in the instant action. Defendant claims that since Plaintiff cannot challenge his status as a non-employee, his claim necessarily fails.

         Plaintiff opposes the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The matter has been fully briefed.

         Standard

         “After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P.Rule 12(c). “A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted when, accepting all facts pled by the nonmoving party as true and drawing all reasonable inferences from the facts in favor of the nonmoving party, the movant has clearly established that no material issue of fact remains and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Schnuck Markets, Inc. v. First Data Merch. Servs. Corp., 852 F.3d 732, 737 (8th Cir. 2017). As a general rule, a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is reviewed under the same standard as a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.” Ginsburg v. InBev NV/SA, 623 F.3d 1229, 1233 n. 3 (8th Cir.2010); accord Gallagher v. City of Clayton, 699 F.3d 1013, 1016 -1017 (8th Cir. 2012). Thus, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) - and, hence, judgment pursuant to Rule 12(c) - is appropriate when a claim or action is fatally flawed in its legal premises. See Stringer v. St. James R-1 Sch. Dist., 446 F.3d 799, 802 (8th Cir.2006) (citing Young v. City of St. Charles, 244 F.3d 623, 627 (8th Cir.2001)).

         It is well-settled that when considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court generally must ignore materials outside the pleadings, but may consider some materials that are part of the public record or do not contradict the complaint, as well as materials that are necessarily embraced by the pleadings. Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999) (citing Missouri ex rel. Nixon v. Coeur D'Alene Tribe, 164 F.3d 1102, 1107 (8th Cir. 1999); Piper Jaffray Cos. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 967 F.Supp. 1148, 1152 (D. Minn. 1997)).

         Discussion

         In support of its Motion, Defendant invokes the doctrine of collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, arguing that because the Cole County Court determined that Plaintiff was not an “employee” of Defendant under the MHRA, Defendant should not be required to re-litigate the issue of whether Plaintiff was an “employee” under the ADEA.

         “Under collateral estoppel, once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, that decision may preclude relitigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case.” ...


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