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Higgins v. Northwest Farm Credit Services, ACA

United States District Court, D. Idaho

May 1, 2018




         I. OVERVIEW

         This employment discrimination case comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff Alexia Higgins alleges Defendants discriminated against her because she was female and pregnant. She also alleges Defendants failed to accommodate her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, failed to provide her benefits under the Family Medical Leave Act, and did not pay her the same amount as her male colleagues. The Court held oral argument on the Motion on April 4, 2018. After reviewing the briefs, record, and statements made at oral argument, the Court finds good cause to GRANT the Motion for Summary Judgment and DISMISS this case in its entirety.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         Defendants Northwest Farm Credit Services, ACA, Northwest Farm Credit Services, PCA, and Northwest Farm Credit Services, FLCA operate as a single employer or joint employer and collectively do business as Northwest Farm Credit Services (collectively “Northwest FCS”). Northwest FCS is a financial cooperative that provides financing and related services to farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses, commercial fishermen, timber producers, rural homeowners, and crop insurance customers in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. Northwest FCS hired Higgins in 2011. Higgins began working in Northwest FCS's Blackfoot office in early December 2011 as a “Financial Specialist” (“FS”). As a FS at Northwest FCS, Higgins provided administrative support to Northwest FCS's “Relationship Managers” (“RM”) by interfacing with clients and ensuring the appropriate loan documentation and paperwork was completed.

         In the fall of 2012, Higgins discovered she was pregnant with twins. In January 2013, Higgins' doctor placed her on bedrest for the remainder of her pregnancy. At the time, Higgins immediate supervisor was Kara Welch, who was the Operations Manager for the eastern Idaho region. Welch remained Higgins' supervisor until mid-February 2015.[2] Welch helped Higgins complete the necessary medical leave paperwork and assisted Higgins in making modifications to her position requirements so she could continue working from the hospital.

         In the fall of 2013, Northwest FCS transferred Higgins to the Idaho Falls office. There, she acted as support staff for Cody Hendrix and Steve Smith. Around this time, Higgins began performing duties that were outside of what was typically required for a FS. For example, she engaged in Country Home Loan sales training, completed the training necessary to become a Credit Officer (“CO”), managed projects, trained new staff, and performed a variety of other tasks necessary to assess, assemble, and close loan packages.

         In May of 2014, Higgins applied for an open CO position. Lance Zollinger, the Senior Vice President of Lending for eastern Idaho, would supervise the position. During the first round of interviews, Higgins interviewed with Zollinger, Welch, Hendrix, and Smith. Zollinger recommended that Higgins and two male candidates advance to the second round of interviews. During the second round, Higgins interviewed with Idaho President Blair Wilson and Executive Vice President Fred DePell. Zollinger was also in the room during the interview. DePell made the final decision as to who would fill the position. Northwest FCS hired an outside candidate named Matt Macedeo for the CO position. Northwest FCS says it selected Macedo because he expressed a strong interest in moving into a RM position in the future and that was a quality it likes COs to possess. In contrast to Macedo, Northwest FCS states that Higgins clearly indicated in her interview that she did not have any interest in moving into a RM position.

         Welch was very interested in seeing Higgins advance within Northwest FCS. Accordingly, after Northwest FCS did not hire Higgins for the CO position, Welch asked Higgins if she would be interested in a new position in which she would be responsible for marketing and producing Country Home Loans (“CHL”).[3] They had previously discussed that CHLs were a severely underutilized product at Northwest FCS. After Higgins and Welch conceptualized what would eventually become the CHL RM position, Welch approached Zollinger and proposed that Higgins transition into marketing and producing CHLs for eastern Idaho. Zollinger approved of the proposal. Wilson and DePell then also approved the proposal.

         In late August 2014, Higgins moved into a FS II role as part of her transition into the CHL RM. Higgins received a mid-year 15% raise to $44, 160. On March 1, 2015, Northwest FCS promoted Higgins into the CHL RM position (an RM I position) and gave her a raise to $50, 000.

         Higgins alleges Northwest FCS treated her differently than the other RMs in eastern Idaho. Higgins did not have any designated support staff on site in her new RM position. Rather, Northwest FCS assigned Jaime Oliver, a woman working at a different branch who was already supporting three other RMs, as support staff. All of the other RMs in eastern Idaho had designated support staff on site. Higgins was also required to travel much more, and cover a larger geographic region, than the other RMs in eastern Idaho to service loan inquires and customers. Northwest FCS initially assigned Cody Hendrix, an RM in the Idaho Falls office, to answer Higgins questions as she transitioned into the RM role. Hendrix was unable to answer Higgins' questions about CHLs, so Higgins requested an off-site mentor. Northwest FCS assigned Alison Jenkins, an RM based in Nampa, Idaho, to act as Higgins off-site mentor. However, Higgins' attempts to “reach out and get answers from Alison Jenkins were unfruitful.” Dkt. 25-1, at 19. When Higgins complained to Zollinger about the relationship, Zollinger encouraged Higgins to continued reaching out to her.

