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Murray v. City of Bonners Ferry

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 28, 2017

TIFFANY K. MURRAY and KEVIN C. MURRAY, husband and wife, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF BONNERS FERRY and JOEL MINOR, in his official and individual capacities, and JOHN LUNDE, in his official and individual capacities, and STEPHEN BOORMAN, in his official and individual capacities; and STEVEN BENKULA, in his official and individual capacities, ROBERT BOONE, in his official and individual capacities, and JOHN DOES I-V, and JANE DOES 1-V, Defendants.

         MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER RE: DEFENDANTS' AMENDED MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOCKET NOS. 34 AND 56) PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR LEAVE TO FILE AN AMENDED COMPLAINT TO INCLUDE A CLAIM FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES AGAINST JOEL MINOR, STEVEN BENKULA, ROBERT BOONE AND STEPHEN BOORMAN (DOCKET NO. 35)

          Hon. Ronald E. Bush, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Now pending before the Court are (1) Defendants' Amended Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket Nos. 34 and 56), and (2) Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint to Include a Claim for Punitive Damages Against Joel Minor, Steven Benkula, Robert Boone and Stephen Boorman (Docket No. 35). Having carefully considered the record, participated in oral argument, and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:

         I. GENERAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Tiffany Murray began working for Defendant City of Bonners Ferry (the “City”) as a police/patrol officer on or about September 2, 2008. On May 29, 2014, she was fired. The factual details occupying the space of Plaintiff's employment with the City are vast and, more often than not, conflicting - suffice it to say, there appear to be no warm feelings between the relevant parties. Plaintiff's[1] description of those details are strident, and reflected in the various causes of action listed within her 53-page Complaint, including: (1) hostile work environment; (2) quid pro quo sexual harassment; (3) retaliation; (4) negligent hiring; (5) defamation; (6) negligent training and supervision; and (7) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Plaintiff also contends that the same allegations informing these causes of action warrant a claim for punitive damages, and she moves to amend her Complaint accordingly. For their part, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment seeks the dismissal of certain of these causes of action as a matter of law. Defendants likewise oppose Plaintiff's efforts to add a claim for punitive damages.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Summary Judgment

         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 (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. See id. at p. 255. Direct testimony of the nonmovant must be believed, however implausible. See 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. See 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. See Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001). 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. See Fairbank v. Wunderman Cato Johnson, 212 F.3d 528, 532 (9thCir. 2000). This shifts the burden to the non-moving party to produce evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in her favor. See 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 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). 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).

         B. Punitive Damages

         Claims for punitive damages are governed by Idaho Code § 6-1604, which provides:

In any action seeking recovery of punitive damages, the claimant must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, oppressive, fraudulent, malicious or outrageous conduct by the party against whom the claim for punitive damages is asserted.

I.C. § 6-1604(1).

         Whether to allow a claim of punitive damages is a substantive question controlled by Idaho law. See Windsor v. Guarantee Trust Life Ins. Co., 684 F.Supp. 630, 633 (D. Idaho 1988). Ultimately, an award of punitive damages requires a bad act and a bad state of mind. See Todd v. Sullivan Const. LLC, 191 P.3d 196, 201 (Idaho 2008). The defendant must (1) act in a manner that was an extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct with an understanding of - or disregard for - the likely consequences, and must (2) act with an extremely harmful state of mind, described variously as with malice, oppression, fraud, or outrageousness. See Myers v. Workmen's Auto Ins. Co., 95 P.3d 977, 983 (Idaho 2004); see also I.C. § 6-1604.[2]

         At trial, the party alleging punitive damages must satisfy this standard by clear and convincing evidence. See I.C. § 6-1604(1). However, for purposes of a motion to amend, the party seeking to add a claim for punitive damages does not need to meet this high burden; rather, the party need only show “a reasonable likelihood of proving facts at trial sufficient to support an award of punitive damages.” See I.C. § 6-1604(2). Therefore, although FRCP 15(a) encourages the trial court to liberally grant motions to amend pleadings, this policy is substantially tempered by the requirements under Idaho law. That is, plaintiff may add a claim for punitive damages only if they establish a reasonable likelihood of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant's conduct was oppressive, fraudulent, malicious, or outrageous.

         Since plaintiffs are only required to demonstrate a “reasonable likelihood” of establishing their entitlement to punitive damages, on motions to amend to assert a claim for punitive damages under Idaho Code § 6-1604(2), courts apply the same standard it would apply in resolving an FRCP 50 motion at the close of plaintiffs' case. See Bryant v. Colonial Sur. Co., 2016 WL 707339, *3 (D. Idaho 2016). That is, evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, with the benefit of all legitimate inferences without assessing credibility. See id. (citing E.E.O.C. v. Go Daddy Software, Inc., 581 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 2009)).

