Prior Release Bars Plaintiff’s Claims Against Railroad Defendant

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Plaintiff Leopoldo Mendoza-Gomez worked for 20 years as a laborer for the defendant, Union Pacific Railroad Company. He alleges that, while working for Union, he was exposed to various toxic substances including asbestos, and that he was diagnosed with cancer and asbestosis in 2019. In response to his filing of a federal lawsuit, Union asserted that the plaintiff’s claims were barred due to a release that the parties entered into in 2012. In that release, the plaintiff specifically accepted the settlement amount as “full and complete compromise of any and all Claims which have accrued or which may hereafter accrue in favor of [Mendoza-Gomez] and against [Union] as a result of [Mendoza-Gomez’s] alleged illnesses, injuries, cancers, future cancers, diseases, and/or death, or any fears or psychological disorders relating to contracting same, as a result of Alleged Exposures while [Mendoza-Gomez] was employed by [Union].” That release was signed by the plaintiff and his wife.

The plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings, and Union moved for summary judgment based on this release. The district court held that because the plaintiff was a party to the release agreement and the agreement related to the claims asserted in his complaint, he had fair notice of what was encompassed in Union’s affirmative defense of release. The district court concluded that Union had sufficiently pled the affirmative defense of release and denied the plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. With respect to Union’s motion for summary judgment, the district court determined that the plain language of the release barred all of the plaintiff’s claims and granted summary judgment in favor of Union. The plaintiff appealed this decision.

The court reviewed the applicable standard of review for the motions at issue. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that Union waived the affirmative defense of release by failing to provide fair notice of the defense in its answer to the motion for judgment on the pleadings; that Union failed to establish all of the elements of its affirmative defense of release, and that the release is void under § 5 of FELA. The court considered each argument in turn.

While affirmative defenses must generally be raised in the first responsive pleading, technical failure to comply with this requirement of Rule 8(c) is not fatal where the matter is raised “in a manner that does not result in unfair surprise.” Pasco v. Knoblauch, 566 F.3d 572, 577 (5th Cir. 2009); Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(c). The prior release is considered a contract under law, and because the plaintiff was undisputedly aware of it, his argument that he did not receive notice of the release or its contents is not supported. Further, the court summarily rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Union’s redaction of the settlement amount negated the release’s validity, as all evidence indicated that the plaintiff was well aware of the amount of the prior settlement.

Finally, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the release is void under § 5 of the FELA on grounds that the Act prohibits common carriers from exempting themselves from liability through contractual agreements. See 45 U.S.C. § 55. The court cited the Supreme Court for the proposition that a release “is not a device to exempt from liability but is a means of compromising a claimed liability and to that extent recognizing its possibility.” Callen v. Pa. R. Co., 332 U.S. 625, 631, 68 S. Ct. 296, 92 L. Ed. 242 (1948).

Ultimately, the appellate court agreed with the district court that the release constituted a valid and enforceable contract that bars the plaintiff’s present claims against Union in this suit, holding that the district court did not err in denying the plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Union.