Job v. Airtran Airways, Inc.
OPINION AND ORDER granting 8 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Judge Thomas W. Thrash, Jr on 2/3/14. (dr)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
CIVIL ACTION FILE
AIRTRAN AIRWAYS, INC.,
OPINION AND ORDER
This is a personal injury action arising out of a fluid leak on an airplane
operated by AirTran Airways, Inc. It is before the Court on the Defendant AirTran
Airways, Inc.’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 8]. For the reasons set forth
below, the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 8] is GRANTED.
On August 1, 2009, the Plaintiff was a passenger on AirTran Flight 233 from
West Palm Beach, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia. (Compl. ¶ 12.) There was a hard
landing in Atlanta and allegedly a fluid leak caused by problems in the plane’s air
conditioning system. (Compl. ¶¶ 14, 18). The air conditioning fluid allegedly came
into contact with the Plaintiff’s eyes, causing irritation. (Compl. ¶¶ 16, 23.) The
Plaintiff visited an ophthalmologist and was diagnosed with blepharitis. (Compl. ¶ 24.)
On October 11, 2010 – prior to filing a lawsuit against the Defendant – the
Plaintiff filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the
Central District of California. (Def.’s Statement of Facts ¶ 4.) On her bankruptcy
petition, the Plaintiff was asked to list her “contingent and unliquidated claims of
every nature.” (Id. ¶ 5.) In response, the Plaintiff marked “None.”1 (Id. ¶ 5.) Her debts
were discharged on January 25, 2011. (Id. ¶ 6.)
Then, on July 27, 2011, the Plaintiff filed her first complaint in this action. (Id.
¶ 7.) The Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) the Plaintiff lacks
standing because her claim against AirTran is property of her bankruptcy estate,2 and
(2) the Plaintiff is judicially estopped from asserting her claim because she failed to
disclose it to the Bankruptcy Court. On September 19, 2013 – after the Defendant
moved for summary judgment – the Plaintiff filed a motion with the Bankruptcy Court
of the Central District of California to reopen her bankruptcy case. (Pl.’s Statement
of Facts ¶ 1.) The Plaintiff requested that her petition be amended to list the claim in
On the bankruptcy petition, Question 21 of Schedule B (Personal Property)
asked the Plaintiff to describe “[o]ther contingent and unliquidated claims of every
nature, including tax refunds, counterclaims of the debtor, and rights to setoff claims.”
(Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B.)
The Plaintiff did not address standing in her response brief.
this action. (Id. ¶ 3.) The Bankruptcy Court granted her motion on September 23,
2013. (Id. ¶ 5.)
II. Legal Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate only when the pleadings, depositions, and
affidavits submitted by the parties show that no genuine issue of material fact exists
and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c).
The court should view the evidence and any inferences that may be drawn in the light
most favorable to the nonmovant. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158-59
(1970). The party seeking summary judgment must first identify grounds that show
the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317,
323-24 (1986). The burden then shifts to the nonmovant, who must go beyond the
pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of material
fact does exist. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 257 (1986). “A mere
‘scintilla’ of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there
must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.”
Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir.1990). Moreover, “[w]hen [an] attack
on standing occurs via a motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs . . . must set
forth by affidavit or other evidence specific facts which for the purpose of summary
judgment will be taken as true.” Region 8 Forest Serv. Timber Purchasers Council v.
Alcock, 993 F.2d 800, 806 (11th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Defendant argues that the Plaintiff’s cause of action became property of her
bankruptcy estate, and thus only the bankruptcy trustee has standing to pursue it. “In
every federal case, the party bringing the suit must establish standing to prosecute the
action.” Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1, 11 (2004). The standing
requirements are divided into two categories: “Article III standing, which enforces the
Constitution’s case-or-controversy requirement . . . and prudential standing, which
embodies judicially self-imposed limits on the exercise of federal jurisdiction.” Id.
