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CYR v. Hannaford Bros Co. LLC

United States District Court, D. Maine

March 12, 2019

ROBERT E. CYR, Plaintiff,
v.
HANNAFORD BROS. CO. LLC and DELHAIZE AMERICA TRANSPORTATION, LLC, Defendants.

          ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          GEORGE Z. SINGAL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 22) filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Having reviewed the record as well as the arguments submitted by counsel, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the Motion for the reasons outlined below.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Generally, a party is entitled to summary judgment if, on the record before the Court, it appears “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). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-248 (1986). An issue is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 248. A “material fact” is one that has “the potential to affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law.” Nereida-Gonzalez v. Tirado-Delgado, 990 F.2d 701, 703 (1st Cir. 1993).

         The party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). In determining whether this burden is met, the Court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences in its favor. Garcia-Garcia v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 878 F.3d 411, 417 (1st Cir. 2017).

         Once the moving party has made this preliminary showing, the nonmoving party must “produce specific facts, in suitable evidentiary form, to establish the presence of a trial worthy issue.” Triangle Trading Co., Inc. v. Robroy Indus., Inc., 200 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 1999) (quotation marks and internal ellipsis omitted). “Mere allegations, or conjecture unsupported in the record, are insufficient.” Barros-Villahermosa v. United States, 642 F.3d 56, 58 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Rivera-Marcano v. Normeat Royal Dane Quality A/S, 998 F.2d 34, 37 (1st Cir. 1993)); see also Wilson v. Moulison N. Corp., 639 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2011) (“A properly supported summary judgment motion cannot be defeated by conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, periphrastic circumlocutions, or rank speculation”). “As to any essential factual element of its claim on which the nonmovant would bear the burden of proof at trial, its failure to come forward with sufficient evidence to generate a trialworthy issue warrants summary judgment for the moving party.” In re Ralar Distribs., Inc., 4 F.3d 62, 67 (1st Cir. 1993).

         In accordance with Local Rule 56(f) and the foregoing legal standard, the Court “constructs the following narrative from the undisputed facts as well as the disputed material facts viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, ” here, Plaintiff Robert Cyr. Ramsdell v. Huhtamaki, Inc., 992 F.Supp.2d 1, 5 (D. Me. 2014); see also D. Me. Loc. R. 56(f) (providing that “[t]he court shall have no independent duty to search or consider any part of the record not specifically referenced in the parties' separate statement of facts”).

         II.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Robert Cyr began his employment with Hannaford Trucking Company (“HTC”) in 1983. He worked for HTC at Distribution Center Number 1 (“DC No. 1”) in various positions until 2014. That year, HTC's ownership converted HTC into a new limited liability company, Delhaize America Transportation, LLC (“DAT”), which retained Cyr as a dispatch supervisor at DC No. 1. DC No. 1 is a facility located in South Portland, Maine, that receives, stores, and delivers grocery items using commercial trucks. As a dispatch supervisor for DAT, Cyr's responsibilities included overseeing truck fleet maintenance, working with the trucks' onboard computers, and monitoring drivers' activities and hours for violations of company policy or U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) regulations. Cyr worked in this role until his termination by DAT on July 8, 2016.

         DOT regulations limit the hours that truck drivers can work and impose record keeping requirements as to drivers' on duty time. See 49 C.F.R. § 395 et seq. As of 2016, DAT employed two timekeeping systems to track drivers' hours and activities: the Carrier Activity Management System (“CAMS”) and the XATANET system (“XATA”). XATA was an onboard software system hardwired into each truck's engine that monitored such things as the truck's location, motion, and speed, as well as the driver's on and off duty time. CAMS was a system that DAT used to, among other things, collect XATA data from the trucks. During a trip, XATA would transmit data from the truck's engine to CAMS via the cellular network. However, trucks from DC No. 1 frequently experienced network connectivity issues, which would prevent XATA from communicating with CAMS. These connectivity problems sometimes resulted in inaccurate driver logs-which were seemingly the primary record of drivers' daily hours and activities-that required manual correction.[1] Among his other duties, Cyr was responsible for correcting these logs by referencing alternative sources of trip information. One such source was a truck's XATA motion log, which continued to collect accurate trip information, including the truck's movement and speed, even without a network connection.

