Nettles et al v. Daphne Utilities
ORDER granting in part and denying in part 12 Motion to Sever or Separate for Trial. It is ordered that each plaintiff's claims will be tried separately during the May 2015 civil term. Signed by Chief Judge William H. Steele on 4/28/2014. (tgw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
VONEKA Q. NETTLES, et al.,
CIVIL ACTION 13-0605-WS-C
This matter comes before the Court on defendant’s Motion to Sever or Separate for Trial
(doc. 12), with accompanying memorandum of law. Plaintiffs have filed a short Response (doc.
16) confirming that they do not oppose defendant’s request to sever their claims for trial.
Plaintiffs, Voneka Q. Nettles, Carlos Butler, and Cedric Goodloe, brought this action
against defendant, Daphne Utilities, alleging employment discrimination on the basis of race and
retaliation, in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. According to the Amended
Complaint, plaintiff Nettles, who has worked for Daphne Utilities as an Accounting Technician
since 2009, was denied a wage increase while white employees performing similar duties were
paid more, and was denied consideration for a vacant position. (Doc. 6, ¶¶ 6-13.) Plaintiff
Butler is alleged to have worked for Daphne Utilities for more than seven years as a Wastewater
Field Services worker. (Id., ¶ 14.) The Amended Complaint alleges that the Wastewater Field
Services unit was divided into racially segregated departments, and that Butler received a
negative performance evaluation and was denied a salary increase because of his race. (Id., ¶¶
14-29.) As for plaintiff Goodloe, he was employed by Daphne Utilities as a Payroll/Benefits
Coordinator/Trainer until his discharge in March 2013. (Id., ¶ 30.) Well-pleaded facts in the
Amended Complaint reflect that Goodloe was paid less than similarly situated white employees
and was fired for complaining of racially discriminatory practices at the company. (Id., ¶¶ 3048.) The Amended Complaint asserts Title VII and § 1981 claims for Nettles predicated on
discriminatory pay and failure to transfer/promote (Counts I – IV), a § 1981 claim for Butler
based on his negative evaluation and denial of a raise (Count V), and § 1981 claims for Goodloe
alleging denial of fair salary and retaliatory discharge (Counts VI – VII).
The claims of all three plaintiffs were presented jointly in a single Amended Complaint
against Daphne Utilities. In its Motion to Sever or Separate for Trial, defendant requests that (i)
the three plaintiffs’ claims “be severed into three separate lawsuits pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.
Rules 20 and 21,” or (ii) alternatively, the three plaintiffs’ claims “be severed for trial under
Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 42(b).” (Doc. 12, ¶¶ 2-3.) The distinction between these alternative pathways
is not merely academic. After all, “[s]everance pursuant to Rule 21 essentially creates a separate
case, the disposition of which is final and appealable. … Rule 42(b) does not create a new case,
but bifurcates issues or claims within a single case for separate trials.” Graudins v. Retro
Fitness, LLC, 921 F. Supp.2d 456, 468 (E.D. Pa. 2013) (citations omitted).
“The determination of whether to grant a motion to sever is left to the discretion of the
trial court.” Fisher v. Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corp., 245 F.R.D. 539, 541 (S.D. Ala. 2007);
see also Alexander v. Fulton County, Ga., 207 F.3d 1303, 1324, n.16 (11th Cir. 2000) (“The trial
court likewise has discretion under Rule 20(b) to order separate trials to prevent delay or
prejudice.”); Oram v. SoulCycle LLC, --- F. Supp.2d ----, 2013 WL 5797346, *2 (S.D.N.Y. Oct.
