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In re Tribune Media Co.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

June 16, 2017

IN RE TRIBUNE MEDIA COMPANY, et al., Reorganized Debtors.
v.
TRIBUNE MEDIA COMPANY, Appellee. KEITH YOUNGE, Appellant, . Bankruptcy No. 08-13141 (KJC)

          MEMORANDUM

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Presently before the court is the appeal (D.I. 1) of Keith Younge ("Younge" or "Appellant") from the March 18, 2016 Order and Memorandum Opinion (collectively, the "Order") of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware (the "Bankruptcy Court"). For the reasons that follow, the court will affirm the Bankruptcy Court's Order sustaining the Reorganized Debtors' ("the Debtors") Objection to Claim No. 3333.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The core of Younge's claim is that, due to an altercation with a coworker at WPHL-TV (the "Station"), he was subjected to a hostile work environment and unlawfully terminated because of his race. Younge was hired to work at the Station-a television station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that was owned by Tribune Television Company-on a 30-day probationary period. (Bankr. D.I. 13755 at 3). The Station hires a part-time summer relief technician to cover other technician's summer vacation schedules between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Id. at 20. Younge was attending training for the summer relief technician position three to four days per week. Id. On May 7, 2008, Younge was assigned to train with Rick Schultz from 10:00pm to 6:00am. Id.

         Rick Schultz was an Engineering Technician, hired by the Station on June 7, 1972. Id. at 57. According to Tribune Company's Senior Labor Counsel, Kathleen McCabe, the technicians are union organized-represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Number98. Id. at2O. While Schultz's performance reviews described him as "somewhat volatile and free, " they also mentioned his positive attributes: He "work[ed] well with others" and easily formed relationships with co-workers. Id. at 55-56. Schultz's personnel file indicated, however, that he had been in two prior altercations with co-workers. Id. at 60.

         On September 28, 2002, Schultz and Bill Groves got in an argument at work over union dues. Id. at 62. Shultz alleged that Groves threatened him during the argument. The Human Resources Department investigation of the incident could not corroborate Schultz claim's that Groves threatened him, but it did find that both parties used profane language during the altercation. Id. As a result, Schultz received a letter from the director of engineering at the Station warning him that his behavior violated the company's "Zero Tolerance Policy" and any further behavior of that kind could result in termination. Id. at 60.

         On June 29, 1993, Schultz got in an argument with a security guard at the Station, George Sample. Mat 58. On the night of June 29th, Schultz accidentally tripped a door alarm. Id. Sample was angry that Schultz activated the alarm and an altercation ensued. Id. From Schultz's letter in his personnel file, it appears that Sample accused Schultz of making a racist comment. Id. Schultz vehemently denied any racial animus, stating that "color has nothing to with improper behavior." Id. at 59. The letter regarding the 1993 incident was the only mention of discriminatory behavior in Schultz's personnel file before the altercation with Younge.

         The night of Younge's training with Schultz, the two got into an argument. Before Younge's training started, technician Steve Leff, told Younge that "Schultz has a problem." Id. When Younge asked if it the problem was with him, Leff replied: "No, he just has a problem." Id. At around 10:50pm, Schultz walked into the training room and said to Younge, "Hey, Spike, you want to get this off the table?" Id. Younge reported that Schultz was referring to Younge's briefcase on the table. Id. Younge, assuming that Schultz did not know his name, introduced himself to Schultz. Id. Schultz responded, "As far as [I] am concern[ed] you are Spike Lee." Id. Younge reported that Schultz made a number of other discriminatory and insulting comments to him and the situation escalated to a lot of yelling by both parties. Id. 3-4. Younge also admitted that some profanity was used. Id. at 37. Eventually, someone called a security officer and the situation diffused. Id. at 4.

         The next day, Younge called his supervisor, the Engineering Manager, and the Human Resources Department to report the incident. Id. at 4. According to Younge, he was told: "You should have never had to deal with that; we have had problems with Schultz before." Id. On May 8, 2008, Vincent Giannini, the Vice President and General Manager of the Station, learned about the incident between Schultz and Younge. (Bankr. D.I. 13715-3 at 4). Giannini spoke with the Human Resources Coordinator about the results of her investigation into the incident and he reviewed the video surveillance footage from the camera located outside of the training room where the altercation occurred. Id. Giannini decided that both men should be discharged. Id. at 6. On May 15, 2008, the Station sent letters to Younge and Schultz informing them of their

         III. JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court has appellate jurisdiction to hear all final orders and judgments from the Bankruptcy Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). In reviewing a case on appeal, this court reviews a Bankruptcy Court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo. Am. Flint Glass Workers Union v. Anchor Resolution Corp., 197 F.3d 76, 80 (3d Cir. 1999). Mixed questions of law and fact are subject to a "mixed standard of review." Mellon Bank, N.A. v. Metro Comm., Inc., 945 F.2d 635, 641-42 (3d Cir. 1991). Under this "mixed standard of review, " the appellate court accepts findings of "historical or narrative facts unless clearly erroneous, but exercise[s] plenary review of the trial court's choice and interpretation of legal precepts and its application of those precepts to historical facts." Id. at 642 (citation omitted).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Younge disputes the Bankruptcy Court's jurisdiction over his claims, the procedural rules it applied to his claims, and its decision on the merits of his claims. After careful review of the record on appeal, the parties' arguments, the Bankruptcy Court's order, and the applicable law, the court has distilled the core questions it must answer: Did Younge waive his objection to the bankruptcy court's authority to enter final judgment on his proof of claim and the objection to it? If he did, therefore making the claim and the objection to it a core proceeding-as the Bankruptcy Court found-was this the type of core proceeding where the Bankruptcy Court had the statutory authority to finally adjudicate the claim, it lacked the constitutional power to do so? And if it was a core proceeding where the Bankruptcy Court could constitutionally enter final judgment, was it correct in sustaining the Debtors' objection to Younge's claim? At the expense of suspense, the court answers those questions as follows: yes, no, and yes. termination. (Bankr. D.I. 13755 at 66-67). The letters stated that they were terminated for violating the Station's Code of Conduct and Anti-Harassment policies. Id.; see Id. at 28-29, 30 (Anti-Harassment and Standards of Conduct and Corrective Action policies).

