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Astorga v. Idahoan Foods, LLC

United States District Court, D. Idaho

August 29, 2019

DOROTHY ASTORGA, Plaintiff,
v.
IDAHOAN FOODS, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID C. NYE CHIEF U.S DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         I. OVERVIEW

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Idahoan Foods, LLC's (Idahoan) Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 24) and two Motions to Strike (Dkts. 31, 32). After the parties fully briefed all three motions, the Court held oral arguments and took the matters under advisement.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS each Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff in this matter, Dorothy Astorga, was an employee of Defendant Idahoan from 1987 until her employment was terminated on April 5, 2018. Dkt. 1. Astorga worked on the midnight shift in a variety of different positions, including as a sorter, production operator, and sanitation technician.

         Astorga initially worked as a sorter, where she used her hands to pick weeds, rocks, and other debris from the potatoes before they were processed. Astorga eventually became a production operator, better known to Idahoan employees as a “proctor operator.” As a proctor operator, she operated a large machine known as a “proctor, ” which carves, cooks, and seasons potatoes. Idahoan required proctor operators to clean the proctors, apply additives to preserve and color the product, and sharpen the knives in the machine.

         As part of her employment, Astorga received annual performance reviews where her supervisors evaluated her work, often providing commentary on how Astorga needed to improve. In the final decade of her employment, at least six annual reviews contained categories wherein Astorga fell below the “meets expectations” threshold. Dkt. 24-6, 24-7, 24-8, 24-9, 24-10, and 24-11. The areas in which Astorga underperformed were usually “Accountability, ” “Initiative, ” “Communication, ” or “Time Management.” Id. Astorga performed well in her “Attendance, ” “Punctuality, ” “Product Quality, ” and “Safety” areas of performance review. Id.

         In addition to performance reviews, Idahoan employees gave informal and formal discipline for certain behavior, including: a failure to meet performance requirements, harassment, violation of company policy, and insubordination. Idahoan kept these written-warnings in the employee's personnel file. Astorga's personnel file contained three written-warnings. Dkt. 24-13.

         Astorga's first written-warning was in November 2011, for failing to clean her proctor. Id. Astorga received additional written-warnings for the same conduct in December 2016, and September 2017. Id. Astorga's 2015 annual performance review notes, again, her refusal to clean her proctor, and further indicates Astorga's poor attitude toward her co-workers and supervisors. Dkt. 24-14. Astorga's September 2017 written- warning included similar statements regarding Astorga's relationship with co-workers and supervisors. Dkt. 24-13. All of Astorga's written-warnings explained that her failure to finish her work resulted in the next-shift having to complete it, and that any further failure to clean her equipment could result in her termination. Id.

         Astorga also received verbal warnings from her supervisors. In 2015, Astorga's then supervisor, Conrad Harris, personally documented two occasions on which he had to verbally correct Astorga's behavior. Dkt. 24-29.

         In August 2017, Astorga made an offensive remark to another employee. Dkt. 24-15. This incident came a few days after Astorga's new supervisor, David Young, discussed this type of behavior with Astorga. Dkt. 24-15. Astorga's September 2017 written warning for failing to clean her proctor noted that incident. Dkt. 24-13. Astorga's September 2017 third written warning placed her on probation for six months. Id. Instead of terminating Astorga in September 2017, Young claims he wanted to give her a “final written warning with total understanding that anything more will result in her termination.” Dkt. 24-16.

         While Astorga was officially on probation in November 2017 Young was notified that Astorga was continuing her behavior of leaving work for the next shift to finish. In response, Young demoted Astorga from proctor operator to sanitation technician. Young wrote in an email that he believed a less demanding position would allow Astorga to remain with Idahoan for “some time to come.” Dkt. 24-18.

         The demotion officially occurred in December 2017. At that time, Idahoan gave Astorga a form titled “Sanitation Technician Position Description” outlining the essential functions of sanitation technicians. Dkt. 24-19. On the form was the question, “Are you able to perform these tasks with or without reasonable accommodation?” Id. In response, Astorga circled “Yes” next to that question. Id. The form also provided a blank space for Astorga to identify any accommodations she would need to perform the job, if any. Id. Astorga left the space blank and signed the form. Id. Astorga verbally confirmed with Young that she was able to perform the required tasks. Dkt. 24-5.

         As a sanitation technician, Astorga's primary responsibility was cleaning tanks that held the potatoes. Idahoan had hoses throughout the facility to assist the sanitation technicians. Each hose was 50 to 100 feet in length and were comparable to a garden hose. The hoses were attached to a wheel on one end to allow for easy dispensing and roll-up.

