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GUTIERREZ v. JOHNSON & JOHNSON

April 11, 2005.

Nilda GUTIERREZ, Linda MORGAN, Wayne BROWN and Krista MARSHALL, Plaintiffs,
v.
JOHNSON & JOHNSON, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WILLIAM H. WALLS, District Judge

OPINION

Defendant Johnson & Johnson ("J&J") appeals Special Master Politan's ("Judge Politan") December 8, 2004 decision granting plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint to extend the proposed class period back two years to November 15, 1997. The Court heard oral arguments on this appeal on April 11, 2005. Defendant's motion is denied.

Facts and Procedural History

  Plaintiffs filed this class action in November 2001, seeking to certify a class of approximately 8,000 current and former African-American and Hispanic employees of J&J who allegedly suffered discrimination in compensation and promotion. The original putative class was defined as:

  all persons of African and/or Hispanic descent employed by Defendant J&J in permanent salaried positions (exempt and non-exempt) in the United States at any time from November 15, 1999[.] In August 2004, plaintiffs sought leave to amend their complaint. Among other things, plaintiffs sought to expand the putative class period by two years to begin from November 15, 1997 for all its 42 U.S.C. § 1981 claims based on the Supreme Court's decision in Jones v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Co., 541 U.S. 369 (2004), which extended the statute of limitations for certain § 1981 claims to four years. When plaintiffs filed this suit in 2001, the accepted period of limitations for § 1981 claims in the Third Circuit was two years. See Zubi v. AT&T Corp., 219 F.3d 220 (3d Cir. 2000). Based on Jones, Judge Politan allowed plaintiffs to expand the putative class period by two years. Although claims arising from 1997 to 1999 would not be timely today even under the 4-year statute of limitation, Judge Politan found that these claims "related back" to the original claims under Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(2).

  The parties have engaged in substantial discovery since 2001 based on the understanding that plaintiffs' claims only extend to actions taken after November 1999. However, because plaintiffs seek to prove a "pattern and practice" of discrimination at J&J, many of their discovery requests sought documents relevant to periods before the beginning of the proposed class period.

  Legal Standard

  The Federal Magistrates Act provides two separate standards of judicial review: (1) "de novo" for magistrate resolution of dispositive matters, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B)-(C), and (2) "clearly erroneous or contrary to law" for magistrate resolution of nondispositive matters. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); Fed.R. Civ. P. 72(a); Rule 72.1(a) of the Local Rules of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey; Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 785 F.2d 1108 (3d Cir. 1986). "Motions to amend are usually considered non-dispositive motions" are and reversed if the magistrate's decision is "clearly erroneous or contrary to the law." Thomas v. Ford Motor Co., 137 F.Supp.2d 575, 579 (D.N.J. 2001).

  A finding is contrary to law if the magistrate judge has misinterpreted or misapplied applicable law. "A finding is `clearly erroneous' when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on consideration of the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Lo Bosco v. Kure Engineering Ltd., 891 F.Supp. 1035, 1037 (D.N.J. 1995) (quoting United States v. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)).

  The Third Circuit has interpreted this to mean that the appellate court must accept the factual determination of the fact finder unless that determination "either (1) is completely devoid of minimum evidentiary support displaying some hue of credibility, or (2) bears no rational relationship to the supportive evidentiary data." Haines v. Liggett Group Inc., 975 F.2d 81, 92 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Krasnov v. Dinan, 465 F.2d 1298, 1302 (3d Cir. 1972)).

  Pursuant to a consent order dated July 19, 2002, Special Master Politan has the "authority equivalent to that of a magistrate judge."

  Discussion

  Under Rule 15, an amendment "relates back" if "the claim or defense asserted in the amended pleading arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth or attempted to be set forth in the original pleading, . . ." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(2). In the Third Circuit, the "critical element" is whether the defendant was on notice of the possibility of subsequent amendments at the time of the original filing. See Pickens v. Intercommunity Agency, Inc., 1997 WL 727604, *8 (E.D.Pa. Nov. 21, 1997). J&J argues that it was not on notice that plaintiffs' claims could extend back to 1997, and based on the Third Circuit law at the time, it is entitled to repose regarding any earlier claims. Plaintiffs argue that potential class members should not be punished by the Third Circuit's erroneous interpretation of the law, and that J&J will not be unduly burdened by the amendment because much of the discovery done so far already encompasses the 1997-1999 time period, the trial is still several years away, and adding additional plaintiffs to this already large class action will not significantly alter the course of the litigation.

  Judge Politan found that the amendment did relate back because J&J was on notice, from the time the original complaint was filed, that its conduct dating back to 1997 was at issue in this suit. Plaintiffs alleged a "pattern and practice" of discrimination at J&J, and although they could only bring claims for conduct occurring within the 2-year statute of limitations at the time, they sought discovery regarding conduct from the earlier period in order to prove a pattern. Plaintiffs' original pleadings contain several allegations of discriminatory conduct that occurred in 1997. See Plaintiffs' Brief at p. 12. Judge Politan found that J&J was on notice that its ...


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