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Wanda Collier v. Turner Industries Group

June 22, 2011

WANDA COLLIER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TURNER INDUSTRIES GROUP, L.L.C., A LOUISIANA LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY;
DAVID EASTRIDGE; NU-WEST INDUSTRIES, INC., A DELAWARE CORPORATION,
D/B/A AGRIUM CONDA PHOSPHATE INDUSTRIES, AND JACK DANIELL, AN INDIVIDUAL, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable B. Lynn Winmill Chief U. S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

The Court has before it motions for summary judgment filed by the defendants. The Court heard oral argument on June 7, 2011, and took the motions under advisement. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant the motions in part, dismissing the claims for (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (2) violation of the Idaho Human Rights Act, (3) breach of contract, (4) breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, (5) promissory estoppel, and (6) punitive damages on the state law claims. In addition, the Court will narrow the Title VII hostile work environment claim to a single-incident claim based on the pushing incident occurring on September 10, 2008. In all other respects, the motions shall be denied.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Wanda Collier claims she was harassed at her job and ultimately fired because she was a woman. She has sued her employer, Turner Industries Group, and her supervisor, David Eastridge. She has also sued the company that retained Turner to do maintenance work, Agrium Conda Phosphate Industries, and its Maintenance Superintendent, Jack Daniell. She brings claims for gender discrimination under § 1983, Title VII, and their Idaho state-law counterparts, along with additional state law claims such as battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Agrium owns a fertilizer plant located in Soda Springs, Idaho. To maintain the plant, Agrium entered into a two-year agreement with Turner whereby Turner would provide maintenance services and labor. Defendant Jack Daniell, Agrium's Maintenance Superintendent, helped select Turner as the maintenance contractor. Plaintiff Collier worked for Turner as the site safety representative.

Collier's direct supervisor was Fred Keller, Turner's site manager. Keller in turn reported to David Eastridge, Turner's project manager. Eastridge had helped negotiate Turner's agreement with Agrium and Daniell. After the agreement was signed, Eastridge continued to work with Daniell to "ensure that [Agrium's] needs [were] taken care of." See Eastridge Deposition (Vol. I) at p. 19. Because Eastridge was often traveling to other sites, Daniell frequently dealt with Fred Keller.

The agreement stated that Turner was an independent contractor. Under the agreement, Agrium would tell Turner what maintenance work it wanted done on the plant and the number of man-hours Turner could devote to the project, and Turner would recommend to Agrium how many Turner employees should work on that particular project. When Agrium approved, Turner would begin the project.

Collier began work with Turner in April of 2008, as an at-will employee. She was responsible for going into the field, observing and training workers, writing inspection and incident reports, and correcting any unsafe behaviors.

In June of 2008, Collier was involved in an incident with Turner employee Doug Taylor over co-worker Kathie Ledger's failure to open a "tool crib" on time. When Taylor heard Collier questioning Ledger about the late opening, Taylor -- according to Collier -- screamed profanities at Collier, including "she will fucking go to the tool crib when she fucking gets there." See Collier Deposition at p. 81.

There were also two incidents where Daniell observed employees using or handling materials improperly -- one involving aerosol cans and the other involving face shields. On both occasions, Daniell berated Collier and demanded that she provide proper training for these employees. Another incident arose when Daniell spoke with Collier regarding general housekeeping issues around the plant, as employees on a weekend shift had left trash strewn about the plant. Collier described Daniell as intimidating and testified that he treated her in a "mean and nasty" manner. See Collier Deposition at p. 193.

On August 4th, 2008, Eastridge met with Daniell and discussed Collier's job performance. See Eastridge Deposition (Vol. II) at p. 133. On the same day, immediately after that meeting, Eastridge met with Fred Keller and Collier to discuss complaints made by Daniell regarding her job performance as well as the "tool crib" incident. Id.

At this meeting, Collier described the tool crib incident to Eastridge. See Collier Deposition at p. 111. According to Collier, Eastridge responded that "Jack [Daniell] has a gender issue with you." Id. Collier's testimony is confirmed by Keller who recalled that Eastridge stated that "Jack Daniell was harder on her due to the fact that she was a woman" and that Daniell was "old school." See Keller Deposition at pp. 43-44, 77. Collier also recalls that "Eastridge used the phrase 'old school' when discussing Jack's attitude toward my role in the workplace." See Collier Affidavit (Dkt. 34-2) at p. 2, ¶ 2. In addition, Collier testified that Eastridge directed her to supply additional reports to Daniell because "[w]e have to make Jack happy." See Collier Deposition at p. 112.

In response to Eastridge's comments that Daniell had a problem with her gender, Collier recalls "I looked at [Eastridge] sitting in that chair and I said he can't do that. It doesn't matter. Male, female, black, white, it doesn't matter. I said it's a bunch of bullshit and you need to fix that problem." Id. at pp. 111-12. Accepting Collier's account as true -- as the Court must do in this summary judgment proceeding -- she was complaining about Daniell's gender discrimination to her supervisor, Eastridge, and demanding that it stop.*fn1

Eastridge had been trained to take complaints of gender discrimination "seriously" and investigate them immediately. See Eastridge Deposition at p. 75. He took Collier's complaint "very seriously," investigated the "tool-crib" incident immediately, and concluded that the dispute was based on factors other than gender. Id. at p. 96.

