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Harris v. Treasure Canyon Calcium Co.

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 22, 2015

LARAE HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
TREASURE CANYON CALCIUM COMPANY, an Idaho corporation, Defendant

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          For LaRae Harris, Plaintiff: Richard A Hearn, RACINE OLSON NYE BUDGE and BAILEY, Pocatello, ID; Lane V Erickson, Pocatello, ID.

         For Treasure Canyon Calcium Co, an Idaho corporation, Defendant: James R Moss, Jr, Payne & Fears LLP, Salt Lake City, UT; Kristopher Dean Meek, Steven K Brown, Hopkins Roden Crockett Hansen & Hoopes, Idaho Falls, ID; Scott S Thomas, Payne & Fears LLP, Irvine, CA.

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          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

         B. Lynn Winmill, Chief United States District Judge.

         INTRODUCTION

         The Court has before it Defendant Treasure Canyon Calcium Company's Motion for Summary Judgment, or in the Alternative, for Partial Summary Judgment (Dkt. 20), as well as Plaintiff LaRae Harris's Motion to Amend/Correct Complaint (Dkt. 19). The Court heard oral argument on both motions on June 22, 2015, and thereafter requested supplemental briefing, which was submitted on June 24, 2015. Having reviewed all of the evidence, the Court now issues the following decision.

         BACKGROUND

         Treasure Canyon Calcium (" TCC" ) is a family-owned company with approximately 25 employees. TCC mines calcium carbonate from its quarry near Preston, Idaho, which it then prepares in its mill and sells for use in livestock feed and industrial applications. Def.'s Opening Br., at 8, Dkt. 20-1. TCC hired Plaintiff LaRae Harris on June 25, 2008 as a seasonal truck driver. Her job duties consisted of hauling ore from the quarry to the mill. Def.'s Opening Br., at 8, Dkt. 20-1. At the time she was hired, Harris knew that, like other drivers, she would be laid off at the end of the mining season in the fall, but could be

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rehired in the spring if her services were needed. Id. As a driver, Harris reported primarily to Reuel Skinner, the Mine Manager, and Derek Steadman, the Assisting Manager. Id.

         When the mining season ended in October of 2008, TCC began to lay off the seasonal workers, as it did each year. Id. at 9. TCC President N. Ross Smith knew Harris had had a " difficult year" --her father had passed away, her marriage had ended, and she had suffered an abscess rupture in her abdomen and was unable to work for five weeks. Id. Smith asked Steadman if there were any office-related tasks that Harris could do over the winter months so that she could remain employed at TCC. Id. Steadman had been doing all of the office-related work up until that point, but he responded that he could find some work for Harris. From the Fall of 2008 through the Spring of 2009, Harris worked in the mill office doing data entry of driver miles and fuel use, entering invoices in accounts receivable, entering invoices in accounts payable and cutting checks for vendors. She also purged older files that were no longer needed and answered the telephone. For her work in the office, Harris was compensated at the same $15.50 per hour rate that she earned as a truck driver. As a full-time employee rather than a seasonal truck driver, she worked at least 30 hours a week and qualified for TCC's health and dental insurance benefits after six months. Id.

         Harris expected that she would return to driving truck in the spring of 2009. Harris Dep., 101:20-102:4, Dkt. 20-4. However, according to Harris, during the fall of 2008 a fellow driver named Russ Sorenson caused her to run off the road, and then referred to her as " that damn woman driver." Id. at 102:10-104:14. Harris reported Sorenson's comments to Steadman sometime in the fall of 2008. Id. at 108:17-22. At that time, Sorenson was not working at TCC because the mining season had ended. Steadman Decl., ¶ 13-14.