         It is in the trial court's discretion to decide whether to submit the punitive damages issue to the jury. See Manning v. Twin Falls Clinic & Hosp., Inc., 830 P.2d 1185, 1190 (Idaho 1992). As a matter of substantive law, it is well established in Idaho that punitive damages are not favored and should be awarded only in the most unusual and compelling circumstances, and are to be awarded cautiously and within narrow limits. See id. at 1185; see also Jones v. Panhandle Distribs., Inc., 792 P.2d 315 (Idaho 1990); Soria v. Sierra Pac. Airlines, Inc., 726 P.2d 706 (Idaho 1986); Cheney v. Palos Verdes Inv. Corp., 665 P.2d 661 (Idaho 1983); Linscott v. Rainier Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 606 P.2d 958 (Idaho 1980).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket Nos. 34 and 56)

         1. Hostile Work Environment Claim

         To survive summary judgment on her hostile work environment claim, Plaintiff must raise genuine issues of material fact that (1) she was subjected to verbal or physical harassment due to her gender, (2) the harassment was unwelcome, and (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the plaintiff's employment and create an abusive work environment. See Kortan v. California Youth Authority, 217 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2000). Plaintiff must show that the conduct at issue was both objectively and subjectively offensive; that is, she must show that a reasonable person would find the work environment to be “hostile or abusive, ” and that she in fact did perceive it to be so. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 787 (1998). In that regard, courts are to “determine whether an environment is sufficiently hostile or abusive by looking at all the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.” Id. at 777-78 (internal quotation and citation omitted). “Title VII does not prohibit genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex.” Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted). “[S]imple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment.” Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted).

         Within her Complaint, Plaintiff originally identified several circumstances which the Court presumes are part of what she contends contributed to her hostile work environment claim, including:

• On November 3, 2010, Defendant Sergeant John Lunde falsely accused Plaintiff of breaking city equipment, specifically the audio microphone that officers wear while on duty;
• On November 6, 2011, Sergeant Lunde made a statement to other employees of the City that Plaintiff was an “overtime whore”;
• In November 2011, Sergeant Lunde looked through Plaintiff's personal hiring file without authorization, in violation of City policy;
• The City did not take the steps necessary to ensure that Plaintiff's hiring file was secure from unauthorized access, and this damaged Plaintiff;
• In July 2012, Sergeant Lunde did an internal affairs investigation of Plaintiff without a formal complaint, in violation of City policy;
• Plaintiff's complaints to the Chief of Police (Rick Alonzo and, later, Defendant Steven Benkula) were either ignored or inadequately investigated;
• On June 30, 2013, Sergeant Lunde sent an email to all police officers in the city, using every police officer's proper name, but referred to Plaintiff as “Six Pack Murray”;
• Plaintiff was isolated from the rest of the City's employees, drawing negative attention to her;
• On August 5, 2013, Sergeant Lunde gained access to Plaintiff's protected medical information and sent that information to a third party; and
• The City took insufficient steps to security Plaintiff's protected medical information.

Compl., ¶¶ 38-73 (Docket No. 5). Though some of these instances are undoubtedly unsavory, it cannot be said as a matter of law that they - either singularly or in combination - reflect an objectively hostile work environment under Title VII. Plaintiff does not appear to disagree, relying instead on other events - involving altogether different actors - alleged elsewhere in her Complaint. See, e.g., Pls.' Opp. to MSJ, pp. 8-9 (Docket No. 41) (to exclusion of Sergeant Lunde, stating: “The actions of Deputy Chief Minor, Chief Benkula, Chief Boone, the City Administrator, City Attorney and City Clerk created this hostile work environment.”). In this evolving respect, Plaintiff states:

• Defendant Joel Minor, Assistant Chief of Police and Plaintiff's direct supervisor, made many sexual advances, including:
• Squeezing Plaintiff's buttocks;
• Placing his hand on Plaintiff's breasts, pulling the front of Plaintiff's uniform, and peering at her breasts, and saying that Plaintiff has nice breasts;
• Recounting dreams involving sex and sexual positions with Plaintiff;
• Asking to have sex with Plaintiff;
• Asking Plaintiff to sit on his face; and
• Telling Plaintiff that pregnant women are sexy, while Plaintiff was pregnant.
• Assistant Chief Minor watched pornography (including pregnant women having sex) during work hours in Plaintiff's presence and attempted to show Plaintiff pornography during work hours;
• Chief Benkula knew, or should have known, that Assistant Chief Minor was engaging in sexual harassment, but did little;
• In June 2013, Defendant Stephen Boorman, as the City Administrator, falsely made allegations regarding Plaintiff, stating that she was trying to file a false claim of work injury in order to get time off work;
• City Administrator Boorman (with an office in City Hall, along with the Police Department)[3] allowed the display of two sex dolls - an African American female and a sheep - in a City shop under his control;
• City Administrator Boorman allowed the display of racist and sexist pictures in a City shop under his control, including:
• A picture of President Obama, sitting next to his wife, photo-shopped to include a white man holding his undivided attention with a banana;
• A picture of a man engaging in mock bestiality with a target deer;
• A picture displaying an Arabic word translated into ...

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