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Media Alerts - Louzon v. Ford Motor Company -- Sixth Circuit
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August 19, 2013
  Louzon v. Ford Motor Company -- Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit decides that in-limine rulings in civil cases may not be used to resolve factual disputes that should be resolved by summary judgment.

Area of Law: Civil Procedure; Employment Law

Issue(s) Presented: (1) Did the district court abuse its discretion in resolving genuine issues of material fact during a motion in limine? (2) Did the district court properly deny in part a motion to compel?

Brief Summary: A Ford employee was fired after he was forced to stay abroad longer than his approved leave of absence because of the worsening security situation in Gaza, where he was visiting his mother. He sued alleging age discrimination, national origin discrimination, and retaliation. The district court granted Ford's motion in limine seeking to exclude the employee's evidence about similarly situated employees on the basis that none were similarly situated as a matter of law. The court granted the motion and then granted summary judgment to Ford. The employee appealed, arguing that the district court considered issues improperly raised in limine and abused its discretion by resolving genuine issues of material fact.

Significance: The Sixth Circuit joins other circuits in holing that motions in limine may not be used in civil cases to resolve factual issues that are properly raised by motion for summary judgment. It also holds that determining whether employees are similarly situated to the plaintiff is not based solely on whether those comparators had the same supervisor as the plaintiff.

Extended Summary: A Ford engineer was granted a leave of absence to visit his mother in Gaza. The security situation in the area worsened, and American citizens in Gaza were unable to leave due to border closings. At first, Ford extended his leave of absence, but by the time the State Department was able to evacuate the employee, his extended leave of absence had expired. When he returned to work, he learned that he was terminated. The employee filed a civil action alleging age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA); national-origin discrimination under Title VII and ELCRA; and retaliation.

There were several discovery disputes, including two motions to compel, which the district court granted in part and denied in part. Later, the district court denied the company's motion for summary judgment. After the case was transferred to another district judge, the company filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude all evidence relating to seven other Ford employees that the plaintiff-employee sought to use as similarly situated employees. The district court granted this motion and entered an order to show cause why summary judgment should not be granted in light of the in-limine ruling. The district court granted summary judgment for Ford after the employee conceded that he could not support his discrimination claims without evidence of similarly situated employees.

The employee appealed, arguing that the district court considered issues improperly raised in limine and abused its discretion by resolving genuine issues of material fact. The Sixth Circuit reversed, vacating the district court's grant of summary judgment and remanding for further proceedings.

The Sixth Circuit explained that in-limine rulings in civil cases serve a more limited purpose than in criminal cases. The court noted that some courts have held that in criminal cases a district court may consider nonevidentiary matters because summary judgment is not available in a criminal case. In civil cases, however, in-limine rulings serve the limited purpose of resolving evidentiary issues, and the proper pretrial device to resolve nonevidentiary matters is the summary judgment motion. The Sixth Circuit noted that sister circuits and other district courts in the circuit consistently refuse to allow litigants to raise nonevidentiary issues in limine.

The court found that Ford's motion in limine was nothing more than a disguised motion for summary judgment. The court found that the true nature of the company's motion was apparent because it argued that none of the employee's proffered comparators were really comparable, and resolution of this issue requires summary-judgment analysis. More importantly, the court noted, the motion in limine did not require any rulings on the admissibility of trial evidence.

The Sixth Circuit also found that the district court applied an incorrect legal standard to determine similarly situated comparators. It rejected the district court's heavy reliance on what the district court saw as a same-supervisor requirement, reaffirming that whether the individuals dealt with the same supervisor is one factor to consider out of many and is not an inflexible requirement. The court ruled that given the facts of this particular case, whether a comparator was working for the same supervisor should not be given significant weight considering the management structure of the company.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the district court, in relying heavily on the same-supervisor factor, made factual findings on contested issues. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit found that the district court erred in concluding that the company employed an automatic termination policy because of the plain language of the policy to the contrary. The Sixth Circuit also found that the district court erred in ruling that the employee's comparators were not similarly situated in all other relevant aspects, because it was a previously litigated issue in the initial summary-judgment motion.

The court also held that it was error for the district court to restrict discovery based on the mischaracterization of the same-supervisor factor as a prerequisite or a requirement; therefore, the court vacated the district court's order denying the employee's motion to compel.

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...s.pdf/13a0158p-06.pdf

Panel: Moore and Stranch, Circuit Judges; and Hood, District Judge (sitting by designation)

Argument: April 25, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: June 4, 2013

Docket Number: 11-2356

Decided: June 4, 2013

Case Alert Author: Cathryn Rudolph

Counsel: ARGUED: Lawrence J. Breskin, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellant. William B. Forrest III, Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton P.L.C., Birmingham, Michigan for Appellant. ON BRIEF: Lawrence J. Breskin, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellant. William B. Forrest III, Elizabeth Hardy, Julia Turner Baumhart, Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy & Pelton P.L.C., Birmingham, Michigan for Appellant.

Author of opinion: Circuit Judge Moore

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Eileen Kavanagh

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 08/19/2013 09:32 AM     6th Circuit  

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