         In addition to routine cleaning assignments, sanitation technicians were also responsible for spontaneous events where potatoes would plug drains, causing flooding and a subsequent mess. These plug-ups, or “upset situations” as Young describes them, were “all hands-on deck” situations. Dkt. 24-5. Sanitations technicians, however, bore most of the responsibility. Since these “upset situations” were always unexpected, sanitation technicians needed to perform their routine tasks timely, so they were ready for these events should they occur without warning.

         As a Sanitation Technician, Astorga struggled with her time management and regularly left work for the next shift to finish. Astorga also recruited employees from the sorting line to perform her assigned work. When upset situations occurred, Astorga sometimes refused to help. Young verbally coached Astorga regarding her behavior. Dkt. 24-5. In March 2018, Young held a meeting to instruct employees that each should perform his or her own job and not tell others how to do their jobs. At that time, Astorga challenged Young and stated she should be able to pull sorters away from the sorting line to help her. Young instructed her she could not.

         After that meeting, Young began a conversation about Astorga's termination with Idahoan management. One such conversation occurred between Young and another Idahoan supervisor, Kurt Murdoch, on March 29, 2018.

         At this time, David Meinhardt, a shift lead who reported to Young, was Astorga's supervisor. According to Meinhardt, on or about March 30, 2018, Astorga refused to help with an upset situation in the “reg room.” Dkt. 24-20. On March 31, Astorga asked Meinhardt if she could work the sorting line a couple days a week. Meinhart claims Astorga never mentioned arthritis or wrist pain to Meinhardt when she made the request. Astorga disputes this and claims to have told Meinhardt specifically about the arthritis in her wrists at this same time. Astorga further claims that she told Meinhart that she did not mind if Idahoan said no to her request, and that she would continue with the sanitation technician job for the entire week if Idahoan preferred. Meinhardt said he would pass on her request to Young, who was not present that day.

         On April 1, Meinhardt informed Young that Astorga refused to help with the upset situation, and further, had requested to work the sorting line. That same day, Young sent an email to Idahoan management explaining his intent to terminate Astorga based on her refusal to do her job and the “continual nature of the problems surrounding her.” Dkt. 24-21. Idahoan management agreed with Young's recommendation to terminate Astorga. Dkt. 24-5. Idahoan discussed the best way to terminate Astorga based on how poorly she had received reprimands in the past.

         Also on April 1, 2018, Astorga claims that she specifically told Young that the reason she was requesting the temporary moves was because she was having wrist pain from moving the heavy hoses as a sanitation technician, but if she was able to work at a different work station one or two days that week, that would help her wrists to recover. Astorga claims that she told Young that it was okay if he said no, and that she would continue doing the sanitation technician job if he preferred. Astorga claims Young did not say one way or another whether he would approve of Astorga working at a different work station that week, but he sent her to a different work area to make boxes and tie them up, which helped to give Astorga's wrist a rest for that day. Astorga claims Young sent her to a different area again to bag potatoes the next day (April 2) to give her wrist a rest. That day, Astorga claims she went to Young's office to thank him for helping grant her alleged requested accommodation. Astorga claims the next day, April 3, Young sent Astorga back to do the sanitation technician job. Astorga asserts that at that time, she thought that the company had agreed to her request, and she was happy with the schedule.

         On April 5, 2018, just prior to Astorga's shift ending, Young and Idahoan manager Danny Yates, met with Astorga and informed her of their decision to terminate her employment. Astorga claims that at that meeting she brought up her wrist pain in protest of her firing. Astorga claims that at no time did Idahoan discuss her alleged arthritis with her, nor what she could and could not do to ascertain whether the company could accommodate her. Idahoan claims Astorga never mentioned her arthritis in her requests to work a different job a few times a week. Meinhardt acknowledged that Astorga could perform the job at the time of her termination.

         Astorga filed this action claiming Idahoan terminated her because she suffered from arthritis, and that her request to work the sorting line was a request for a reasonable accommodation. According to Astorga, she notified Meinhardt that she had arthritis on March 31, 2018, the same time she requested to work the sorting line. Astorga also claims that she notified Young on April 3, 2018. Idahoan denies Astorga ever mentioned she had arthritis or any similar condition when making her requests to either of these individuals. Astorga also claims Idahoan discriminated against her based on her age. Dkt. 1. At the time of her termination Astorga was 63 years old. Dkt. 28-2. Astorga claims several team leads and co-workers asked about her age and her retirement plans, and that Idahoan ultimately terminated her-in part-because of her age. Dkt. 24-4, 28-2. Idahoan denies these claims as well. Astorga claims that due to her termination, she has suffered lost income and lost insurance and other benefits in the past, and she will continue to make less than she made at Idahoan for years to come. Additionally, Astorga claims her termination has caused her severe anxiety, stress, and other pain and suffering.

         Following discovery, Idahoan filed a motion seeking summary judgment on all of Astorga's claims.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         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). The 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, the 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, the 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 ...


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