         On June 9, 2008, Younge filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations ("PCHR"). Id. at 1. Younge's complaint was also forwarded to the Philadelphia District Office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Id. at 8. The EEOC sent Younge a letter stating that they would refrain from processing the charge until the PCHR completed its investigation into the issue. (Bankr. D.I. 13755 at 8).

         On December 8, 2008, Tribune Company and certain of its affiliates (the "Debtors"), filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy petitions in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. (Bankr. D.I. 1). On June 1, 2009, Younge filed his proof of claim for $75, 000. (Bankr. D.I. 13755 at 70-71). Thereafter, the Bankruptcy Court entered the Order confirming the Fourth Amended Joint Plan of Reorganization for Tribune Company and its Subsidiaries. (Bankr. D.I. 12074). The Plan became effective on December 31, 2012. (Bankr. D.I. 12939). On September 6, 2013, the Debtors filed an objection to Younge's Proof of Claim. (Bankr. D.I. 13715). Younge filed a response and the Debtors filed a reply. (Bankr. D.I. 13755). After a hearing, (Bankr. D.I. 20-1), the Bankruptcy Court allowed Younge to file a Supplemental Response, which he did on August 21, 2014. (Bankr. D.I. 13951). The Debtors then filed another reply on September 5, 2014. (Bankr. D.I. 13963). At the end of me hearing, the Bankruptcy Court indicated that it might decide Younge's claim as a matter of law. (Bankr. D.I. 20-1). After receiving Younge's Supplemental Response and the Debtors' reply to it, the Bankruptcy Court issued an order on March 18, 2016, denying Younge's claim. (D.I. 1-1).

         A. Waiver and Forfeiture

         Younge argues that the decision to allow or deny his claim should not have been classified as a "core" proceeding" under 28 U.S.C. § 157(b)(2)(B). Younge correctly contends that § 157(b)(2)(B) "expressly excludes 'unliquidated personal injury tort. . . claims' from bankruptcy jurisdiction." (D.I. 19 at 1). According to Younge, his hostile work environment and unlawful termination claims are considered personal injury claims in this context. Id. at 2. Younge argues, therefore, that under 28 U.S.C § 157(b)(5), the Bankruptcy Court lacked jurisdiction to hear his claims-the claims had to be heard by this court or the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Id. The court disagrees.

         In 1984, Congress revised bankruptcy jurisdiction, providing that "the district courts shall have original but not exclusive jurisdiction of all civil proceedings arising under title 11 > or arising in or related to cases under title 11." Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984, H.R. 5174, 98th Cong. § 1334(b) (1984). Each district court was then given the ability to refer all bankruptcy cases to the bankruptcy courts. 28 U.S.C. § 157(a). In essence, bankruptcy courts became units of the district courts with jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases, civil proceedings arising in and under title 11, and matters relating to cases under title 11. See Id. § 151.

         The jurisdiction conferred upon the bankruptcy courts is quite broad. According to the statute, Bankruptcy judges may enter orders and judgments on "all cases under title 11 and all core proceedings arising under title 11, or arising in a case under title 11." § 157(b)(1). The bankruptcy judge must determine whether a proceeding qualifies as "core" or whether the proceeding is "otherwise related to a case under title 11.'" § 157(b)(3). For non-core proceedings, the bankruptcy judge submits proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the district court which will then enter final judgment. § 157(c)(1).

         It is axiomatic that "by. filing a claim against a bankruptcy estate, the creditor triggers the process of 'allowance and disallowance of claims, ' thereby subjecting himself to the court's equitable power." Langenkamp v. Culp, 498 U.S. 42, 44 (1990). While the "allowance or disallowance of claims against the estate" are explicitly defined as "core proceedings" under 28 U.S.C. § 157, the "liquidation or estimation of contingent or unliquidated personal injury tort or wrongful death claims against the estate for proposes of distribution" are excepted from that definition. 28 U.S.C. § 157(b)(2)(B). For personal injury tort or wrongful death claims, "the district court shall order" that those claims be "tried in the district court in which the bankruptcy case is pending, or in the district court in the district in which the claim arose." Id. § 157(b)(5).

         The term "personal injury tort claim" is not expressly defined in Title 28 or Title 11. Different districts have taken different approaches to the term's meaning and scope. Courts adopting the "narrow view" define a personal injury tort claim as requiring actual physical injury. In re Cohen,107 B.R. 453, 455 (S.D.N.Y. 1989). Courts adopting the "broad view" find that personal injury tort claims "embrace [] a broad category of private or civil wrongs or injuries for which a court provides a remedy in the form of an action for damages." In re Boyer,93 B.R. 313, 317 (Bankr. N.D.N.Y. 1988). Some courts have declined to adopt either view; they choose instead to define personal injury tort claims under the broad view, but allow certain claims-"workplace claims which might constitute financial, ...


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