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Padilla-Ruiz v. Comtek Communication Technologies, Inc.,

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

February 15, 2018

RAUL PADILLA-RUIZ, et al., Plain-tiffs,



         This matter comes before the court on the Motion to Dismiss and Memorandum in Support (collectively, "Motion") filed by Defendant, COMtek Communication Technologies, Inc. ("COMtek"), on May 12, 2017. ECF Nos. 22, 23. Raul Padilla-Ruiz, Vivian J. Franceschini-Rodriguez, and their Conjugal Partnership (Legal Society of Earnings) (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), filed a Memorandum in Opposition on June 9, 2017, ECF No. 28, and COMtek filed a Reply on June 13, 2017, ECF No. 29. The Complaint was filed on October 26, 2016. Compl., ECF No. 1.

         On June 15, 2017, this court referred the Motion to a United States magistrate judge, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, if necessary, and to submit to the undersigned district judge proposed findings of fact, if applicable, and recommendations for the disposition of the Motion. ECF No. 30.

         The magistrate judge denied COMtek's request for a hearing, ECF No. 32, finding that the issues could be decided on the record. Report and Recommendation ("R&R") at 5, ECF No. 34. On September 15, 2017, the magistrate judge filed the R&R, which recommended that the Motion be granted in part and denied in part. Id. at 1, 21. By copy of the R&R, the magistrate judge advised the parties of their right to file written objections to the findings and recommendations contained therein, as well as the consequences of foregoing that right. Id. at 21-22.

         On September 22, 2017, COMtek filed an objection to the R&R. Obj., ECF No. 35. The Plaintiffs replied on October 27, 2017, but did not make any objections of their own. Obj. Reply, ECF No. 40. The court conducted a hearing on December 13, 2017, after which the parties were granted leave to file supplemental briefs. Both parties have filed briefs and replies, and the matter is ripe for decision.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Rule 72(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the R&R to which a party has objected. While a procedurally defaulted issue is normally disregarded, the court may sua sponte ensure that the R&R is not clearly erroneous or contrary to law. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985) (announcing that district judges are not precluded from sua sponte review "under a de novo or any other standard" if no objection is filed); Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) ("[I]n the absence of a timely filed objection, a district court . . . must 'only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record."7 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) Advisory Committee's note to 1983 amendment)).

         Under this framework, "the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, '' the recommendation of the magistrate judge, "or recommit the matter to . [him] with instructions." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) (3).


         The facts of this case are fully and accurately set forth by the magistrate judge. See R&R at 2-8. For context, however, a brief outline of the relevant events is set forth below.[1]

         The Plaintiffs allege, inter alia, that COMtek discriminated against and terminated Mr. Padilla-Ruiz on August 13, 2008, in violation of the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ("USERRA"), 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301-35, and in violation of Puerto Rico's labor and tort laws. Compl. ¶¶ 15, 30, 38. This is the Plaintiffs' third attempt to bring this action against COMtek. Twice, the Plaintiffs unsuccessfully filed these claims in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. R&R at 3-4. The first attempt was dismissed without prejudice for improper venue, Padilla-Ruiz v. COMtek Commc'ns Techs., Inc., No. 09-1695 (SEC), 2010 WL 1728311, at *5 (D.P.R. Apr. 26, 2010). The Plaintiffs then brought a second suit that named additional defendants and causes of action, Padilla-Ruiz v. United States, 893 F.Supp.2d 301, 304 (D.P.R. 2012), apparently believing that the additional inclusions would remedy the venue problem. See id. It did not, and the second Puerto Rico suit was dismissed. Id. Now, the Plaintiffs face a different adjudicative barrier: whether the relevant statutes of limitations expired before October 26, 2016, when the Plaintiffs filed the present Complaint, and whether the Plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to support violations of Puerto Rico law.

         In this regard, there were two issues presented to the magistrate judge that are relevant here: (1) whether the Plaintiffs' USERRA claim is time-barred pursuant to the applicable statute of limitations; and (2) whether the Plaintiffs have stated a cause of action under Puerto Rico labor or tort law. Def.'s Suppl. Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss and Obj . R&R at 9-13, ECF No. 42 ("Def.'s Suppl. Mem."). First, the magistrate judge, citing Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 835-36 (4th Cir. 2013), found that USERRA's four (4) year limitations period had lapsed before commencement of the instant action for two reasons: (1) the Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 ("VBIA"), Pub. L. No. 110-389, 122 Stat. 4145, 4163 (codified at 38 U.S.C. § 4327), effective October 10, 2008, which amended USERRA by eliminating the four (4) year statute of limitations, did not apply retroactively; and (2) equitable tolling was not justified. R&R at 10-13. The magistrate judge also noted the Plaintiffs' stipulation that their USERRA claim would be subject to the four (4) year limitations period. Id. at 10.

         Second, the magistrate judge found that the Plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to state a claim under Puerto Rico labor law. Id. at 16-18.[2] Because the magistrate judge found a cause of action available under Puerto Rico labor law, he concluded that the Plaintiffs could not proceed on their tort claim based on the same conduct. Id. at 18 ("[W]hen a specific labor or employment law covers the type of conduct for which a plaintiff seeks relief, []he is barred from also bringing a [tort] claim . . . based on the same alleged conduct." (quoting Franceschi-Vazquez v. CVS Pharmacy, 183 F.Supp.3d 333, 344 (D.P.R. 2016))). After making his recommendations, the magistrate judge informed the parties of their right to have the R&R reviewed by filing timely objections and the consequences of failing to adhere to that procedure.

         COMtek timely filed an objection to the finding that the Puerto Rico labor law claim could proceed, arguing that Mr. Padilla-Ruiz was not a member of a protected class at the time of termination, or alternatively, that the one (1) year limitations period for the labor law claim had expired. Obj . at 2-4. The Plaintiffs only responded to COMtek's objection and did not make any objections of their own. See Obj. Reply.


         A. Puerto Rico Labor Law Claim

         Mr. Padilla-Ruiz was terminated on August 13, 2008, after being allegedly discriminated against due to his status as an active duty servicemember. Compl. ¶¶ 15, 30. Puerto Rico has categorized servicemembers as a protected class; as such, an individual may not be discriminated against because of such status. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 146. Though the magistrate judge noted that, under the laws of Puerto Rico, servicemembers became a protected class in 2012, he did not address whether this law had retroactive effect to Mr. Padilla-Ruiz, who was terminated approximately four (4) years prior to the law's enactment. See ...

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