         Beginning in 2015, a series of events occurred at DC No. 1 relevant to Cyr's termination. On October 25, 2015, Bruce Southwick became DC No. 1's general manager of operations. In that role, he supervised the transportation manager who, in turn, supervised the dispatch supervisor. At the time of Southwick's hiring, Cyr was the dispatch supervisor and his long-time colleague, Ron LaFlamme, was the transportation manager. At some point in 2015, Cyr confided in LaFlamme that he did not agree with the direction of the company and was considering retiring in 2016. Thereafter, in February 2016, Southwick initiated a conversation with Cyr about his retirement plans. At a small group meeting, Southwick told Cyr that he had heard Cyr was planning to retire. Cyr, then aged fifty-nine, responded by telling Southwick that he would not be retiring until he turned sixty-seven.

         Following that conversation, according to Cyr, Southwick began to give Cyr the “cold shoulder” and ended one of Cyr's long-term projects without consulting him.[2] (R. Cyr Dep. (ECF No. 23-4), PageID # 391.) Then, in February or March 2016, Southwick convened a staff meeting regarding the need to eliminate truck drivers' speeding violations. DAT policy prohibited drivers from exceeding seventy miles per hour even where the speed limit allowed such a speed. At the meeting, Cyr expressed his opposition to this policy by stating that he did not want to reprimand drivers for doing something that was not illegal. Southwick responded by saying that they needed to move away from Cyr's “dinosaur age related theories.” (R. Cyr Dep. at PageID # 387.)

         At some point between February and April 2016, DAT terminated LaFlamme. In May 2016, Southwick decided to hire Crystal LaCourse-who had been working in the company's logistics department since 2011-as the new transportation manager. Upon hearing this news, Cyr complained to Southwick that LaCourse was not the most qualified candidate.[3] Later that month, Southwick met with Cyr to discuss concerns about Cyr's job performance. To that point in Cyr's thirty-three-year career with the company, he had never been counseled about his behavior. At the meeting, Southwick cited three incidents that he considered to be inappropriate: two post-staff-meeting interactions between Cyr and drivers regarding DAT's speeding policy, and Cyr's LaCourse comments.[4] Southwick then issued Cyr a performance improvement plan (“PIP”), which Cyr signed and did not formally appeal.

         On May 20, 2016, Cyr met with Southwick and LaCourse to discuss the PIP. During this gathering, LaCourse asked Cyr if he could re-structure his schedule to work the evening shift, which would require him to be at DC No. 1 from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Although Cyr was officially the “evening supervisor, ” Cyr had moved his hours toward the daytime following LaFlamme's departure so that he could attend meetings. (LaCourse Dep. (ECF No. 24-3), PageID # 632.) LaCourse stated that she wanted him to return to evenings because the 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. period was the busiest of the day and because DAT was hiring new drivers who needed to be trained.[5] Cyr complied with LaCourse's request. However, he complained to Southwick that this effectively cut him out of Tuesday morning safety meetings for which he continued to call in. On May 25 or 26, Cyr met with Melissa Cyr (“Ms. Cyr” or “Melissa”)[6] of DAT's human resources department to discuss the PIP. At that time, Cyr expressed his belief to Melissa that Southwick targeted him for the PIP because of his age.

         During May and June 2016, while Cyr was still subject to the PIP, DAT's transportation safety and compliance manager, Paul K. Harrill, conducted a companywide audit of drivers' DOT hours of service compliance. Harrill worked at the company's headquarters in North Carolina and neither LaCourse nor Southwick had anything to do with initiating the audit. As part of the audit, Harrill reviewed the “driver log edit detail report, ” which recorded any edits made to the driver logs in DAT's system. (Harrill Dep. (ECF No. 24), PageID # 582.) Harrill searched the report for what he called “severe anomalies, ” which were edits that changed a driver log entry by ten to fifteen minutes or more. (Id. at PageID # 583.) When Harrill found such anomalies, he notified the transportation manager of the distribution center where the edits were made.[7] Harrill estimates that he shared anomalies with LaCourse between five and ten times during the audit.