(internal quotation marks omitted). One of the prudential standing requirements is that
“the plaintiff generally must assert [her] own legal rights and interests, and cannot rest
[her] claim to relief on the legal rights or interests of third parties.” Warth v. Seldin,
422 U.S. 490, 499 (1975).
Additionally, “[s]ection 541 of the Bankruptcy Code provides that virtually all
of a debtor’s assets . . . vest in the bankruptcy estate upon the filing of a bankruptcy
petition . . . [and] [s]uch property includes causes of action belonging to the debtor at
the commencement of the bankruptcy case.” Parker v. Wendy’s Intern., Inc., 365 F.3d
1268, 1272 (11th Cir. 2004); see also In re Icarus Holding, LLC, 391 F.3d 1315, 1319
(11th Cir. 2004) (“[A] debtor’s bankruptcy estate . . . includes legal causes of action
the debtor had against others at the commencement of the bankruptcy case.”). “At the
close of the bankruptcy case, property of the estate that is not abandoned under § 554
and that is not administered in the bankruptcy proceedings remains the property of the
estate.” Parker, 365 F.3d at 1272. “[I]f a cause of action belongs to the estate, then the
trustee has exclusive standing to assert the claim.” Mennen v. Onkyo Corp., 248 Fed.
Appx. 112, 113 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting In re Educators Group Health Trust, 25 F.3d
1281, 1284 (5th Cir. 1994)); see also Parker, 365 F.3d at 1272 (“Generally speaking,
a pre-petition cause of action is the property of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy estate, and
only the trustee in bankruptcy has standing to pursue it.”).
Here, the Plaintiff failed to address standing in her response to the Defendant’s
motion. When the Plaintiff filed for bankruptcy, the trustee of the Plaintiff’s
bankruptcy estate “became the real party in interest” for the Plaintiff’s personal injury
claim.3 Parker, 365 F.3d at 1272. The Plaintiff never suggests that the cause of action
was then abandoned back to her under section 554. Accordingly, the Plaintiff has
It is immaterial that the Plaintiff amended her bankruptcy petition to include
the claim after filing suit. “Regardless of whether a bankruptcy debtor discloses its
existence, a pre-petition cause of action is the property of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy
estate.” Jones, 184 Fed. Appx. at 842.
failed to establish standing. See Jones v. Clayton Cnty., 184 Fed. Appx. 840, 842
(11th Cir. 2006) (“Because there is no evidence that the trustee, who is the real party
in interest in this discrimination suit, ever abandoned this claim, Jones lacks standing
to bring the claim.”); Dunmore v. United States, 358 F.3d 1107, 1112 (9th Cir. 2004)
(“[The plaintiff] lacked prudential standing . . . [because] [t]he bankruptcy estate, and
not [the plaintiff], was the real party in interest at that time.”).
B. Judicial Estoppel
The Defendant argues that judicial estoppel bars the Plaintiff from asserting her
claim because she initially omitted it on her bankruptcy petition. “Because this is a
diversity case, the application of the doctrine of judicial estoppel is governed by state
law.”4 Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc. v. S. Diamond Associates, Inc., 44 F.3d
Although the Defendant persuasively argues for the application of federal law
to claims of judicial estoppel, the Court is bound by Eleventh Circuit authority stating
otherwise. However, several other Circuit Courts agree with the Defendant.
Alternative Sys. Concepts, Inc. v. Synopsys, Inc., 374 F.3d 23, 32 (1st Cir. 2004)
(“The aim of judicial estoppel is to protect the integrity of the courts. . . a federal court
has a powerful institutional interest in applying federally-developed principles to
protect itself against cynical manipulations.”); Allen v. Zurich Ins. Co., 667 F.2d
1162, 1167 n.4 (4th Cir. 1982) (“Although this is a diversity case . . . federal law
controls the application of judicial estoppel, since it relates to protection of the
integrity of the federal judicial process . . . Erie . . . [does not require] inquiry into the
possible existence of a conflicting state rule.”); Edwards v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 690
F.2d 595, 598 n.4 (6th Cir. 1982) (citing Zurich with approval); Rissetto v. Plumbers
and Steamfitters Local 343, 94 F.3d 597, 603 (9th Cir. 1996) (“[F]ederal law governs
the application of judicial estoppel in federal court . . . [the] quite strong ‘affirmative
925, 930 (11th Cir. 1995); see also Chrysler Credit Corp. v. Rebhan, 842 F.2d 1257,
1261 (11th Cir. 1988) (“Had this case originated as a diversity action, it appears this
court would be bound to apply the relevant state formulation of judicial estoppel.”),
abrogated on other grounds by Grogan v. Garner, 498 U.S. 279 (1991).
