United States District Court, D. Idaho
SHANE D. HUTCHINS, an individual, Plaintiff,
DIRECTV CUSTOMER SERVICE, INC., and JOHN/JANE DOES I through X, whose true identities are presently unknown, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM DECISION, FINDINGS OF FACT, AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
RONALD E. BUSH, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Shane Hutchins ("Hutchins") was employed by Defendant DirecTV Customer Service, Inc. ("DirecTV") in a "call-center, " located in Boise, Idaho. While employed, he filed a charge of employment discrimination with the Idaho Human Rights Commission. While the charge was being investigated, and after Hutchins had sought the assistance of co-employees in supporting his claim, Hutchins was fired. Hutchins alleges that his firing was retaliation for his engaging in protected activity under the American with Disabilities Act, i.e. bringing, and investigating, his claim of discrimination. DirecTV contends that it had an honest, good faith reason for terminating Hutchins because he was intimidating fellow employees as part of his efforts to support his claim.
A three-day bench trial was held from January 13 through 15, 2014. These individuals testified: Shane Hutchins, Matthew Sparks, Dr. Tyler Bowles, Donna Bickler, Dennis Buffaloe, Justin Sturgeon, Jeremy Punches, and Cornelius Hofman.
The case was well-tried, by counsel who were prepared and capable advocates. The Court has carefully considered the argument of counsel, the testimony of witnesses, the exhibits admitted, and has weighed and compared the particulars of such argument and evidence. The Court must measure the evidence, as it has done here, to draw findings of fact and conclusions of law as to how the Court is persuaded, or not persuaded, by the argument and evidence presented at trial, as to how the evidence is considered against the legal standards setting out the elements Hutchins must prove to succeed on his claims, and as to the burden of proof he must meet, or DirecTV must meet, in seeking to prevail upon such claims, or upon affirmative defenses raised as to such claims. Those findings and conclusions are set out to follow.
In summary, the Court rules that DirecTV terminated the employment of Hutchins in retaliation for engaging in protected activity, and that such termination violated provisions of federal law found at 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a) and Idaho law found at I.C. § 67-5911. That is, but for Hutchins' protected activity, he would not have been terminated. The Court is not persuaded that DirecTV had a sufficient, honest, good faith reason for terminating Hutchins, so as to insulate its decision to fire Hutchins from a claim of retaliation.
Discussed in detail infra, the Court finds that Hutchins did request a letter of support from current and past co-employees. His doing so was protected activity, including his contact with Donna Bickler, whose negative reaction to Hutchins' request of her, along with the fact that his request came contemporaneously to a semi-annual employee review period, ultimately led to Hutchins' firing. DirecTV's reliance on Ms. Bickler's subjective and unjustifiably negative reaction to Hutchins' interaction with Ms. Bickler was not justified given the broad protection afforded individuals by the ADA's anti-retaliation provision. Accordingly, the Court finds that an award of back pay, and the value of related benefits, will be made for the benefit of Hutchins.
1. Shane Hutchins is a former employee of DirecTV. At all relevant times, he was a resident of the State of Idaho.
2. DirecTV is a corporation registered to do business and doing business in the State of Idaho. At all relevant times, DirecTV employed greater than 500 employees in each of the 20 or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year.
JURISDICTION AND VENUE
1. This Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this civil action based on federal question jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3), and supplemental jurisdiction over the related state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.
2. Venue is proper in this District, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3), because the unlawful employment practice is alleged to have been committed here.
3. The parties stipulated to have the Court act as factfinder on the claims at issue. (Dkts. 67, 70.)
FINDINGS OF FACT
1. Hutchins was employed by DirecTV from October 18, 2004 through August 10, 2010. At the time of his termination, he was employed as a "Team Manager, " a mid-level management position in the Boise customer care call center.
2. On May 11, 2010, Hutchins filed a complaint of discrimination against DirecTV with the Idaho Human Rights Commission ("IHRC"), alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In particular, Hutchins claimed that he was discriminated against because of a physical disability stemming from irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulitis. He alleged that DirecTV failed to accommodate his disability and discriminated against him by issuing employment warnings, placing him on a performance improvement plan, and passing him over for several promotions.
3. DirecTV responded in writing to Hutchins' complaint in the ordinary course of the IHRC investigation into the complaint. Subsequently, the IHRC wrote to Hutchins' counsel with a copy of DirecTV's response to the charge of discrimination. In that June 25, 2010 letter, the IHRC asked that Hutchins and his counsel review the response and submit a rebuttal statement, including a request that Hutchins:
...write down all of those things you disagree with, why you disagree with them and what evidence or information you possess which will support your position. Include any documentation as well as any witness names, addresses and telephone numbers (if known) and a brief narrative of facts to which you believe each witness will testify.
Plaintiff's Ex. 1, Defendant's Ex. 500.
4. After receiving this letter, and beginning around June 28, 2010, Hutchins contacted several current and former DirecTV co-employees and asked them to provide statements to support his claim of discrimination. Among them were: Nathan Lease, Jeremy Punches, Jennifer Norvell (formerly, Jennifer Arocha), Justin Sturgeon, Joshua Meyer, Eva Bowman and James LaMancha.
