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Family Dollar Stores of Rhode Island, Inc. v. Araujo

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 11, 2019

Family Dollar Stores of Rhode Island, Inc.
Justin B. Araujo et al.

          Providence County PC 16-1113 Superior Court Associate Justice Richard A. Licht

          For Plaintiff: John D. Doran, Esq. Eric B. Mack, Esq.

          For Defendants: Richard A. Sinapi, Esq. Danilo A. Borgas, Esq. Francis A. Gaschen, Esq. Marissa Janton, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          William P. Robinson III Justice.

         The plaintiff, Family Dollar Stores of Rhode Island, Inc. (Family Dollar), appeals from a September 20, 2016 judgment entered in Providence County Superior Court in favor of the defendants, Justin B. Araujo and the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights (the Commission), following an August 16, 2016 bench decision dismissing Family Dollar's case without prejudice. Family Dollar argues on appeal that the hearing justice erred in dismissing its case because, as it contends, "the dispute involved declaratory relief related to the enforcement of a contract" and that, therefore, "the Superior Court was the correct forum for the dispute."

         Both defendants cross-appeal from a November 9, 2016 order granting Family Dollar's emergency motion for a thirty-day extension of time within which to file its notice of appeal. The defendants contend on appeal that "the Superior Court erred in granting Family Dollar's motion for extension of time" for the following reasons: (1) "Family Dollar did not make the requisite showing of excusable neglect;" and (2) "the equities did not favor granting Family Dollar's motion for extension because Family Dollar would not suffer prejudice by a denial of [that motion]."

         This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After a close review of the record and careful consideration of the parties' arguments (both written and oral), we are satisfied that cause has not been shown and that these appeals may be decided at this time.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the September 20, 2016 judgment of the Superior Court. With respect to the cross-appeal, we affirm the November 9, 2016 order of the Superior Court.


         Facts and Travel

         The sequence of events which forms the basis of this action is not in dispute to any significant degree. In setting forth those events, we rely on the August 16, 2016 and November 9, 2016 bench decisions of the hearing justice and other documents contained in the record before this Court.

         According to Family Dollar's complaint, it hired Mr. Araujo on or about June 12, 2007 as a Customer Service Representative/Clerk. Family Dollar states in its memorandum submitted pursuant to Article I, Rule 12A of the Supreme Court Rules of Appellate Procedure that Mr. Araujo was employed with Family Dollar until February 12, 2014. On September 23, 2014, Mr. Araujo and Family Dollar entered into a settlement agreement to resolve a workers' compensation claim that had been filed by Mr. Araujo. That settlement agreement included the following very pertinent release language:

"This release waives any other claims I could make against my employer, its agents, assigns, or successors, including, but not limited to, claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claims with the Rhode Island Governor's Commission on the Handicapped, Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, FETA, United States Department of Labor, United States Department of Justice, Workers' Compensation Court, or any other agencies, tribunals, commissions, or courts."

         As consideration for executing the settlement agreement, which includes the just-quoted release, Family Dollar paid Mr. Araujo the sum of twenty thousand dollars.

         On November 28, 2014, Mr. Araujo filed a charge of discrimination with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which he alleged that Family Dollar discriminated against him on the basis of a disability. (The defendants acknowledge that the focus or gravamen of that charge of discrimination was unrelated to the injury that was the subject of Mr. Araujo's workers' compensation claim that Mr. Araujo and Family Dollar settled, as described above.) That charge alleged that the final discriminatory act occurred on February 12, 2014-i.e., before Mr. Araujo signed the above-quoted release. On July 31, 2015, the Commission issued a finding of probable cause that Family Dollar and its district manager had engaged in disability discrimination in violation of the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act and the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities Act.

         In accordance with G.L. 1956 § 28-5-24.1(c), Family Dollar was then afforded the option of having the matter adjudicated in Superior Court, but it declined to pursue that course of action. Subsequently, on December 30, 2015, the Commission issued a complaint, and a hearing was scheduled. That hearing was later continued.

