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Rodriguez-Densley v. United States

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

July 16, 2018

CHRISTINA RODRIGUEZ-DENSLEY and WILLIE DENSLEY, Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant

          ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          TILMAN E. SELF, III, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Before the Court for consideration is a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 20] filed by the United States of America. Defendant argues that the United States, as an allegedly vicariously liable employer, effectively merged with its employee to form a single tortfeasor under Georgia law so that Plaintiffs' release of its employee released the United States. See generally [Doc. 20-3]. After consideration of the arguments presented by both parties, the Court rules as follows:

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case are straightforward.[1] Joseph Lee Phillips, a United States Postal Service employee, and Plaintiff Christina Rodriguez-Densley, had a car accident. [Doc. 1, at ¶¶ 5-9]; [Doc. 8, at ¶¶ 5-7]; see also [Doc. 20-1, at ¶ 1]. Plaintiffs allege that Phillips is at fault for the injuries Rodriguez-Densley sustained as a result of the accident, for which she and her husband now sue Philips' employer-the United States of America, under the sole theory of vicarious liability. [Doc. 1, at ¶ 13].

         At the time of the accident, Phillips, while in the course and scope of his employment as an employee of the United States Postal Service, [2] was driving a “tan 2000 Chevrolet truck” [Doc. 1, at ¶¶ 6-7]; [Doc. 8, at ¶¶ 6-7], and carried personal automobile insurance through Georgia Farm Bureau. See [Doc. 20-2, at ¶ 1]. Plaintiffs made a claim for damages arising from the accident and ultimately settled with Phillips. See generally [id.]. As a part of the settlement, Plaintiffs executed a Limited Liability Release discharging Plaintiffs' claims against Phillips and Georgia Farm Bureau for the consideration of $100, 000.00. [Id. at ¶ 1]. This case turns on the interpretation of this See [Doc. 20-2]. (“Release”) portion of the Release:

This Limited Release shall not operate as a release of any other persons of entities not specifically named herein and shall not operate as a release of the undersigned's claims against any other tortfeasor or insurance carrier not named herein. . . . The parties hereto agree that the consideration paid to Releasors does not fully compensate them for their injuries.

See [Doc. 20-2].

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD[3]

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” In this case, there are no disputed questions of material fact, therefore the only question before the Court is a question of law. If the Court agrees with Defendant's argument that Plaintiffs' release of its employee releases the United States, then this case is over. Conversely, if the Court disagrees, then the Plaintiffs' vicarious liability claims against the government will proceed. Therefore, the decisive issue for determination is dispositive in nature and clearly a question of law.

         III. DISCUSSION

         When reviewing these types of issues, the Court must look to the law of the state in which the district court sits. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1).[4] Three other circuit court decisions take this direction, looking to local law to determine the effect, as to a successor FTCA action against the United States, of a release provided by a government employee whose allegedly negligent operation of a motor vehicle resulted in prior litigation. See Scoggin v. United States, 444 F.2d 74, 74-75 (10th Cir. 1971) (per curiam) (no claim against the United States under Oklahoma law); Land v. United States, 342 F.2d 785, 786 (10th Cir. 1965) (per curiam) (same); Bacon v. United States, 321 F.2d 880, 883-84 (8th Cir. 1963) (no claim against United States under Missouri law). “This accords with the general rule . . . that the legal effect of a release upon the government's FTCA liability is to be determined by local law, following the mandate of § 1346(b).” Branch v. United States, 979 F.2d 948, 951 (2d. Cir 1992). In its brief, Defendant concedes that there is no Eleventh Circuit interpretation of Georgia law on the narrow question currently presented to the Court.

         However, in opposition to Defendant's Motion [Doc. 20], Plaintiff cites to the Georgia Supreme Court case of Miller v. Grand Union Co. 512 S.E.2d 887 (Ga. 1999). Miller involved a security company, Grand Union Company, who employed two individuals as security guards at one of its retail stores. Id. at 887. One security guard purportedly observed shoplifting by Plaintiff Miller. Id. Eventually, the shoplifting charges against Miller were nolle prossed because of an exculpatory affidavit given by the security guard. Id. In exchange for the affidavit, Miller executed a covenant not to sue the security guard, but instead, she sued Grand Union for false imprisonment, assault, and battery based on a theory of vicarious liability. Id.

         The Georgia Supreme Court, in Miller, concluded that “the execution of a covenant not to sue or a release in favor of an employee does not discharge an employer who is alleged to be vicariously liable[5] for the tortious acts or omissions of that employee, unless the instrument names the employer.” Id. at 888 (emphasis added). The Georgia Supreme Court took extra efforts to ensure the clarity and strength of Miller's holding by expressly overruling Posey v. Med. Ctr.-W., Inc., 354 S.E.2d 417 (Ga. 1987) and Harris v. Hanna Creative Enter., 430 S.E.2d 846 (Ga. 1993). In its penultimate paragraph, the court stated, “To the extent that Harris v. Hanna Creative Enterprises, [] or any other case suggests that a release which names only the employee has the effect of also releasing the employer from liability, such a holding is premised upon a misinterpretation of Posey and is hereby specifically overruled.” Id. at 888-89 (signal omitted).

         In this case, the Release does not expressly name Phillips' employer, the United States Postal Service, i.e., the United States itself.[6] For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 20] ...


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