         In the spring of 2009, Smith asked Harris if she was excited to go back to driving truck. Harris told him that she would rather not drive truck if Sorenson returned to TCC. Harris Dep., 108:23-109:9, Dkt. 20-4; Smith Decl., ¶ 4, Dkt. 20-10. In order to avoid any future conflicts between Harris and Sorenson, TCC arranged to keep Harris primarily in the office, and taught her to test samples in TCC's quality control lab. Harris Dep., 111:6-112:11. Harris did not make any subsequent complaints to TCC about Sorenson. Id. at 119:17-22; Smith Decl., ¶ 4, Dkt. 20-10; Steadman Decl., ¶ 14, Dkt. 20-13. In 2009, Harris worked exclusively in the office and the lab--none of her 2028 hours were spent driving truck. In 2010, Harris worked a total of 1,829.25 hours. Of those, approximately 104 hours were spent driving truck and the remaining hours were spent in the office or lab. Def.'s Statement of Facts, ¶ 5, Dkt. 20-2.

         In the summer and fall of 2010, TCC discovered through testing potential expansion areas in the mine that its available material was not suitable for TCC's use because it was not sufficiently pure. Smith Decl., at ¶ 5, Dkt. 20-10. According to Smith, this development " jeopardized [TCC's] ability to serve [its] customers, and threatened to force the Company to close." Id. Because TCC no longer had access to sufficiently pure stone, its inventory dropped sharply and significantly. Def.'s Statement of Facts, ¶ 10, Dkt. 10-2. For example, in October and September of 2009, TCC's inventory consisted of 30,000 and 50,000 tons respectively. Id. In contrast, in October and September of 2010, TCC's inventory consisted of only 13,000 and 7,600 tons respectively. Id. In December of 2010, TCC's inventory was negative for the first time in recent history. Id.

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          Smith and Steadman elected to take a number of different steps in order to keep TCC in business. First, TCC agreed to buy stone from Lhoist North America, at a premium price, so that it could meet its customer's demands. Id. Second, TCC resolved to conduct an exploration program in an effort to find usable stone in its own quarries. Id. Third, TCC reduced its workforce so it would have more liquidity to purchase the Lhoist stone. Fourth, TCC raised its prices. Fifth and finally, TCC made modifications to the mill in order to improve efficiency. Id. at ¶ 6.

         Purchasing external stone was costly. TCC ultimately payed $1.3 million to Lhoist North America for stone: $537,737 in 2010, and $816,885 in 2011. Def.'s Statement of Facts, ¶ 11, Dkt. 10-2.

         In reducing its workforce, TCC eventually eliminated four[1] positions out of approximately twenty-five. Id. at ¶ 7. First, Reuel Skinner, the Mine Manager, retired on December 31, 2010 and TCC chose not to replace him. In January of 2011, TCC decided to eliminate Harris's position, as further discussed below, as well as Jeffrey Brandt's, an assistant truck mechanic, because " their duties could be absorbed by existing employees." Id. Finally, a truck-driving position was eliminated. Smith Decl., ¶ 10, Dkt. 20-10. Initially, TCC had a hard time determining which of the truck drivers should be let go. TCC became concerned that some of the drivers were being purposefully inefficient because of the lack of work, so it decided to terminate the driver who was recording inaccurate hours. On January 31, 2011, Smith sent a letter to each driver asking each of them to sign a statement saying that he or she would be honest in recording his or her hours. No further inaccuracies were detected, and Steadman did not make a recommendation for the layoff until April of 2011. In April, truck driver David Hobbs committed a safety violation, and thereafter Steadman recommended that Hobbs be let go. Smith approved that decision. Id.