         In late summer 2015, Higgins learned that she was pregnant. At the time, Northwest FCS was in the process of adding a CHL RM position in northern Utah. Higgins was supposed to train the new CHL RM, Cody Montgomery, starting in the late fall/early winter of 2015. When Higgins told Zollinger she was pregnant, Zollinger told Higgins that the timing was “unfortunate” and “less than favorable conditions” because Higgins was supposed to provide support to the new Utah CHL RM soon. Dkt. 25-1, at 17. Zollinger also questioned whether it was in Higgins' family's best interest for her to return to work after having a third child. Id. at 22.

         On September 8, 2015, Northwest FCS notified Higgins and 154[4] other employees via email that they were required to complete and return a form authorizing Northwest FCS to obtain information about their criminal background, financial responsibility, character, and general fitness in order to comply with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (“Dodd-Frank Act”). Dkt. 23-3, at 33. Northwest provided these employees with the authorization form, a list of answers to frequently asked questions, and an FCRA Summary of Rights. Id. at 5. Previously, in January of 2014, Northwest FCS had required 208 employees to complete this form. All 208 employees had complied. Following a “comprehensive assessment of job duties, ” after Northwest FCS completed a structural “realignment” in late 2014, early 2015, it determined that the additional 155 employees also needed to complete the form. Northwest directed the 155 employees to complete and return the form by September 21, 2015. Dkt. 23-3, at 33.

         Higgins was one of 28 employees that did not complete the form by the deadline. Id. at 5. On October 2, 2015, Jeff Brown, Northwest FCS's Assistant General Counsel, emailed these 28 employees a written reminder to complete the form at their “earliest convenience.” Id. at 44.

         Higgins responded to Brown's email that day. Id. at 47. She expressed her concern that there was no requirement for Northwest FCS “to provide prior notification or justification” for any future credit requests and did not provide an employee with an opportunity to object to future requests or revoke the credit authorization. Id. Higgins' email did not mention concerns she had over providing her social security number. Id. However, Higgins asserts generally that she had some trepidations about completing the form because she had previously had her identity stolen and she had concerns about whether Northwest FCS would adequately protect her personal information. Brown responded to Higgins' email shortly thereafter, indicating he could not change the form and directing Higgins to speak with Zollinger or Wanda Todd in Human Resources if she still had concerns. Id. at 46.

         On October 20, 2015, Brown sent an email to the last seven employees who had not returned the form, including Higgins, instructing them to complete the form by October 21, 2015. Id. at 51. Brown warned that he would “elevate th[e] matter to higher authorities after that time” if any employee failed to meet this deadline. Id.

         By November 9, 2015, three employees, including Higgins, had still failed to fill out the form. Id. at 53. Brown emailed these employees and their supervisors, instructing them to return the forms “immediately.” Id. One of these employees had left Northwest FCS's employment and the second employee completed the form within minutes. Id. at 7. Thus, as of November 9, 2015, Higgins was the only employee who had not completed and returned the required form. On November 10, 2015, Zollinger emailed Higgins telling her to complete the authorization form and to copy him when she emailed it to Brown. Dkt. 23-6, at 50.

         On November 17, 2018, Todd asked Zollinger if Higgins had completed the form. Zollinger followed up with Higgins regarding the form. Higgins told him she had not yet submitted the form. Zollinger sent Higgins an instant message stating, “Come back to my office before you leave. I have been in discussion [sic] with both HR and Legal regarding the gravity of not signing the authorization. Much more vital to your continued employment than I think you are assuming . . .” Id. at 53. Zollinger then met with Higgins and communicated that “the authorization document is not subject to change and that it is a non-negotiable requirement of her employment.” Id. at 56. He communicated that if it was not signed and submitted by November 18, 2015, “then she has deliberately chosen not to comply with a requirement of employment and would be subject to termination.” Id.

         On November 18, 2015, at 2:27 p.m. Higgins emailed Human Resource Generalist Scott Carver a signed authorization form that did not provide her social security number, date of birth, or driver's license number. Id. at 62-63. Higgins maintains that she submitted an incomplete form because she did not have her wallet with her and did not have her prior address available at the time. At 3:38 p.m., Carver replied to Higgins' email and copied Zollinger, directing Higgins to “complete the form in its entirety and resend to me by the end of the day today.” Id. at 65. Zollinger replied to the email chain at 3:54 pm stating, “I'll need to confirm that you have completed the form in its entirety and signed before you leave the office today.” Id. at 67.