         After Harrill brought LaCourse's attention to an edit Cyr made to one of driver Jim Bennett's logs, LaCourse decided to investigate the edits being made at DC No. 1. At her deposition, LaCourse claimed that, in June 2016, she pulled a random sample of twenty to thirty edits made by all of her dispatchers for review.[8] LaCourse also asserted that, through a review of the sampled edits, she identified seven occasions in which Cyr falsified a driver's log to avoid a DOT hours of service violation.[9] By LaCourse's account, she then brought these seven edits to Southwick's attention. On June 24, 2016, LaCourse and Southwick met with Cyr in Southwick's office to discuss LaCourse's findings. During the meeting, LaCourse presented Cyr with a few examples of the allegedly inappropriate edits and asked him to explain them.[10] However, given that Cyr had made hundreds of edits during the three weeks preceding the meeting, he was unable to recall exactly why he made the edits in question. Cyr asked Southwick and LaCourse for an opportunity to research the edits so that he could explain them, but they declined his request. Southwick then placed Cyr on “administrative suspension” pending further investigation. (Southwick Dep. (ECF No. 24-6), PageID # 780).

         After the June 24 meeting, Southwick contacted two transportation managers from other distribution centers, Francis Spera and Jeff Caldwell, about the edit investigation. At his deposition, Southwick claimed that he spoke with Spera and Caldwell by phone and asked them to “look over the documentation . . . to look at the adjustments to see if they were outside the norm.” (Id.) Although Southwick was unsure how Spera and Caldwell received LaCourse's documentation of Cyr's edits, he stated his belief that “they reached out to [LaCourse]” to get it. (Id. at PageID # 783.) Southwick also maintained that he contacted both transportation managers by phone more than once, that they each conducted research about edits being made at their own facilities, and that both informed him that Cyr's edits were outside the norm. However, Spera and Caldwell remembered their involvement in the investigation differently: both denied doing any research or viewing any documentation, Spera stated that he only spoke to Southwick once, and Caldwell believed that Southwick only contacted him about XATA editing via e-mail.[11] (See Defendants' Reply SMF (ECF No. 36), PageID # 1008; Spera Dep. (ECF No. 24-7), Page ID #s 812-813; Caldwell Dep. (ECF No. 23-1), PageID # 135.)

         In addition to Spera and Caldwell, Southwick claimed that he spoke with Ken Harrill about Plaintiff's edits and that Harrill told him the edits constituted a “clear violation.” (Southwick Dep. at PageID # 784.) As with Spera and Caldwell, Southwick “believe[d]” Harrill had seen LaCourse's documentation of Plaintiff's edits at the time Harrill made this determination. (Id.) Harrill, on the other hand, testified at his deposition that he was not “aware of any allegations of Mr. Cyr doing anything improper with regard to the editing of driving logs.” (Harrill Dep. at PageID # 609.) Southwick also “believe[d]” that LaCourse contacted other employees who edited driver logs such as Rob Blais, “maybe” Karen Jensen, and “probably” Diane Chretian as part of the investigation.[12] (Southwick Dep. at Page ID # 784.) For her part, however, LaCourse recalled that she only spoke to Southwick, Harrill, and Ms. Cyr during the inquiry.[13] There is also is no indication in the record that either Southwick or LaCourse spoke to any of the drivers whose logs were at issue during their investigation.

         On June 27, Cyr sent Melissa a letter in which he wrote, inter alia, that “I assume that I have been specifically targeted and audited for reasons that I've shared with Melissa at our last meeting.” (Cyr Dep. Ex. 1 (ECF No. 30-5), PageID # 887.) On June 29, Melissa called Cyr who again opined that DAT was discriminating against him based on his age.[14] Then, on July 8, 2016, Cyr met with Southwick and Melissa. At that point, Southwick terminated Cyr for “falsifying” driver logs in violation of company policy.[15] (Southwick Dep. at PageID # 787.) Thereafter, LaCourse informed Spera, whose distribution center worked closely with DC No. 1, that Cyr had been terminated for falsifying documents. Cyr himself did not tell anyone of the stated reason for his termination. DAT then transferred a thirty-eight-year-old warehouse supervisor, Lucas Peterson, to DC No. 1 to become a supervisor. On July 25, 2016, Cyr wrote a letter to appeal his termination. (R. Cyr Dep. Ex. 20 (ECF No. 23-11), PageID #s 554-559.) In response, DAT offered Cyr a severance package. Cyr rejected that offer and ultimately initiated the current litigation.[16]

         III.DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated the Maine Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) by retaliating against him for complaining of age discrimination (Count I); and discriminating against him based on his age (Count II). Plaintiff also contends that Defendants committed defamation and slander per se by publicizing false accusations that he falsified records. (Counts III and IV). As Defendants seek summary judgment on all counts, the Court addresses each count in turn.

         A. ...


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