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Benner v. Saint Paul Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 20, 2019

Aaron A. Benner, Plaintiff,
v.
Saint Paul Public Schools, I.S.D. #625, and Lisa Grunewald, Defendants.

          ORDER

          KATHERINE MENENDEZ UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In this employment action, Aaron Benner alleges that the Saint Paul Public Schools, I.S.D. #625 (“SPPS” or “the District”), discharged him from his teaching position in retaliation for his criticism of a “racial equity” policy aimed at preventing disproportionate suspensions for students of color. On May 6, 2019, United States District Judge Susan R. Nelson issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order granting in part and denying in part SPPS's motion for summary judgment. [ECF No. 105.] In relevant part, Judge Nelson found that a jury must decide Mr. Benner's retaliatory discharge claim under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, and she denied the SPPS's request that a reference to punitive damages in the Third Amended Complaint be stricken. [Id. at 58-60, 70-71 & n.24.]

         On June 24, 2019, Mr. Benner filed a motion to amend the scheduling order and to amend the complaint, which is now before the Court. [ECF No. 112.] Mr. Benner asks the Court to modify the schedule to allow him to bring a motion to amend the complaint even though the applicable deadline has passed. Mr. Benner requests leave to amend to assert a claim for punitive damages against the District for retaliatory discharge under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. The District opposes both requests, arguing that: (1) Mr. Benner has failed to demonstrate good cause to allow an untimely motion to amend under Fed.R.Civ.P. 16; and (2) leave to amend should be denied because the District is immune from liability for punitive damages for Mr. Benner's retaliatory discharge claim under the Municipal Tort Claims Act, Minn. Stat. § 466.04.

         As explained below, based on the unique circumstances of this case, the Court concludes that the motion to amend the complaint should be considered on the merits, even though it was filed after the applicable deadline in the scheduling order. The Court also concludes that the motion to amend the complaint should be granted.

         I. Motion to Amend the Scheduling Order

         The initial Pretrial Scheduling Order set the deadline for filing non-dispositive motions, “including those which relate to ... leave to assert punitive damages (if applicable)” to be filed no later than April 6, 2018. [ECF No. 26 at 2 ¶ 6.] Pursuant to the parties' stipulations, the Scheduling Order was amended several times, and the deadline to file and serve non-dispositive motions was ultimately extended to September 6, 2018. [ECF No. 52.] On September 6, 2018, Mr. Benner filed a non-dispositive motion to compel discovery [ECF No. 56], but he did not file a motion related to punitive damages. Mr. Benner's pending motion to amend the complaint was not filed until June 24, 2019 [ECF No. 112], more than nine months after the relevant deadline passed. Because he filed the motion so long after the deadline, Mr. Benner asks the Court to modify the scheduling order to permit him to file his motion to amend the complaint now. SPPS argues that Mr. Benner has failed to demonstrate the required “good cause” for modifying the scheduling order because he has not shown that he was diligent in pursuing his motion to amend.

         A. Relevant Procedural History

         Whether the scheduling order should be modified depends on the litigation's procedural history. To make sense of that history, one must be familiar with a requirement of Minnesota law governing punitive-damages claims. Under Minn. Stat. § 549.191, sometimes referred to as the gatekeeping statute, a plaintiff is expressly forbidden from seeking punitive damages in her initial complaint. Instead, a plaintiff must later file a motion to amend that is accompanied by prima facie clear and convincing evidence that the defendant's conduct entitles the plaintiff to recover punitive damages. Id. Although courts in the District of Minnesota applied the gatekeeping statute's evidentiary standard for several years after the law was enacted in cases where a party's claim was based on Minnesota law, since July 2017, that practice has shifted. See In re Bair Hugger Forced Air Warming Devices Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 15-2666 (JNE/FLN), 2017 WL 5187832 (D. Minn. July 27, 2017) (concluding that the gatekeeping statute's standard governing amendment is inapplicable in federal court because it conflicts with the standards of Rule 15); see also Shank v. Carleton College, No. 16-cv-1154 (PJS/HB), 2018 WL 4961472, at *4 (D. Minn. Oct. 15, 2018) (collecting cases). Now the courts in this District generally review motions to amend to add punitive-damages claims through the lens of Fed.R.Civ.P. 15.

         Where a plaintiff pleads a claim based on federal law, there is no comparable prohibition on including a request for punitive damages in the initial complaint. See Hunter v. Ford. Motor Co., No. 08-cv-4980 (PJS/JSM), 2010 WL 11537516 (D. Minn. Jan. 7, 2010) (reasoning that the plaintiff did not need to bring a motion to amend to add a claim for punitive damages arising out of her claims under federal statutes because she had already asserted such a claim). Indeed, Rule 8 requires a pleading to include only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” and a “demand for the relief sought….” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)- (3).

