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Coad v. Buckman Laboratories Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maine

March 18, 2016

MICHELLE COAD, Plaintiff,
v.
BUCKMAN LABORATORIES, INC., Defendant.

ORDER ON PARTIES’ CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Nancy Torresen, United States Chief District Judge

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Buckman Laboratories, Inc.’s (“Buckman” or the “Defendant”) motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 30) on all of Plaintiff Michelle Coad’s (“Coad” or the “Plaintiff”) claims, and Coad’s partial motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 44) on her breach of contract, unpaid wages, and personnel file claims. For the reasons stated below, the Defendant’s motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART, and the Plaintiff’s motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

BACKGROUND[1]

At the summary judgment stage, I view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, drawing all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor. Noonan v. Staples, Inc., 556 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2009). Thus, I recount the facts-to the extent they are supported by the record-in the light most favorable to Coad when considering her claims for gender discrimination, disability discrimination, and whistleblower retaliation. And because the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the breach of contract, unpaid wages, and personnel file claims, I “consider each motion separately, drawing inferences against each movant in turn.” Showtime Entm't, LLC v. Town of Mendon, 769 F.3d 61, 69 (1st Cir. 2014) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

Coad’s Job at Buckman

In January of 2012, Coad began working as an account manager for the northeast region of Buckman’s Paper Technologies Division. Def.’s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1 (“DSMF”) (ECF No. 30-2). Coad worked as the account manager for the Verso Corporation (“Verso”) paper mill in Bucksport, Maine. DSMF ¶ 2. Coad’s regional manager was John Desjardins, and he reported to Roger Smithson, Buckman’s sales director. DSMF ¶¶ 4-5. Matt Archambeau was the general manager of the Verso mill in Bucksport, and Carrie Enos was the operations manager. DSMF ¶¶ 6-7.

Andy Zebiak was Buckman’s previous account manager for the Verso mill; Verso had not been satisfied with his performance. Pl.’s Statement of Additional Material Facts ¶ 95 (“PSAMF”) (ECF No. 40). Coad was hired by Buckman to “stabilize and develop business” with Verso. DSMF ¶ 3. To that end, Coad provided “good customer service to Verso and solidified Buckman’s position at the mill, ” and “everyone was happy with her job performance through December 2012.” PSAMF ¶¶ 103-104. Moreover, after Coad was hired as the Verso account manager, Verso never expressed dissatisfaction with Buckman’s performance. PSAMF ¶ 110. Rather, Archambeau told Smithson “numerous times that . . . Coad had done a phenomenal job.” PSAMF ¶ 169.

Safety-Related Incidents During her employment at Buckman, Coad observed and reported several safety-related incidents, many of which involved Buckman’s Oxamine unit. The Oxamine system was a water disinfecting project that Buckman was developing for the Verso mill. Coad Dep. 153:1-5 (ECF No. 30-11). In October of 2012, when Buckman began the Oxamine trial at Verso, a Verso employee asked Coad “to disclose the chemistry of potentially vented gas from the Oxamine system.” Coad Aff. ¶ 7 (ECF No. 40-1). In order to do this, Coad e-mailed Buckman’s Principal Scientist, Dr. Thomas McNeel. PSAMF ¶ 137; Ex. A to Coad Aff. Coad asked Dr. McNeel what gases would be produced and what would be the approximate evacuation radius if the wrong chemicals were mixed in the Oxamine unit. Ex. A to Coad Aff. Dr. McNeel responded that “[t]he gases produced will be a mixture of monochloramine, dichloramine, nitrogen trichloride, and chlorine. The major problematic components of these gases will be nitrogen trichloride and chlorine.” PSAMF ¶ 137. In terms of an evacuation radius, Dr. McNeel opined: “The only answer that I can give is that if you smell it, run away. As long as you can still smell it, keep running……” PSAMF ¶ 137.

On one occasion, Coad witnessed Andy Zebiak return from the Oxamine system coughing, hacking, with his eyes watering, and waving his hand in front of his face. Coad Dep. 143:23-144:1-4. Zebiak said that “there [were] leaks out there” and that they “need[ed] better ventilation.” Coad Dep. 144:5-14, 145:19-21. Coad told Desjardins that they needed to report this to the mill-especially since the Buckman employees were getting ready to go home for the day and no one would be there to monitor the Oxamine system at night-but Desjardins said they were not going to report the incident to the mill. Coad Dep. 144:15-23.

On another occasion in December of 2012, Coad sent an e-mail to Buckman safety personnel reporting “a sodium hypochlorite leak at [Buckman’s] Oxamine unit.” Ex. 6 to Desjardins Dep. (ECF No. 40-4). Coad reported that, while trying to fix the leak, an absorbent towelette she was using began to smolder and became warm. Ex. 6 to Desjardins Dep. Coad further noted that the Oxamine unit had many leaks and criticized the ergonomic access to the unit. Ex. 6 to Desjardins Dep.