28, 2013) (“The trial court has broad discretion in determining whether to sever claims under
Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 21.”). “[T]he factors considered in exercising that discretion include whether
the claims arise from the same transaction or occurrence, whether they present some common
question of law or fact, whether severance would facilitate settlement or judicial economy, and
the relative prejudice to each side if the motion is granted or denied.” Fisher, 245 F.R.D. at 541
(citations omitted); see also Graudins, 921 F. Supp.2d at 468 (in evaluating motion to sever,
courts weigh “convenience of the parties, avoiding prejudice, and promoting expedition and
economy”) (citation omitted). “In considering whether to order separate trials of any claims or
issues, the paramount consideration must remain a fair and impartial trial to all litigants through
a balance of benefits and prejudice.” Fisher, 245 F.R.D. at 541-42 (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted); see also Malibu Media, LLC v. John Does 1-14, 287 F.R.D. 513, 522
(N.D. Ind. 2012) (in evaluating motion to sever, “a court should consider the convenience and
fairness to parties,” and its decision “should serve the ends of justice and facilitate the prompt
and efficient disposition of the litigation”) (citation omitted).
In seeking to sever each plaintiff’s claims into a separate lawsuit, Daphne Utilities argues
that the three plaintiffs have been misjoined under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. To be
sure, the rules provide that “[p]ersons may join in one action as plaintiffs if: (A) they assert any
right to relief jointly, severally, or in the alternative with respect to or arising out of the same
transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences; and (B) any question of law or
fact common to all plaintiffs will arise in the action.” Rule 20(a)(1), Fed.R.Civ.P. But both
subsections appear to be satisfied here. Plaintiffs all work or worked for the same employer,
Daphne Utilities. They claim to have been subjected to racially discriminatory treatment with
regard to compensation during the same period of time. The same management figures at
Daphne Utilities were allegedly involved in the subject personnel decisions (doc. 16, at 1), and
plaintiff Goodloe’s complaints about the mistreatment of plaintiff Butler form part of the basis of
his retaliation claim. (Doc. 6, ¶¶ 42-43.) Plaintiffs bring the same or very similar claims largely
under the same statute arising from the same or similar conduct by the same corporate defendant
at the same time. Accordingly, the Court finds that plaintiffs were not misjoined under Rule
20(a).1 Defendant’s Motion to Sever pursuant to Rule 21 is therefore denied.
More generally, fracturing this case into three separate lawsuits would be inefficient, and
would not advance the objectives of convenience, judicial economy, expediting resolution of
disputes and eliminating unnecessary litigation. See, e.g., Bollea v. Clem, 937 F. Supp.2d 1344,
1351 (M.D. Fla. 2013) (“Joinder rules … are construed generously towards entertaining the
broadest possible scope of action consistent with fairness of the parties.”) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted); Blount v. U.S. Security Associates, 930 F. Supp.2d 191, 193 (D.D.C.
See, e.g., Alexander, 207 F.3d at 1323 (for purposes of Rule 20(a),
“‘[t]ransaction’ is a word of flexible meaning. It may comprehend a series of many occurrences,
depending not so much upon the immediateness of their connection as upon their logical
relationship.”) (citation omitted); Spaeth v. Michigan State University College of Law, 845 F.
Supp.2d 48, 54 (D.D.C. 2012) (“when determining whether employment discrimination claims
raise common questions of law or fact for purposes of permissive joinder, courts often consider
the circumstances surrounding the  claims, including the people involved, the location, the time
frame, and the defendant’s pattern of behavior”) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted);
Disparte v. Corporate Executive Bd., 223 F.R.D. 7, 11 (D.D.C. 2004) (“where multiple plaintiffs
bring suit for employment discrimination alleging a pattern of discriminatory behavior a broad
variation of circumstances relating to the merits of individual performance of each of the
plaintiffs will not nullify a common question of fact”) (citations and internal quotation marks
2013) (“the requirements for permissive joinder are to be liberally construed in the interest of
convenience and judicial economy”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); First Time
Videos, LLC v. Does 1-500, 276 F.R.D. 241, 252 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (observing that Rule 20(a) test
is “flexible” and that “courts are encouraged to seek the broadest possible scope of action
consistent with fairness to the parties”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
Multiplying this singular lawsuit into three would not serve any constructive purpose and would
not protect Daphne Utilities from prejudice to any greater extent than the more moderate option
of bifurcation under Rule 42(b), as discussed infra. By contrast, it would likely require
overlapping discovery in triplicate and similar motion practice to be conducted by the same
lawyers thrice. The Court exercises its discretion not to sever this action pursuant to Rule 21,
Fed.R.Civ.P.2 Rather, all three plaintiffs’ claims will remain joined in this action.
