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Morgan v. Chao

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 28, 2017

Gerald Morgan, Plaintiff,
Elaine Chao, Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation, Defendant.


          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Gerald Morgan works for the Federal Aviation Administration as an airway systems specialist. He has filed a complaint against Defendant Secretary of Transportation asserting Title VII race discrimination and retaliation claims. (Doc. 1.) The complaint purports to seek damages for injuries Plaintiff sustained in a car accident while driving to work. (Id. ¶¶ 62, 100.)

         Defendant has filed a motion to dismiss the Title VII claims to the extent they arise from Plaintiff's car accident and to strike Plaintiff's orthopedic expert witness. (Doc. 28.) The motion is fully briefed. (Docs. 35, 37.) Neither side has requested oral argument. For reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleges that he was falsely accused of harassing an African-American coworker who claimed that Plaintiff was a racist and that he suffered various adverse employment actions because of his race. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 25-26, 36-38, 90-91.) In the fall of 2012, Plaintiff complained of discrimination to an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor. (¶ 4.) Plaintiff alleges that after his supervisors learned about the complaint, he was reassigned from his work location at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport to the Tucson International Airport. (¶¶ 53-57.)

         On February 19, 2013, Plaintiff was injured in a car accident while commuting to Tucson in his government vehicle and missed more than a month of work due to his injuries. (¶ 62.) Plaintiff claims that but for the alleged retaliatory change in work location, he would not have been traveling to Tucson on the day of the accident. (¶ 100.) Plaintiff has identified the treating physician, Dr. Mark Sullivan, as an expert witness who will testify about the causation and extent of Plaintiff's accident-related injuries. (Doc. 28-1 at 3-6.)

         Defendant argues that any claim for accident-related injuries fails for lack of proximate cause and is barred under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA), 5 U.S.C. § 8101 et seq., which provides the exclusive remedy for on-the-job injuries sustained by federal employees. (Doc. 28 at 4-7.) The Court agrees.

         II. Title VII Violations Did Not Proximately Cause Plaintiff's Accident Injuries

         “The term ‘proximate cause' is shorthand for a concept: Injuries have countless causes, and not all should give rise to legal liability.” CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride, 564 U.S. 685, 693 (2011). Whether a defendant's misconduct “is a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury entails a judgment, at least in part policy based, as to how far down the chain of consequences a defendant should be held responsible for its wrongdoing.” Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Sorrell, 549 U.S. 158, 178 (2007). “The traditional principle of proximate cause suggests the use of words such as ‘remote, ' ‘tenuous, ' ‘fortuitous, ' ‘incidental, ' or ‘consequential' to describe those injuries that will find no remedy at law.” Blue Shield of Va. v. McCready, 457 U.S. 465, 477 n.13 (1982). As explained in Palsgraf, a landmark case in American tort law, “but for” causation has its legal, if not logical, limits:

[W]hen injuries do result from our unlawful act, we are liable for the consequences. It does not matter that they are unusual, unexpected, unforeseen, and unforeseeable. But there is one limitation. The damages must be so connected with the negligence that the latter may be said to be the proximate cause of the former. . . . What we do mean by the word ‘proximate' is, that because of convenience, of public policy, of a rough sense of justice, the law arbitrarily declines to trace a series of events beyond a certain point. This is not logic. It is practical politics. . . . We may regret that the line was drawn just where it was, but drawn somewhere it had to be.

Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co., 162 N.E. 99, 103-04 (N.Y. 1928) (Andrews, J., dissenting).

         The Court has little difficulty in concluding that the line of proximate causation in this case must be drawn at a point where Defendant has no legal liability under Title VII for injuries sustained in a car accident undisputedly caused by the negligence of an unrelated third party. (See Doc. 28-1 at 36-40 (Arizona Crash Report).) Plaintiff asserts that “but for Defendant's actions, [he] never would have been in position to be rear-ended that day.” (Doc. 35 at 8.) But proximate cause requires “some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged, ” Staub v. Proctor Hospital, 562 U.S. 411, 419 (2011), or at least “indirect consequences that are foreseeable, ” Hemi Group, LLC v. City of New York, 559 U.S. 1, 25 (2010) (Breyer, J., dissenting).

         In this case, there is no direct relation between the alleged Title VII violations and the car accident, and this is true even if, as Plaintiff notes, a person driving more miles has a greater chance of being involved in an accident. (Doc. 35 at 8.) Although auto accidents are commonplace and the chance of having one is greater the more one drives, the accident in this case was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Defendant's alleged misconduct - that is, discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII. Rather, the negligence of the other driver was a superseding cause of Plaintiff's accident-related injuries for which Defendant simply cannot be held liable. See Staub, 562 U.S. at 420 (a cause is deemed to be “superseding” where it is a “cause of independent origin that was not foreseeable”).

         In short, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claim for damages arising from the car accident is so remote and attenuated from the alleged Title VII misconduct that it must be dismissed for lack of proximate causation. See Stepper v. England, 14 Fed.Appx. 859, 860 (9th Cir. 2001) (finding that the causal nexus between plaintiff's knee injury suffered at a navy shipyard and the alleged shipyard's discriminatory conduct was too attenuated to warrant damages and ...

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