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Viette v. Hospitality Staffing Inc.

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

June 5, 2013

ELPHEGE VIETTE Plaintiff,
v.
HOSPITALITY STAFFING INC., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

VIRGINIA M. KENDALL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Elphege Viette filed a four-count complaint against Defendant Hospitality Staffing, Inc. ("Hospitality") alleging that Hospitality violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by discriminating against him due to his race and by retaliating against him for engaging in activity protected by these statutes. Hospitality has moved for summary judgment on all of Viette's claims. For the reasons set forth below, Hospitality's motion is granted.

STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED FACTS[1]

Hospitality hired Viette in August 2004 as a shuttle bus driver but terminated him on December 1, 2010. (Def. 56. 1 ¶¶ 4-5.) On December 6th and then again on December 8, 2010, Viette filed charges of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights ("IDHR"), which were then cross-filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. ( Id. at ¶¶ 6-7.) Viette alleged that Hospitality discriminated against him as a result of his race, age and national origin. ( Id. ) He received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC on May 30, 2012. ( Id. at ¶ 8.)

On May 20, 2011, Viette filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois. ( Id. at ¶ 10; see also In re Elphege Viette, No. 11-21394 (Bankr. N.D.Ill. 2011)). Viette was represented by an attorney during this bankruptcy proceeding. ( Id. ) As part of his petition, Viette included schedules listing contingent and unliquidated claims he possessed at the time of filing. ( Id. at ¶ 11.) He also submitted a statement listing the lawsuits and administrative proceedings to which he was a party during the prior year. ( Id. at ¶ 12.) However, Viette never disclosed his charges of discrimination and the existence of the claims he now asserts against Hospitality to either the Bankruptcy court, the United States Trustee or to his creditors. ( Id. at ¶¶ 13, 16.) On September 9, 2011, the Bankruptcy court entered an order discharging Viette's unsecured debts. ( Id. at ¶ 14.) The court closed the bankruptcy case on September 12, 2011. ( Id. at ¶ 15.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P 56(c). When determining if a genuine issue of fact exists, the Court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing the motion. Bennington v. Caterpillar Inc., 275 F.3d 654, 658 (7th Cir. 2001); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). However, the Court will "limit its analysis of the facts on summary judgment to evidence that is properly identified and supported in the parties' [Local Rule 56.1] statement." Bordelon v. Chicago Sch. Reform Bd. of Trustees, 233 F.3d 524, 529 (7th Cir. 2000). Where a proposed statement of fact is supported by the record and not adequately rebutted, the court will accept that statement as true for purposes of summary judgment. An adequate rebuttal requires a citation to specific support in the record; an unsubstantiated denial is not adequate. See Drake v. Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co., 134 F.3d 878, 887 (7th Cir. 1998) ("Rule 56 demands something more specific than the bald assertion of the general truth of a particular matter[;] rather it requires affidavits that cite specific concrete facts establishing the existence of the truth of the matter asserted.")(citing Hadley v. County of Du Page, 715 F.2d 1238, 1243 (7th Cir. 1983)). Rebuttals based purely on "self-serving affidavits without factual support in the record will not defeat a motion for summary judgment." Albiero v. City of Kankakee, 246 F.3d 927, 933 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing Slowiak v. Land O'Lakes, Inc., 987 F.2d 1293, 1295 (7th Cir.1993)).

DISCUSSION

I. Viette Lacks Standing Because His Claims Are Property of the Bankruptcy Estate

Hospitality argues that the Court should enter summary judgment in its favor because Viette lacks standing to bring this lawsuit as the claims are the property of his Chapter 7 bankruptcy estate. A plaintiff must have standing in order for the Court to entertain their suit. See Apex Digital, Inc. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 572 F.3d 440, 443 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975)). When a debtor files a bankruptcy petition, generally all of his or her property becomes property of the estate. See Matter of Yonikus, 996 F.2d 866, 869 (7th Cir. 1993). The Bankruptcy Code defines property to include all of the debtor's legal and equitable interests. See 11 U.S.C. § 541; see also Yonikus, 996 F.2d at 869. This includes causes of action. See In re Polis, 217 F.3d 899, 901 (7th Cir. 2000). Therefore, once a party files a Chapter 7 petition, only the trustee for the bankruptcy estate has the capacity to sue or be sued. See Cable v. Ivy Tech State College, 200 F.3d 467, 472 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing In re New Era, Inc., 135 F.3d 1206, 1209 (7th Cir. 1998)).

The only way that a debtor can then assert a claim in their own name that arose prior to the filing of the petition is if the trustee abandons the debtor's claims. If this happens, title to the claim reverts to the debtor as if the debtor "had owned them continuously and the bankruptcy never happened." Matthews v. Potter, 316 Fed.Appx. 518, 521-22 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Collier on Bankruptcy, ¶ 554.02 (Alan N. Resnick & Henry J. Sommer eds., 16th ed.)); see also 11 U.S.C. § 554. However, abandonment cannot occur if the debtor fails to disclose the claim to the trustee.

In this case, there is no dispute that Viette filed a Chapter 7 petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois on May 20, 2011. There is no dispute that his claims accrued prior to the time he filed his petition. Finally, there is no dispute that Viette failed to disclose the existence of the claims he asserts here to the Bankruptcy court and the trustee. Accordingly, Viette has no standing to assert this lawsuit.

II. The Doctrine of Judicial Estoppel Precludes Viette's Claims

Viette concedes that he currently lacks standing to prosecute this lawsuit; however, he contends that the Court should stay the case so that he may petition the Bankruptcy court to reopen his case, amend his schedules and then pursue this case in the event the trustee abandons the claims. However, even if this scenario were ever to come to pass, Viette's claims are still precluded by the doctrine of judicial estoppel. This equitable doctrine "prevents a party from adopting a position in a legal proceeding contrary to a position successfully argued in an earlier legal proceeding." Johnson v. ExxonMobil Corp., 426 F.3d 887, 891 (7th Cir. 2005). The Seventh Circuit has repeatedly stated that the doctrine precludes a "debtor in bankruptcy who denies owning an asset, including a chose in action or other legal claim, [from] realiz[ing] on that concealed asset after the bankruptcy ends." Cannon-Stokes v. Potter, 453 F.3d 446, 448 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Biesek v. Soo Line R.R. Co., 440 F.3d 410, 412 (7th Cir. 2006) ("Plenty of authority ...


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