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Kamdem-Ouaffo v. Idahoan Foods, LLC

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 20, 2017

RICKY KAMDEM-OUAFFO, PH.D., Plaintiff,
v.
IDAHOAN FOODS, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge United States District Court

         INTRODUCTION

         The Court has before it Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 27) and Defendant's Motion to Seal (Dkt. 28). The Motions are fully briefed and the Court finds these matters appropriate for decision without oral argument. For the reasons explained below, the Court will GRANT both motions.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Ricky Kamdem-Ouaffo, Ph.D. (“Plaintiff”) was employed by Defendant Idahoan Foods, LLC (“Defendant” or “Idahoan Foods” or “the Company”) as a Senior Food Scientist from December 2012 until his termination on July 11, 2014. See Compl. ¶¶ 31, 49-51, Dkt. 1-1. Idahoan Foods is an Idaho-based company that produces and sells various potato products. In mid-2012, Idahoan Foods brought the function of developing and blending seasonings and flavorings for its potato products in-house. This decision prompted a need for a Senior Food Scientist position within the Research and Development Department to work at the Company's Idaho facility. After an interview with the Company's former CEO, Plaintiff received and accepted an employment offer as Senior Food Scientist on or around December 3, 2012. Id. ¶¶ 31-32. Plaintiff's position entailed development of commercial products, new technologies, and leadership for the design, building, and equipping of new product development laboratories. Id. ¶¶ 39-42.

         Plaintiff was terminated from his position with the Company on July 11, 2014. On September 2, 2014, he filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Idaho Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that his termination was based on race and national origin discrimination.[1] Id. ¶ 138. Plaintiff is Cameroonian and black. Id. ¶¶ 2-3. Plaintiff alleges that he suffered two discriminatory incidents during his tenure. The first occurred at ¶ 2013 Christmas event at Idahoan Foods' Corporate Headquarters. At that event, Art Polson, a salesman employed by the Company, “quiz[ed] the Plaintiff about his nationality of origin” and “asked the Plaintiff some American citizenship test questions[, ]” including questions about “the Civil War” and “former American presidents” in the presence of Idahoan Foods Executives, including the CEO Drew Facer. Compl. at ¶¶ 36-38. This interaction lasted three to four minutes. Kamdem Dep. Vol. II at 207:6-7, Dkt. 27-6.

         Plaintiff also alleges that, on a subsequent occasion in the R&D Department during the first quarter of 2014, he spoke with Polson for several minutes along with another employee, Adriana Trejo. Kamdem Dep. Vol. II at 222:9-10, 224:1-10. According to Plaintiff, Polson asked questions about nationality, a green card, and citizenship. Adrianna Trejo mentioned that her husband was “in need of some kind of citizenship paper or [was] in the process of [obtaining] it.” Id. at 224:1-10. Plaintiff did not like the conversation and walked away. Id. at 222:9-16, Dkt. 27-6.

         The EEOC issued Plaintiff a “Notice of Right to Sue” in May 2015, and Plaintiff filed the present suit asserting claims for employment discrimination, wrongful termination, breach of contract, and infliction of emotional distress arising from his termination. Additionally, Plaintiff contends that Defendant's subsequent refusal to rehire him for other positions within the Company was unlawful retaliation in response to his complaints of race discrimination filed with the IHRC and EEOC. Id. ¶¶ 145-47.

         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 (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 (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. Deveraux, 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 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).

         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). Furthermore, 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 consideration of hearsay contents of plaintiff's diary on summary judgment because at trial, plaintiff's testimony of contents would not be hearsay).

         The Circuit has also “repeatedly held that documents which have not had a proper foundation laid to authenticate them cannot support a motion for summary judgment.” Beyene v. Coleman Sec. Services, Inc., 854 F.2d 1179, 1182 (9th Cir. 1988). Authentication, required by Federal Rule of Evidence 901(a), is not satisfied simply by attaching a document to an affidavit. Id. The affidavit must contain testimony of a witness with personal knowledge of the facts who attests to the identity and due execution of the document. Id.

         ANALYSIS

         1. Breach of Contract

         Under Idaho law, in the absence of an express agreement between the employer and the employee limiting either party's right to terminate the contract, either the employer or the employee may terminate the employment relationship “at will” without incurring liability-that is, at any time for any reason. MacNeil v. Minidoka Memorial Hosp., 701 P.2d 208 (Idaho 1985), overruled on other grounds by Metcalf v. Intermountain Gas Co., 788 P.2d 744 (Idaho 1989).