         On March 10, 2016, Family Dollar filed its complaint seeking a declaratory judgment to the effect that the parties had entered into a valid and enforceable settlement agreement releasing Family Dollar from the claims that Mr. Araujo asserted against it in his charge before the Commission and also alleging breach of contract. On April 15, 2016, Mr. Araujo filed a motion to dismiss the declaratory judgment and breach of contract action in Superior Court pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. Thereafter, on April 22, 2016, the Commission moved to intervene in the case pursuant to Rule 24 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. That motion was ultimately granted, and the Commission was added as an additional party to the case. On May 26, 2016, the Commission also filed a motion to dismiss the case. As the hearing justice so succinctly put it, defendants contended in their motions to dismiss that it would be "improper for the Court to exercise * * * jurisdiction in this case while the underlying matter at the center of the dispute is pending before the Commission;" indeed, the hearing justice stated that defendants were contending that "Family Dollar declined to have the matter adjudicated in the Superior Court * * * [and] must now exhaust its administrative remedies before seeking relief in court." On July 12, 2016, a hearing was held on those motions to dismiss.

         Subsequent to that July 12, 2016 hearing, the hearing justice issued a bench decision on August 16, 2016. In that decision, he noted that the release contained in the settlement agreement between Family Dollar and Mr. Araujo could be asserted as a defense before the Commission and that the Commission had "looked at similar releases in many, many cases * * *." He then pointed to the fact that, once the Commission had passed upon the validity vel non of the release, Family Dollar would have a right to an appeal to the Superior Court. In holding that "the proper forum for determining the validity of the release [was] before the Commission," the hearing justice cited to the potential for inconsistent results from different tribunals, and he added that "Family Dollar must exhaust all administrative remedies before proceeding to [the Superior Court]."

         The hearing justice further noted that Family Dollar could have had the matter removed from the Commission to the Superior Court pursuant to § 28-5-24.1(c), but it did not do so. Finally, he opined as follows:

"Our general tendency, like that of most American courts, has been to require [parties] to stay on the dispute resolution path for which they originally opted until they reach the end of that path. In this case this matter has progressed to the point where there was to be a hearing on this matter. Given that the parties are this far along in the process before the Commission, it is appropriate to require the parties to complete that process."

         The hearing justice then granted, without prejudice, defendants' motions to dismiss. That decision was reflected in an order entered on September 20, 2016. A judgment also entered on that same day, entering judgment in favor of defendants and against Family Dollar on all counts of its complaint. It is from that judgment that Family Dollar is appealing.

         We next turn our attention to the facts forming the basis of the cross-appeal. Those pertinent facts relate to events occurring after the August 16, 2016 bench decision of the hearing justice. At some point following that bench decision, but prior to September 7, 2016, copies of the order and the judgment reflecting the decision to dismiss Family Dollar's case, both of which were ultimately entered on September 20, 2016, were filed with the court for the hearing justice's review and signature. According to the representations made by Family Dollar's counsel before the Superior Court and before this Court, on September 7, 2016, Family Dollar's counsel called the court to inquire whether the order and the judgment had been signed by the hearing justice and entered in the docket, and he was told that they were still pending. (Knowing the date of entry of the judgment and order in this case was of special pertinence to Family Dollar because the entry of a final order or judgment triggers the twenty-day period within which a party must file its notice of appeal as provided for in Article I, Rule 4(a) of the Supreme Court Rules of Appellate Procedure.) Family Dollar's counsel represented, in an affidavit provided to the Superior Court with his eventual motion for an extension of time to file the notice of appeal, that he had contacted the clerk's office on one other occasion in either late September or early October, but that he could not recall the exact date. He further represented to the Superior Court that he then sent an email message to the hearing justice's clerk on October 19, 2016 for the same purpose. It was his representation that he subsequently emailed the hearing justice's clerk again on October 31, 2016 and that that was the first time he was informed that the order and judgment had entered on September 20, 2016. At that point, Family Dollar had missed the twenty-day period in which to appeal the judgment of the Superior Court to this Court.

         For that reason, on November 3, 2016, Family Dollar filed an emergency motion for a thirty-day extension of the time within which to file its notice of appeal pursuant to Rule 4(a). A hearing was held on that motion on November 9, 2016.

         During that hearing, counsel for Family Dollar argued that his failure to file a notice of appeal on behalf of Family Dollar within the prescribed twenty-day period was the result of excusable neglect due to the fact that he did not know that the judgment he intended to appeal from had been entered on September 20, 2016. He represented that he had received numerous notifications through the Superior Court's electronic filing system in the course of the case but that he had received no such notification when the order and the judgment entered. He acknowledged that he had eventually come to understand that, "if the Court files something and it's submitted and accepted, I don't get a * * * notification * * *." However, he ...

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