The doctrine of judicial estoppel is “commonly invoked to prevent bankruptcy
debtors from concealing a possible cause of action, asserting the claim following the
discharge of the bankruptcy and excluding resources from the bankruptcy estate that
might have otherwise satisfied creditors.” Benton v. Benton, 280 Ga. 468, 469 (2006)
(quoting Period Homes, Ltd. v. Wallick, 275 Ga. 486, 487 (2002)). “The purpose of
judicial estoppel is to protect the integrity of the judicial process.” Id. It thus
“precludes a party from asserting a position in one judicial proceeding after having
successfully asserted a contrary position in a prior proceeding.” Id. It applies when a
party has deliberately changed positions “according to the exigencies of the moment.”
Here, the Plaintiff eventually amended her bankruptcy petition to include her
negligence claim against the Defendant. The Georgia judicial estoppel rule permits a
plaintiff to proceed with a claim if she amends her bankruptcy petition to include it
countervailing consideration’ of federal policy [weighs] in favor of the application of
federal law . . ..”).
– even if the amendment occurs after the defendant asserts judicial estoppel as a
defense.5 Id. at 470 (“Generally, judicial estoppel is inapplicable when a plaintiff has
successfully amended his or her bankruptcy petition to include any claim against the
defendant . . . because then it cannot be said that the position in the trial court is
inconsistent with the position asserted by the plaintiff in the bankruptcy proceeding.”);
Rowan v. George H. Green Oil, Inc., 257 Ga. App. 774, 776 (2002) (“Rowan . . .
amended her schedules to include the claim-well in advance of any disposition on the
motion for summary judgment . . . the trial court erred in applying the doctrine of
judicial estoppel to bar Rowan’s personal injury action.”); Jowers v. Arthur, 245 Ga.
App. 68, 69-70 (2000) (“A majority of this Court was not persuaded that a tardy
bankruptcy amendment, spurred by the filing of a summary judgment motion in the
state tort action, represents a plaintiff/debtor’s manipulating the court system by
shifting positions when his interests change, which judicial estoppel is designed to
prevent.”); CSX Transp., Inc. v. Howell, 296 Ga. App. 583, 586 (2009) (explaining
However, under Georgia law, judicial estoppel will apply if the defendant
amends the bankruptcy petition after there is a disposition on the Defendant’s judicial
estoppel defense. See Cochran v. Emory University, 251 Ga. App. 737, 739 (2001)
(“In [Johnson], plaintiff moved to amend his petition after defendant raised . . .
judicial estoppel in its motion for summary judgment . . . [h]ere, Cochran chose to
respond to the motion and await the trial court’s order instead of moving to reopen her
that unlike certain federal courts, Georgia courts do not apply judicial estoppel when
the plaintiff has amended the bankruptcy petition to include the originally omitted
claim). The Defendant’s response relies on the Eleventh Circuit’s construction of
federal judicial estoppel law, which is inapplicable here.6 Accordingly, because the
Plaintiff successfully amended her bankruptcy petition to include her negligence
claim, the doctrine of judicial estoppel would not have barred her from pursuing it.
For the aforementioned reasons, the Court GRANTS the Defendant’s Motion
for Summary Judgment [Doc. 8].
In a federal employment discrimination case, the Eleventh Circuit stated:
“Allowing [the plaintiff] to back-up, re-open the bankruptcy case, and amend his
bankruptcy filings, only after his omission has been challenged by an adversary,
suggests that a debtor should consider disclosing potential assets only if he is caught
concealing them. This so-called remedy would only diminish the necessary incentive
to provide the bankruptcy court with a truthful disclosure of the debtors’ assets.”
Burnes v. Pemco Aeroplex, Inc., 291 F.3d 1282, 1288 (11th Cir. 2002). There is a
Circuit-split on this question. Compare Eastman v. Union Pac. R. Co., 493 F.3d 1151,
1160 (10th Cir. 2007) (“That Gardner’s bankruptcy was reopened and his creditors
were made whole once his omission became known is inconsequential[,] [a] discharge
. . . is sufficient to establish a basis for judicial estoppel, ‘even if the discharge is later
vacated.’”), with Ah Quin v. County of Kauai Dep't of Transp., 733 F.3d 267, 272-75
(9th Cir. 2013) (discussing why a plaintiff’s decision to amend the bankruptcy petition
to include the omitted claim should weigh against the application of judicial estoppel).
SO ORDERED, this 3 day of February, 2014.
/s/Thomas W. Thrash
THOMAS W. THRASH, JR.
United States District Judge
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