         Here, Plaintiff was clearly an at-will employee. He entered into a written contract of employment which expressly stated that his employment with Idahoan Foods would be at-will and that all prior agreements and understandings were superseded. Eaton Decl. Ex. 29, at 40-41, Dkt. 27-4. Additionally, Plaintiff received and signed an “Employment Statement” that specified employment with Idahoan Foods was at-will. Id. at 45. To avoid his at-will status, Plaintiff asserts only that “Idahoan Foods represented that the role of Senior Food Scientist was a long term corporate role and even provided incentives for the Plaintiff for wanting to stay long term with the company for at least three years.” See Compl. ¶ 218, Dkt. 1-1. However, retention incentives and statements regarding long- term career opportunities do not convert at-will employment into a contract for employment of a fixed duration. It is ordinary for an employer to encourage its at-will employees to stay with the company long term and to provide incentives for doing so. At no time did Plaintiff's employment status deviate from the at-will status under his express employment agreement.

         Accordingly, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted as to the breach of contract claim.

         2. Breach of the Covenants of Good Faith Fair Dealing

         To avoid the effect of his at-will status, Plaintiff argues that the conduct of Idahoan Foods surrounding his termination breached the company's obligation of good faith and fair dealing. The “[c]ovenant of good faith and fair dealing . . . is implied in all contracts, including those for employment-at-will.” Cantwell v. City of Boise, 191 P.3d 205, 213 (Idaho 2008). However, the covenant does not provide rights beyond those available under a negotiated contract. Id. at 214. Rather, it requires parties to perform, in good faith, the obligations existing under the contract. Id. at 213. Breach of the covenant occurs where a party “violates, qualifies[, ] or significantly impairs any benefit or right of the other party under an employment contract[, ] whether express or implied.” Id. at 213- 14. Idaho courts have cautioned against using this covenant to place limits on the termination of an at-will employee. See Jenkins v. Boise Cascade Corp., 108 P.3d 380, 390 (2005) (“[T]he covenant of good faith and fair dealing does not alter the right to fire an at-will employee; that is, the covenant does not create good cause as a requirement.”). Indeed, this Court has previously dismissed a claim like that presented here to avoid “mak[ing] an end run around the legal consequences of [an employee's] at-will status.” See Willnerd. v. Sybase., No. 1:09-CV-500-BLW, 2011 WL 2710085 at *3 (D. Idaho July, 2011).

         Here, Plaintiff fails to identify a contractual duty that Idahoan Foods failed to perform in good faith. The only alleged wrongful conduct is Idahoan Foods' termination of Plaintiff after only a short tenure, without notice or cause. However, as stated above, Plaintiff's contract was at-will and thus contained no provisions requiring notice or cause before termination. Idahoan foods did nothing more than exercise its contractual right to terminate Plaintiff at will. Accordingly, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted as to the Breach of the Covenant claim.

         3. Wrongful Termination

         Under Idaho law, a discharged employee may assert a common law action for wrongful termination where his or her discharge violated public policy. See Edmondson v. Shearer Lumber Products, 75 P.3d 733, 737 (Idaho 2003). Here, Plaintiff's wrongful termination claim simply repeats allegations that Idahoan Foods fired him without notice or cause; it points to no public policy implicated by his termination. Accordingly, Plaintiff fails to make out a valid wrongful termination claim and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted as to this claim.

         4. Unjust Enrichment

         “[U]njust enrichment occurs where a defendant receives a benefit which would be inequitable to retain without compensating the plaintiff to the extent that retention is unjust.” Medical Recovery Services, LLC v. Boneville Billing and Collections, Inc., 336 P.3d 802, 805 (Idaho 2014). “A prima facie case for unjust enrichment exists where: (1) there was a benefit conferred upon the defendant by the plaintiff; (2) appreciation by the defendant of such benefit; and (3) acceptance of the benefit under circumstances that would be inequitable for the defendant to retain the benefit without payment to the plaintiff for the value thereof.” Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that his work to create new products, ideas, and technologies for Idahoan Foods conferred a benefit on the company for which he was not compensated, and that “equity and good conscience demand that Idahoan Foods” should pay Plaintiff for the value of such work.” See Compl. ¶ 257, Dkt. 1-1. Plaintiff has not demonstrated that he performed services that were not compensated, however. Because he was compensated with a salary for his services under an enforceable employment contract, and he does not claim that such compensation was unreasonable, he fails to state a claim for unjust enrichment. See U.S. Welding, Inc. v. Battelle Energy All., LLC, 728 F.Supp.2d 1110, 1116-17 (D. Idaho 2010) (“Because there is an express contract dealing with the essential subject matter of the relationship between the parties, a claim for unjust enrichment cannot apply unless the contract is otherwise unenforceable.”). Absent more, the Court cannot conclude that it would be inequitable for Idahoan Foods to retain the ...


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