5. At approximately 10:30 p.m. on July 7, 2010, Hutchins approached Donna Bickler (another employee at DirecTV) at her work station, for the same purpose. At the time, Ms. Bickler was a "Team Leader" and "direct report" of Hutchins, meaning she was a direct subordinate of Hutchins, who was a "Team Manager."
6. Hutchins told Ms. Bickler he would be taking a break later in the work shift and that he wanted to speak with her at that time in the nearby "team room." When she later came to the team room on her own break (albeit at his request), Hutchins told Ms. Bickler that he had filed a claim of discrimination against DirecTV. He elaborated upon his medical condition that was the underlying basis for the discrimination claim, and he then asked her to write a letter on his behalf describing that he was a good Team Manager. He told her to keep their conversation confidential. He also told Ms. Bickler that writing such a letter was not something she had to do. In the conversation, his tone was even tempered and mild.
7. Ms. Bickler's testimony regarding the contact Hutchins made with her is closely consistent with how both Justin Sturgeon and Jeremy Punches testified that Hutchins had contacted and talked with them, discussed infra.
8. Hutchins denied contacting Ms. Bickler, but his testimony as to whether such a contact occurred was not at all credible. In contrast, Ms. Bickler's account of the contact he made with her, and the content of their conversation, was entirely credible. She had no reason to fabricate such a conversation and the details of the account track very closely with what others employees said about similar conversations they had with Hutchins. Ms. Bickler had nothing to gain by not being truthful in her testimony and her version of the facts has remained consistent over time. The Court finds that Hutchins asked Ms. Bickler to write a letter of support for his claim of discrimination.
9. Later that evening following her conversation with Hutchins, Ms. Bickler became upset and could not sleep. She felt Hutchins' request put her "in the middle" between Hutchins and DirecTV. She became tearful and anxious.
10. The following day at work, July 8, 2010, Ms. Bickler told her co-worker, Cheryl Wees, what had happened the prior evening and how upset she was. Ms. Wees was a Team Manager at DirecTV at the time. Ms. Wees told Melanie Decker, who worked in the DirecTV Human Resources office, and Human Resources Manager Dennis Buffaloe, about what Ms. Bickler had told her. Ms. Wees encouraged Ms. Bickler to talk to Human Resources.
11. Ms. Bickler decided to meet with Mr. Buffaloe that same day, and when she did, she described her conversation with Hutchins. Mr. Buffaloe felt that Ms. Bickler was very upset and gave her the rest of the day off.
12. On July 9, 2010, Ms. Bickler e-mailed to Mr. Buffaloe a written summary of her July 7, 2010 conversation with Hutchins, at Mr. Buffaloe's request.
13. On the morning of July 13, 2010, Mr. Buffaloe contacted Hutchins and took him to his office, where they were joined by Ms. Decker. Mr. Buffaloe asked Hutchins if he had been soliciting letters from employees concerning the lawsuit that Hutchins had filed against DirecTV. He told Hutchins that there had been a complaint made by another employee about such a request. The "complaint" apparently was Ms. Bickler's report to Mr. Buffaloe about her conversation with Hutchins, although Mr. Buffaloe did not identify the person making the complaint.
14. July 13, 2010 was also the morning of the so-called "Calibration Review." In the semi-annual Calibration Review process, Team Managers (including Hutchins) and other higher level management employees consider, rate, and evaluate the Team Leaders, including those they do not directly supervise. The Team Leaders to be evaluated included Ms. Bickler.
15. Hutchins told Mr. Buffaloe that he might have contacted a former employee but would not say whether he had contacted any current employees.
16. Hutchins refused to answer further questions without talking with his attorney.
17. DirecTV placed Hutchins on paid administrative leave pending investigation of Ms. Bickler's complaint.
18. Later in the afternoon on the same day of July 13, 2010, Hutchins returned to the DirecTV workplace and spoke to Mr. Buffaloe. Hutchins gave Mr. Buffaloe a letter from his attorney, which contained a demand that Hutchins be reinstated to active employment. In the letter, Hutchins' attorney stated that Hutchins had been conducting an investigation related to his charge of employment discrimination so that Hutchins could respond to a letter Hutchins had received from the Idaho Human Rights Commission about his complaint. The attorney also said that Hutchins "did not discuss his complaint or solicit information from direct reports over whom he might exert undue influence." Plaintiff's Ex. 3.
19. On July 14, 2010, Ms. Bickler was contacted by Matthew Sparks. Mr. Sparks worked in the same group as Ms. Bickler, also under Hutchins' direct supervision. Mr. Sparks told Ms. Bickler that Hutchins no longer needed a letter from her. He also said that the DirecTV Human Resources office was on a "witch hunt." Finally, he said that if he was ever asked about the conversation he was having with her at that moment, he would deny that it occurred.
20. Ms. Bickler told Mr. Buffaloe about the conversation with Mr. Sparks. At Mr. Buffaloe's request, she prepared a written summary of the conversation with Mr. Sparks and e-mailed it to Mr. Buffaloe.