         Mr. Benner filed his original Complaint on May 11, 2017. He alleged only federal claims and included a request for punitive damages in his prayer for relief. [ECF No. 1.] When the District moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim on July 10, 2017, it made no argument concerning the propriety of the claim for punitive damages. [ECF No. 5.] Mr. Benner filed his first Amended Complaint on July 31, 2017, which he was permitted to do once as a matter of course under Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1)(B). [ECF No. 12.] Mr. Benner continued to ask that the District be required to pay punitive damages in his prayer for relief. [ECF No. 12.] Given that the first two iterations of Mr. Benner's pleading did not contain any state law claims, his general pleading of punitive damages presented no issue at the outset of the case.

         Mr. Benner retained new representation in this case in December 2017, and his current counsel, Ashwin Madia, entered a notice of appearance on his behalf. [ECF No. 28.] With Mr. Madia on board, the parties stipulated to the filing of a Second Amended Complaint on January 31, 2018. [ECF No. 35 (Stipulation); ECF No. 37 (Second Am. Compl.).] The Second Amended Complaint included a claim based on the Minnesota Whistleblower Act and retained the previous general request for punitive damages. Several months later, the parties stipulated to the filing of a Third Amended Complaint on May 7, 2018. [ECF No. 43 (Stipulation); ECF No. 46 (Third Am. Compl.).] Again, the Third Amended Complaint included claims based upon the Minnesota Whistleblower Act and the punitive-damages request in the prayer for relief. In the parties' stipulations, a paragraph expressed the District's position regarding the viability of Mr. Benner's claims:

Defendant has reviewed the proposed [Second and Third Amended Complaints] and contends that the new claims are unviable, but it believes that it will be more efficient to challenge the new claims with the existing ones in its anticipated summary judgment motion than to oppose Plaintiff's request to amend the complaint at this time.

[ECF Nos. 35 & 43.] Neither stipulation specifically mentions the presence of the punitive-damages claim given the addition of the state law claims.

         On August 31, 2018, about a week before the deadline for filing non-dispositive motions, Mr. Madia emailed defense counsel regarding a discovery dispute and inquiring whether SPPS would object to having Judge Nelson consider the propriety of punitive damages in the context of the summary-judgment briefing. [Madia Decl. (June 24, 2019), Ex. 1, ECF No. 115.] Mr. Madia stated:

I'd like to file a motion to amend the complaint to add a claim for punitive damages on the Whistleblower Act claim (Count 3). Technically it's a non-dispositive motion and should be filed by Sep. 6. I'm happy to draft and file it along with our motion to compel next week. However, I think it may be more productive and cost-efficient for everyone to brief it and have it heard in accord with your summary judgment motion. Both motions are fact intensive and I think it would be productive to have the motions concurrently heard. Further, if SPPS wins on sj, then of course resolution of the punitives motion will be unnecessary.
But again, I'm happy to file the punitives motion next week if you prefer. Please let me know your preference.

[Id. at 2.] In response, defense counsel stated that the motion should be treated as a non-dispositive motion, rather than being considered alongside the District's summary-judgment motion. [Id. at 1.] Mr. Benner filed a motion to compel on September 6, 2018, but he did not file a motion to amend the complaint to assert a punitive-damages claim in connection with the Minnesota Whistleblower Act claim.

         SPPS filed its motion for summary judgment on December 21, 2018. In its memorandum supporting the motion, SPPS argued that Mr. Benner's punitive-damages claim had to be dismissed because he “did not move the Court for permission to amend the complaint to assert a claim for punitive damages in violation of Minn. Stat. § 549.191….” [Def.'s Summ. J. Mem. at 34-25, ECF No. 75.] SPPS cited authority for the proposition that a punitive-damages claim can be stricken from a complaint asserting claims under Minnesota law where no motion under the gatekeeping statute was filed. [Id.] SPPS's summary-judgment briefing did not argue that recovery of punitive damages against a municipality is prohibited by Minn. Stat. § 466.04, subd. 1(b).

         Judge Nelson's summary-judgment decision rejected the District's argument that the punitive-damages claim should be stricken. She concluded that no motion was required under the circumstances, and even if such a motion were before the Court, it would be granted because the record indicated that Mr. Benner met the gatekeeping act's evidentiary standard. [Mem. Opinion & Order at 70-71 & n.24, ECF No. 105.]

         At this Court's July 29, 2019 hearing on the motion addressed in this Order, counsel represented that they discussed the substance of Judge Nelson's summary-judgment ruling regarding punitive damages. Defense counsel took the position that it remained an open question whether punitive damages were in the case for purposes of the Whistleblower Act claim and that a motion to amend the complaint was still required. Mr. Madia indicated that he sought to modify the scheduling order and amend the complaint out of an abundance of caution because of the District's position and due to uncertainty about whether Judge Nelson's statements regarding the gatekeeping statute's evidentiary standard could be read to suggest that he still needed to file a motion.

         B. The ...


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