Additionally, after Coad had been working at Buckman for a few months, she discovered chemicals in unlabeled portable tanks and informed Desjardins. PSAMF ¶ 114. Coad found this very concerning because it was an OSHA violation for the tanks to be unlabeled. Coad Dep. 73:5-9. When Coad asked Desjardins what she should do with the tanks, Desjardins was initially reluctant to do anything. Coad Dep. 73:14-18. Coad also learned at some point that an unused cleaning solution was poured down the mill’s sewer in violation of mill policy, and she later disclosed this information to Archambeau. DSMF ¶ 85; Archambeau Aff. ¶ 5 (ECF No. 40-2). Coad further complained that Buckman employees were not using respirators while performing felt washes-a process that cleans the felt-covered rollers that make paper. DSMF ¶¶ 85, 86.

Gender Discrimination

Coad also felt that she was being treated differently by Buckman because of her gender. On one occasion, Smithson told Coad that “he paid another employee more than his counterpart because he had a wife and children.” Coad Dep. 108:5-7. Smithson was also critical of the job performance of Carrie Enos, Verso’s operations manager, even though she was “very highly regarded.” Coad Dep. 108:17-21.

Coad initially had the authority to delegate tasks to other Buckman employees when she was hired as an account manager. That authority was removed in early 2013 because Buckman’s male employees were not happy with her management and she “was being very difficult on the other representatives in the account.” PSAMF ¶ 109; Def.’s Resp. to Pl.’s Statement of Additional Material Facts ¶ 109 (“DRPSAMF”) (ECF No. 46); Smithson Dep. 66:13-15 (ECF No. 30-9); Desjardins Dep. 30:5-12. However, Verso did not express any dissatisfaction with Coad’s performance. PSAMF ¶ 110. And Smithson never took away delegatory authority for a male account manager who worked for him during his tenure at Buckman. PSAMF ¶ 171.

Coad’s Unhappiness with her Job

Although Coad was performing her job well in 2012, she began to express her dissatisfaction after she had been there for a “couple of months.” DSMF ¶ 13; Coad Dep. 177:12-16. Coad was unhappy because she thought that the job was different than what had been described to her when she interviewed for the position. Coad Dep. 176:22-177:1-14. She also was dissatisfied with her lack of authority, her salary, the number of hours she was working, and staffing levels. Coad Dep. 178:2-3; 178:9-25; 179:14; Coad Aff. ¶ 5.

In January of 2013, Coad met with Desjardins and Smithson. Coad Dep. 180:7-13. At this meeting, Coad expressed her dissatisfaction with the job and told Desjardins and Smithson that “if the job did not change, [she] could not go on in the job.” DSMF ¶ 19. In February of 2013, both Desjardins and Smithson told Coad that the job was not going to change. Coad Dep. 180:22-181:1-2.

Coad’s Anxiety

In the late summer or early fall of 2012, Coad began to experience symptoms of anxiety. PSAMF ¶ 138. Coad’s symptoms “included an inability to focus or concentrate, sleep disruption, difficulty forming rational thoughts, nausea, and racing thoughts.” PSAMF ¶ 139. Coad also had difficulty interacting with others, including her husband, and she avoided social situations and became “somewhat of a hermit.” PSAMF ¶ 139. By November of 2012, Coad’s anxiety significantly increased, and it continued to worsen “until she started seeking treatment with a counselor, Nancy Plouffe, in February 2013 and also with her primary care provider, Zoe Tenney.” PSAMF ¶ 138. Tenney diagnosed Coad with acute anxiety. PSAMF ¶ 198.

On February 7, 2013, Coad left work early because she was very upset, stressed, and tired. PSAMF ¶ 140. Smithson sent a text message to Coad on February 7th, stating: “I know there are several things that are bothering you. I would like to talk when it’s convenient for you.” Ex. 15 to Coad Dep. (ECF No. 40-3). Coad responded: “I can’t talk right now. I’ll call later, ” to which Smithson replied “[c]all anytime.” Ex. 15 to Coad Dep. Coad called out sick from work on Friday, February 8, 2013, and was out for a previously scheduled vacation from February 11th to the 13th. PSAMF ¶ 142. On February 12, 2013, Smithson sent another text message to Coad while she was on vacation, writing: “[w]e never got to talk last week. Please call this week if you want. I would like to help if I can.” Ex. 15 to Coad Dep.; PSAMF ¶ 143. Coad did not respond to Smithson’s message before she returned to work on February 14, 2013. DSMF ¶ 26.

Coad’s Meeting with Verso Employees

When Coad returned to work, Enos asked Coad how things were going, and Coad told Enos that she was having a hard time with her job. Coad Dep. 182:20-183:2. Shortly after this conversation, Enos asked Coad to meet with her and Archambeau. PSAMF ¶ 145; Coad Dep. 183:6-16. Before that meeting, Smithson had told Archambeau that he was concerned Buckman was going to lose Coad. Coad Dep.