         Six months before her position was eliminated, in July of 2010, Harris was involved in a work-related accident while driving a TCC truck. She suffered a broken humerus, a cut on her hand that required sixteen stitches, a broken rib, bruising to her face and legs, a puncture wound to her leg, and, most significantly, a torn rotator cuff. Pl.'s Statement of Facts, at 2, Dkt. 22-1. The day after her accident, Steadman filed a worker's compensation claim with the Idaho State Insurance Fund on Harris's behalf and without her knowledge. Def.'s Statement of Facts, at 6, Dkt. 20-2. Harris was released to return to work on August 2, 2010, with certain restrictions. Id. at ¶ 7. She needed to attend physical therapy sessions three times per week, and she could not lift more than ten pounds. Id. TCC adjusted Harris's hours and duties so that she could continue to work within those restrictions. Harris remained on light duty work at TCC until December 20, 2010, the date she underwent surgery on her shoulder. Pl.'s Statement of Facts, at 2, Dkt. 22-1. Harris was cleared to return to " one-arm office work" on January 25, 2011. Id. It is undisputed that as of January 25, 2011, Harris was capable of returning to TCC to do the office and lab work that she

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had previously been doing, but she was not capable of driving truck as she had done in the past. Id.

         On January 26, 2011, Steadman called Harris. Steadman asked Harris " how she was getting along, how her recovery was going, . . . about [her] ability to drive truck [and] about her ability to return to work at all." Steadman Depo. at 76:14-76:17, Dkt. 22-3. Harris told Steadman that she had been released the day before to return to light office work, but that should would not be able to drive truck for four to six months. Harris Decl. at ¶ 13, Dkt. 22-8. The following day, Smith called Harris to inform her that her employment was terminated, effective immediately. Id. at ¶ 14. Harris received a letter from Smith on January 28, 2011. Id. The termination letter indicated that Harris's position was being eliminated because of the economic difficulties that TCC was facing. Smith Decl., ¶ 8, Dkt. 20-10.

         In late 2011 and 2012, TCC began to find usable product as a result of the work of Dwayne Mickelson, a geologist TCC hired in August of 2011. Smith sent a letter to Harris dated June 24, 2012, offering a return to her former position at a slightly higher rate of pay. Smith Decl. at ¶ 13, Dkt. 20-10. Harris refused the offer and instead filed suit against TCC.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where a party can show that, as to any claim or defense, " there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). 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, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (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." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). There must be a genuine dispute as to any material fact--a fact " that may affect the outcome of the case." Id. at 248.

         The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and the Court must not make credibility findings. Id. at 255. 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 dispute as to 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. Devereaux, 263 F.3d at 1076. 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 dispute of

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material fact exists. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

         However, the Court is " not required to comb through the record to find some reason to deny a motion for summary judgment." Carmen v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 237 F.3d 1026, 1029 (9th Cir. 2001) (quotation omitted). Instead, the " party opposing summary judgment must direct [the Court's] attention to specific triable facts." Southern California Gas Co. v. City of Santa Ana, 336 F.3d 885, 889 (9th Cir. 2003). Finally, statements in a brief, unsupported by the record, cannot be used to create a factual dispute. Barnes v. Independent Auto. Dealers, 64 F.3d 1389, 1396 n.3 (9th Cir. 1995).

         ANALYSIS

         In its Motion for Summary Judgment, TCC argues that summary judgment should be granted in its favor as to each of Harris's claims: (1) disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ) and the Idaho Human Rights Act (" IHRA" ); (2) wrongful termination in violation of public policy; (3) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (4) gender discrimination under Title VII and the IHRA; and (5) retaliation under Title VII and the IHRA. Each claim will be discussed in turn.[2]

         1. Discrimination based on disability

         TCC argues that Harris has failed to meet her prima facie case as to her discrimination claim under the ADA and the IHRA. TCC's argument is two-fold. It asserts that Harris has not demonstrated that she suffered from a disability, and that she has failed to show that her alleged disability played a role in TCC's decision to terminate her. Harris responds that her injuries, particularly to her shoulder, constitute a " disability" because they substantially limited her ability to work. She argues that she was terminated because of her disability, as evidenced by Steadman's deposition testimony where he " admitted . . . that TCC terminated Harris because she could not drive truck or operate a loader." Pl.'s Resp. Br. at 9, Dkt. 22. As further discussed below, however, the Court finds ...


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