In addition to investigating Collier's complaint, Eastridge spoke with Daniell about the August 4, 2008, meeting. See Eastridge Deposition at p. 134.

About a month later, on September 10, 2008, Daniell confronted Collier about unsafe practices he had observed. A different contractor had dropped a cement pillar through the roof of the building and a barrier was erected to keep employees away from the unsafe site. Daniell had apparently seen Turner employees crossing over the safety barrier. According to Collier, Daniell confronted her, pushing her so that she was up against the wall where "[t]here was no escaping" and "no getting away from him." See Collier Deposition at p. 197. The front of his body touched the front of hers. Id. This incident is often referred to in the briefing as the "belly-bump" incident, but Collier testified that Daniell "didn't bump [me]. He pushed me." Id. Collier describes Daniell as "very angry," and he berated her for three to four minutes over the unsafe conduct of Turner employees in disregarding the safety barrier. Id.

Collier reported this incident immediately to Fred Keller. Id. at p. 199. Keller recalls that Collier was "visibly upset" and that she was "borderline hysterical; she was red in the face . . . she was mad, she was on the verge of crying . . . ." See Keller Deposition at pp. 52-53. After the pushing incident, Collier would avoid Daniell and she "kept Fred [Keller] close to me at all times." See Collier Deposition at p. 104.

A little over a month later, on October 27, 2008, Collier was notified that her position was to be eliminated as part of a Reduction in Force ("RIF") to take place on December 1, 2008. John Tippets, Agrium's Human Resources Officer, recalled that when he called Eastridge to discuss Collier on October 28, 2008, Eastridge said he was "concerned that we [Agrium] were put to the trouble of having to deal with the issue," and that he "felt like it would be appropriate to terminate her [Collier's] employment" immediately instead of waiting to December 1, 2008. See Tippets Deposition at pp. 89-91.

On October 30, 2008, Collier contacted an Agrium HR representative to file a formal complaint against Daniell. She also contacted Turner's Ethics and Compliance Hotline the following day. In both instances, she reported gender discrimination, the tool-crib incident, the comments made at the August 4th, 2008 meeting with Eastridge, and the RIF. She also filed a report with Turner and Agrium against Daniell for the September 10th, 2008, pushing incident. Agrium immediately pursued an investigation of Collier's claims, and concluded that her firing was not related to her gender.

Turner offered Collier (1) a safety coordinator position at a facility in Kentucky, and (2) an opportunity to perform turnarounds at Agrium and other sites at a higher pay rate than she was receiving. Collier rejected both offers.

On November 24, 2008, Collier filed identical complaints with the EEOC and the Louisiana Human Rights Commission against Turner and Agrium. In her EEOC complaint, she alleged that she was the victim of sex discrimination and had been "verbally harassed and subjected to a hostile work environment by Jack Daniell . . . ." See Exhibit 14 to Collier Deposition. She has never filed any claim with the Idaho Human Rights Commission.

On September 3, 2009, the EEOC issued a "right to sue" letter to Collier. Collier filed this suit on November 19, 2009 claiming gender discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract, breach of implied duty of good faith and fair dealing and in the alternative, promissory estoppel, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and interference with contractual relations. Collier also seeks attorney fees, punitive damages and a jury trial.

The defendants have filed motions for summary judgment. The Court will analyze the motions after reviewing the legal standards governing summary judgment

LEGAL STANDARDS

One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment "is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims . . . ." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). It is "not a disfavored procedural shortcut," but is instead the "principal tool[ ] by which factually insufficient claims or defenses [can] be isolated and prevented from going to trial with the attendant unwarranted consumption of public and private resources." Id. at 327. "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, id. at 255, and the Court must not make credibility findings. Id. Direct testimony of the non-movant must be believed, however implausible. Leslie v. Grupo ICA, 198 F.3d 1152, 1159 (9th Cir. 1999). On the other hand, the Court is not required to adopt unreasonable inferences from circumstantial evidence. McLaughlin v. Liu, 849 F.2d 1205, 1208 (9th Cir. 1988).

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001)(en banc). To carry this burden, the moving party need not introduce any affirmative evidence (such as affidavits or deposition excerpts) but may simply point out the absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Fairbank v. Wunderman Cato Johnson, 212 F.3d 528, 532 (9th Cir.2000).

This shifts the burden to the non-moving party to produce evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in her favor. Id. at 256-57. The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show "by her affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file" that a genuine issue of material fact exists.

Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

Only admissible evidence may be considered in ruling on a motion for summary judgment. Orr v. Bank of America, 285 F.3d 764, 773 (9th Cir.2002); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). In determining admissibility for summary judgment purposes, it is the contents of the evidence rather than its form that must be considered. Fraser v. Goodale, 342 F.3d 1032, 1036-37 (9th Cir. 2003). If the contents of the evidence could be presented in an admissible form at trial, those contents may be considered on summary judgment even if the evidence itself is hearsay. Id. (affirming ...


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