183:2-16. Archambeau’s intention in meeting with Coad was to “facilitate [a] resolution of the issues between [Coad] and Buckman, so that [Coad] would stay on as account manager.” Archambeau Aff. ¶ 10. During their meeting, Coad expressed dissatisfaction with her job and also informed Archambeau about two incidents that she considered safety concerns: (1) leaks in the Oxamine system; and (2) the discharge of chemicals into Verso’s drainage system. Archambeau Aff. ¶ 5. Archambeau did not consider these incidents safety concerns, but he did not express this belief to Coad. Archambeau Aff. ¶ 5.

Archambeau offered to intervene with Smithson to address some of Coad’s concerns, and he later had a conversation with Smithson about Coad. PSAMF ¶ 149; Archambeau Aff. ¶ 6. Archambeau subsequently reported to Coad that Smithson was upset because Coad had not responded to his last text message. PSAMF ¶ 150. Archambeau also told Coad he was unable to help because Coad and Smithson were “worlds apart” and that Coad “might want to start talking to them about an exit strategy.” PSAMF ¶ 151.

Coad’s Relationship with Buckman Continues to Deteriorate

On February 19, 2013, Coad sent an e-mail to several Buckman employees, and copied the e-mail to Smithson and Desjardins. PSAMF ¶ 152. After receiving Coad’s message, Smithson and Desjardins exchanged the following e-mails:

Smithson: 5 questions, and 3 commands on one email. Doesn’t really look like someone that is leaving soon.
Desjardins: it would seem unlikely.
Smithson: I intend to change that next Tuesday morning.
Desjardins: Agreed!

PSAMF ¶ 153. During a telephone conversation between Coad and Smithson on February 22, 2013, Smithson told Coad that “the job [wasn’t] going to change, that [she] had complained enough, and that [she] had defied him.” Ex. 16 to Coad Dep. (ECF No. 46-1). Smithson further told Coad that he did not think she could be happy with her job, and that he was requesting a meeting in person on the following Tuesday in Bangor. Ex. 16 to Coad Dep. The following Tuesday was February 26, 2013-the same date referenced in Smithson’s February 19th e-mail to Desjardins. PSAMF ¶ 154.

On February 26th, Coad met with Smithson and Karen Damrell from Buckman’s Human Resources department. PSAMF ¶ 156. During this meeting, Smithson told Coad that her “performance had been disappointing and that [she] had not been able to move the [Verso] account forward.”[2] PSAMF ¶ 157. Smithson also repeatedly told Coad that she had “defied him, ” PSAMF ¶ 156, and that he had a responsibility to protect Buckman employees from the “rage inside” of her. Ex. 16 to Coad Dep. As a result, Coad was asked to sign a formal management referral that required her to attend anger management counseling and work with Buckman’s employee assistance program (the “EAP”). DSMF ¶ 42; PSAMF ¶ 158. Coad was told that she would not be allowed to return to work until a Buckman representative cleared her to do so. Ex. 16 to Coad Dep. After the meeting, Coad’s administrative ID and password were scrambled so that she could not access Buckman’s system or her e-mails. PSAMF ¶ 159.

Coad’s Leave of Absence

The February 26th meeting was very upsetting for Coad. Coad Dep. 211:9-18. Still, she set up anger management counseling with her counselor, Nancy Plouffe, and Plouffe later informed Buckman that Coad did not have anger management issues.[3] PSAMF ¶¶ 172-73. But Coad was told by Paula Wilkinson, an EAP employee, that she still needed to see Plouffe once a week as a condition of her employment. Coad Dep. 209:21-210:2.

Although Coad was released to return to work on March 4, 2013, she was still upset and confused because of Wilkinson’s “stated requirement of continued treatment, so [Coad] saw her doctor, who recommended that [Coad] remain out of work for a few weeks.”[4] PSAMF ¶ 175. As a result, on February 28, 2013, Coad was given a medical excuse putting her off work from March 4th to March 11th. Coad Dep. 211:22-212:2. Buckman designated Coad’s leave as Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave, effective March 4, 2013. DSMF ¶ 51. Tenney gave Coad another medical excuse on March 6, 2013 extending her leave to March 18th. See PSAF ¶ 176; Ex. 21 to Coad Dep.

Coad remained out of work for several weeks. PSAMF ¶ 176. On April 1, 2013, Tenney released Coad to return to work on April 8, 2013 for four hours a day for two weeks until Tenney could reevaluate her to determine whether she could return to work full-time. PSAMF ¶ 176; Tenney Dep. 75:17-25; 76:5-11, 21-24 (ECF No. 46-2). At this time, Tenney had not concluded that Coad’s restriction to part-time work was permanent because she did not “know what would have happened if [Coad] had gone back [to work] half-time.” Tenney Dep. 89:13-14 (ECF No. 30-10). Instead, Tenney hoped that Coad would be able to transition ...


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