         Higgins contacted her husband, who was able to locate her wallet and provide the requested information. Dkt. 25-1, at 14. At 3:59 p.m., Higgins responded to Carver's email with another copy of the authorization form. Dkt 23-6, at 70. On this form, Higgins included her former address, date of birth, and driver's license number. Id. at 71. Higgins still did not include her social security number. Id. In her email she explained, “The form states that my SSN is requested and not required.”[5] Id. at 70. Higgins left the office on November 18, 2015, without providing a form with her social security number, despite Zollinger's “direct instruction to Higgins that she must complete the form in its entirely before she left the office.” Dkt. 23-5, at 22.

         On November 19, 2015, Zollinger attempted to contact Higgins in order to end her employment. Id. at 23. Zollinger sent Higgins a text message and email, and called her and left her a voicemail. Id. Higgins did not respond to any of these communication attempts. Id. Higgins's statement of disputed facts does not dispute that Zollinger attempted to contact Higgins. Dkt. 24-1.

         Higgins had a scheduled prenatal appointment at 10:00 am on November 19, 2015, with Dr. Margaret Huggins. She worked from home for two hours that morning prior to the doctor's appointment. Higgins maintains that she did not want to admit to herself or her doctor that she was struggling with anxiety, headaches, and “other symptoms.” Dkt. 24-3, at 4. Accordingly, she did not report this information to her doctor at that appointment. Id. Higgins' blood pressure was normal and Dr. Huggins noted that she was “doing well.” Dkt. 23-7, at 91.

         Higgins returned to Dr. Huggins' office that afternoon for an unscheduled appointment. Higgins states she returned to Dr. Huggins' office because she decided she needed to be honest with her doctor about her mental state and overall well-being. Dkt. 25-1, at 16. Dr. Huggins recalls Higgins was crying, distraught, and anxious, and that she reported suffering from insomnia. Dkt. 23-7, at 86-92. Dr. Huggins provided Higgins with a note that stated, “Please excuse from work for 2 weeks. Any questions please contact our office.” Dkt. 24-6, at 3. Higgins emailed this note to Zollinger at 4:30 pm that day. Id. at 1. In this email she stated, “I know there are matters pending on customer files and need to figure out how you would like me to handle them, hand them off, etc. while I am out.” Id.

         On the afternoon of November 20, 2015, Northwest FCS sent Higgins an email regarding her termination. It stated as follows:

Based on your failure to respond to Lance Zollinger's multiple attempts to reach you by email, voice mail, and text yesterday, your failure to answer a call from Lance at 8:45 am MST this morning, and your subsequent email to Lance after that call asking that any urgent matters be emailed to you, this email is to notify you that your failure to fully and timely comply with the requirement to authorize Northwest FCS to obtain an investigative consumer report, including a credit check, by the extended deadline of 5:00 Mountain time on Wednesday, November 18, 2015, demonstrated your decision to resign from Northwest Farm Credit Services. Therefore, your final day of employment was November 18, 2015.

Dkt. 25-2, at 33. The parties disagree as to whether Higgins' last day of employment was November 18, 2015, or November 20, 2015. Northwest FCS paid Higgins through the end of November 2015.

         Higgins filed this lawsuit on September 2, 2016. On September 12, 2017, Judge B. Lynn Winmill transferred this case to the undersigned. On January 24, 2018, Northwest FCS filed the pending motion for summary judgment on all claims. Higgins asserts nine causes of action: (1) gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”); (2) gender discrimination in violation of the Idaho Human Rights Act (“IHRA”); (3) pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title VII; (4) pregnancy discrimination in violation of the IHRA; (5) failure to accommodate in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); (6) failure to accommodate in violation of the IHRA; (7) disability discrimination in violation of the ADA; (8) disability discrimination in violation of the IHRA; and (9) violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).


         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that 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). This Court's role at summary judgment is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Zetwick v. Cty. of Yolo, 850 F.3d 436, 441 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). In considering a motion for summary judgment, this Court must “view[] the facts in the non-moving party's favor.” Id. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the respondent need only present evidence upon which “a reasonable juror drawing all inferences in favor of the respondent could return a verdict in [his or her] favor.” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, this Court must enter summary judgment if a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The respondent cannot simply rely on an unsworn affidavit or the pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment; rather the respondent must set forth the “specific facts, ” supported by evidence, with “reasonable particularity” that precludes summary judgment. Far Out Prods., Inc. v. Oskar, 247 F.3d 986, 997 (9th Cir. 2001).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Gender ...

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