In the alternative, Daphne Utilities requests separate trials for each plaintiff pursuant to
Rule 42(b). That rule provides that “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and
economize, the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues [or] claims.” Rule
42(b), Fed.R.Civ.P. “Among the pertinent considerations are the degree of difference between
the issues to be tried separately, the overlap or lack thereof in the proof, and any prejudice to
either side.” Chevron Corp. v. Donzinger, 800 F. Supp.2d 484, 491 (S.D.N.Y. 2011); see also
Sterling Const. Management, LLC v. Steadfast Ins. Co., 280 F.R.D. 576 (D. Colo. 2011) (in Rule
42(b) context, “[a] paramount consideration at all times in the administration of justice is a fair
and impartial trial to all litigants”) (citation omitted). As noted, plaintiffs do not object to the
birfurcation of their claims for trial. Additionally, Daphne Utilities has made a persuasive
Splintering this case into three at this juncture would be inefficient and
inadvisable for another reason, as well. This action is already four and a half months old.
Responsive pleadings have been filed, the parties have conducted their Rule 26(f) planning
meeting and submitted the accompanying report, and Magistrate Judge Cassady has entered a
Rule 16(b) Scheduling Order (doc. 15) that provides for unified discovery proceedings based on
the parties’ agreed discovery plan. In other words, this case is already well on its way in its
present configuration. The parties agreed on – and Judge Cassady implemented – a discovery
plan that would allow discovery relating to all three plaintiffs’ claims contemporaneously in the
same litigation. To unravel that work now and create three separate lawsuits with three separate
Scheduling Orders and discovery plans would be enormously inefficient, and would multiply and
delay these proceedings unnecessarily, all at a substantial burden to litigant and judicial
showing of prejudice “if evidence of other instances of alleged discrimination are presented to
the jury on each Plaintiffs’ [sic] claim.” (Doc. 13, at 8.) There is, of course, a risk “that one or
two plaintiff’s [sic] unique circumstances could bias the jury against defendant generally, thus
prejudicing defendant with respect to the other plaintiffs’ claims.” Grayson v. K-Mart Corp.,
849 F. Supp. 785, 790 (N.D. Ga. 1994). And because each plaintiff’s claims involve a distinct
set of facts and witnesses (tailored to that plaintiff’s specific circumstances), the Court expects
that there would be little redundancy in evidentiary presentation from one plaintiff’s trial to the
next. Further, bifurcating each plaintiff’s claims for trial would mitigate the risk of jury
confusion that may arise from presentation of disparate facts concerning the distinct claims of
each of three different plaintiffs, all lumped together in the same trial. Accordingly, in the
interests of efficiency and the fair administration of justice, defendant’s Motion to Separate for
Trial is granted.
For all of the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion to Sever or Separate for Trial (doc.
12) is granted in part, and denied in part. The Motion is denied insofar as defendant requests
severance pursuant to Rule 21, Fed.R.Civ.P. The Motion is granted insofar as defendant
requests bifurcation pursuant to Rule 42(b), Fed.R.Civ.P. It is ordered that each plaintiff’s
claims will be tried separately during the May 2015 civil term. All discovery and other pretrial
deadlines in this matter will remain governed by the Rule 16(b) Scheduling Order (doc. 15)
entered on April 4, 2014, except insofar as they may be modified by the undersigned or by
Magistrate Judge Cassady. Other than bifurcation of trial of each plaintiff’s claims, this Order
does not alter or adjust any provisions of that Scheduling Order.
DONE and ORDERED this 28th day of April, 2014.
s/ WILLIAM H. STEELE
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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