21. Mr. Sparks denied that this conversation with Ms. Bickler took place. His testimony in that regard was not credible, but Ms. Bickler's testimony concerning the conversation was credible. The Court finds that Mr. Sparks did engage in this conversation with Ms. Bickler. There is no persuasive basis to argue that Ms. Bickler had fabricated the fact of a conversation with Mr. Sparks, which he initiated. Further, the subject matter of the conversation was entirely consistent with the posture of the events taking place between Hutchins and DirecTV, and the fact that Hutchins had been placed on administrative leave the previous day.
22. On July 15, 2010, an in-house attorney with DirecTV sent a letter in response to the July 13, 2010 letter from Hutchins' counsel. The letter contained a denial of the request to reinstate Hutchins to active employment. The letter further indicated that such a request would not be considered until DirecTV completed its investigation into the complaint made against Hutchins. The letter also invited Hutchins to participate in the investigation and directly respond to the allegations against him. Defendant's Ex. 501.
23. On July 27, 2010, Hutchins told Mr. Buffaloe that he would participate in DirecTV's investigation. In an interview with Mr. Buffaloe that followed, Hutchins said he had requested letters from four fellow employees: Nathan Lease, Justin Sturgeon, Sherman Williams, and Eva Bowman. (None of these individuals was directly supervised by Hutchins, but Mr. Lease, Mr. Sturgeon and Ms. Bowman were all Team Leaders.) He did not include Ms. Bickler in his list. He denied requesting a letter from any subordinate employee. At the end of the interview, Hutchins was told by Mr. Buffaloe that his leave would continue while the investigation was pending.
24. Mr. Buffaloe then interviewed Mr. Lease, Mr. Sturgeon, and Mr. Williams. (At that time, Ms. Bowman no longer worked at DirecTV.) Each confirmed that they had been contacted by Hutchins and had been asked to write a letter on his behalf.
25. Justin Sturgeon and Jeremy Punches both testified at the trial. Mr. Sturgeon was contacted by Hutchins at work in July 2010 about writing a supportive letter in connection with Hutchins' claim of discrimination. Mr. Sturgeon prepared the letter but never delivered it to Hutchins. Although Hutchins' request made him uncomfortable, Mr. Sturgeon did not feel threatened and knew he did not have to write any such letter.
26. Even though he had not been identified by Hutchins as one of the co-employees Hutchins had contacted, Jeremy Punches testified that he had been contacted by Hutchins in the team room at DirecTV. Hutchins asked Mr. Punches to write a letter detailing how Hutchins was in charge of a top performing team at DirecTV. Mr. Punches told Hutchins he would think about it but, ultimately, he never wrote the letter. Hutchins' request made Mr. Punches feel uncomfortable and conflicted, as he did not want to interject himself into the dispute between Hutchins and DirecTV. Although he testified that he did not feel threatened by Hutchins, he did feel that he would be letting Hutchins down if he did not write the letter.
27. Hutchins sent two e-mails to Mr. Lease on July 12, 2010, requesting that Mr. Lease write a letter in support of Hutchins. The first e-mail detailed the topics he wanted Mr. Lease to discuss in such a letter. In the second, Hutchins forwarded as an example a letter that James LaMancha, a former DirecTV employee, had written for Hutchins. Defendant's Ex. 502.
28. Hutchins also contacted and asked for letters from Josh Meyer and Jennifer Norvell (f/k/a Arocha).
29. On July 30, 2010, Mr. Buffaloe informed Hutchins that the investigation was not yet completed. A follow-up meeting was set for August 10, 2010. The meeting might have occurred more quickly, but Hutchins was going on a previously planned vacation.
30. Mr. Buffaloe interviewed the employees identified by Hutchins. Before the scheduled August 10, 2010 meeting with Hutchins, Mr. Buffaloe talked to his own supervisor at DirecTV, Bill McAllister. Mr. Buffaloe recommended to Mr. McAllister that Hutchins' employment be terminated for the reason that Hutchins had used his position as Team Manager to create a hostile environment for subordinate employees and because Hutchins had used poor judgment in asking for letters of support from direct reports. Mr. McAllister agreed that Hutchins should be terminated from employment.
31. On August 10, 2010, Mr. Buffaloe called Hutchins and told him there was no need for a meeting because Hutchins' employment was terminated. Hutchins testified that he was told by Mr. Buffaloe that he was fired for harassing and intimidating an employee.
32. The ADA participation clause supports this Court's finding that Hutchins was engaged in protected activity when he sought out letters of support from his coworkers. A broad construction of the participation clause does not permit a finding as argued and advanced by DirecTV, i.e., that in order for his actions to be considered protected activity, there would have needed to be a specific request from the Idaho Human Rights Commission in its letter to Hutchins directing Hutchins to obtain letters of support from co-workers. It suffices that Hutchins had filed a claim of discrimination and was gathering information to support his claim, and such a finding is buttressed by the fact that Hutchins was responding to a letter from the IHRC which ...