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Knight v. O'Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maine

March 21, 2019

WENDY KNIGHT, Plaintiff,



         Before me is Defendant O'Reilly Auto Enterprises' (“O'Reilly's”) motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 and for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Def.'s Mot. (ECF No. 31). For the reasons set out below, the Defendant's motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         BACKGROUND [1]

         O'Reilly is in the business of selling auto parts to commercial installers, such as automobile repair shops. Consolidated Statement of Material Facts (“CSMF”) ¶ 5 (ECF No. 59). Nicholas Thomas is a Regional Manager at O'Reilly for the region that includes Maine. CSMF ¶ 1. Jesse Hebert, who reports to Thomas, is a District Manager responsible for ten stores in Southern Maine. CSMF ¶ 3. In about 2016, Don Liedke assumed the position of Store Manager at O'Reilly's Portland store. CSMF ¶ 63.

         Plaintiff Wendy Knight was hired to work as a delivery specialist at O'Reilly's Portland store in May of 2014. CSMF ¶ 14. Knight's job responsibilities included driving a truck to make deliveries to O'Reilly customers and stocking store shelves when there were no deliveries to be made. CSMF ¶¶ 6, 20. For over two years, Knight worked weekdays from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm during the school year, which allowed her to care for her two children who have disabilities. CSMF ¶¶ 16-18. Knight also worked eight hour shifts on some holidays, weekends, and during the summer. CSMF ¶ 16. Knight met performance expectations at all times during her employment with O'Reilly. CSMF ¶ 101.

         At some point before May of 2016, Knight started complaining to Liedke that the women at O'Reilly's Portland store were expected to work harder then the men. The essence of her complaint was that the women who worked as delivery specialists were required to shelve parts while their colleagues who were men were allowed to remain idle waiting for their next delivery assignment. CSMF ¶¶ 64-66. On April 29, 2016, Knight called an O'Reilly corporate hotline for employees to express her complaint that she was discriminated against at work because she was a woman. CSMF ¶¶ 68-69. As a result of that call, District Manager Hebert met with Knight to discuss her concerns. CSMF ¶ 70. Knight reiterated her concerns to Hebert, and in a follow-up statement Knight wrote:

I am not asked to do tasks at work. I am told to do them. When there are 4-5 other capable drivers standing around and watching me work and then Don comes around and tells me to get this done it is disrespectful and unfair. I have seen this happen with other female employees as well. Whether it's Don's intention or not to discriminate this is how it feels and appears.

CSMF ¶ 72.

         At some point in April, Knight called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) to complain about merchandise being left in hallways, creating dangerous conditions at the store for workers. CSMF ¶ 79. On May 3, 2016, Knight tripped over a rolled-up mat obscured by merchandise and injured her wrist. CSMF ¶ 83. On May 4, 2016, Knight reported this injury to OSHA. CSMF ¶ 84. OSHA contacted Liedke about Knight's complaint, although it is unclear whether OSHA ever identified Knight as the complainant. CSMF ¶ 85; see Knight Supp. Ex. 2 at 1 (ECF No. 35-2).

         Approximately a week or two after Knight's injury and report, Liedke published a weekly schedule with Knight scheduled to work only 15 hours. CSMF ¶ 108; Knight Dep. 57-58 (ECF No. 30-5). Knight confronted Liedke about the change. Knight Dep. 58. Liedke, without explaining why the change had been made, returned Knight to her normal hours. Knight Dep. 58. Around this time, Knight observed a change in Liedke's demeanor toward her: “His attitude was very different. He was more angry when I came to him and short-tempered, spoke very quick, short.” CSMF ¶ 110.

         Nicholas Thomas, who assumed the position of Regional Manager in 2015 after having worked for O'Reilly for six years, began to focus on ways to improve efficiency, profitability, and productivity. CSMF ¶¶ 21-23. In mid-2015, Thomas began telling his regional managers that delivery specialists should work full-day shifts in order to maximize productivity and profitability. CSMF ¶¶ 26, 28. Thomas thought it made sense to hire full-shift drivers. ¶ 33. Thomas began to put more focus on this idea in 2016, but some stores continued to allow delivery specialists to regularly work shifts shorter than eight hours. CSMF ¶¶ 44-45, 106. To date, Thomas continues to express his preference that stores move in the direction of only employing delivery specialists who can work full-shifts, but he has not held district managers accountable for not complying with his preference. CSMF ¶ 39. Thomas further stated that there are no grounds to terminate an employee for not working eight-hour shifts. CSMF ¶ 54.

         In mid-August of 2016, Thomas and Hebert conducted a mid-year review with Liedke. CSMF ¶ 86. A day or two later, on August 19, 2016, Liedke met with Knight and informed her that Thomas had made the decision that she would need to start working eight-hour shifts per “company policy.” CSMF ¶¶ 92, 111. Knight called O'Reilly's human resources department after the meeting to determine if there was such a policy. CSMF ¶ 94. Human resources personnel did not know if there was a policy but informed Knight that Thomas would contact her. CSMF ¶ 94. Thomas did not contact Knight, but he instructed Hebert to follow up with her. CSMF ¶ 95. On August 23, 2016, Hebert met with Knight to discuss her work schedule. CSMF ¶¶ 96, 116. Knight told Hebert that she could not work eight-hour shifts because she had to care for her children. CSMF ¶¶ 97, 116. Knight claims that Hebert grew agitated during the meeting and told her repeatedly that if she could not work eight-hour shifts then he had no hours for her. CSMF ¶¶ 116-119. Hebert told Knight that he and Liedke had been “trying to get rid of [her] for months.” CSMF ¶ 117.

         Although the record does not make clear whether this was Knight's last day, the parties do not dispute that she left O'Reilly after this conversation. The Defendant concedes, for purposes of summary judgment, that the Plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action. See Def.'s Mot. 9-10.

         On August 9, 2017, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint asserting three counts: sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Maine Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), 5 M.R.S. § 4451 et. seq.; associational disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12112 et seq., and the MHRA; and retaliation for engaging in protected conduct under Title VII, the ADA, the MHRA, and the Maine Whistleblower's Protection Act (“MWPA”), 26 M.R.S. § 831 et seq. The Defendant moved for summary judgment or judgment on the pleadings on all counts.


         “A motion for judgment on the pleadings is treated like a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.” Portugues-Santana v. Rekomdiv Int'l Inc., 725 F.3d 17, 25 (1st Cir. 2013). Under a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a claim the pleading “ ‘must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Gianfrancesco v. Town of Wrentham, 712 F.3d 634, 638-39 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

         Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine where a reasonable jury could resolve the point in favor of either party. Oahn Nguyen Chung v. StudentCity. com, Inc., 854 F.3d 97, 101 (1st Cir. 2017). A fact is material where it could influence the outcome of the litigation. Id. On a motion for summary judgment, courts must construe the record in the light most favorable to the non-movant and resolve all reasonable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Burns v. Johnson, 829 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 2016).


         The Defendant argues that judgment should enter in its favor because (i) the Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment on account of her sex and the Plaintiff cannot show that O'Reilly's legitimate, neutral business reason was a pretext for unlawful sex discrimination; (ii) the Plaintiff does not state a claim for associational disability discrimination because she fails to allege unlawful bias on the part of any of the decisionmakers; and (iii) the Plaintiff cannot show that any decisionmakers acted with retaliatory animus. I address each count in turn.

         I. Sex Discrimination

         Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual's . . . sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).[2] The Plaintiff alleges that she was discriminated against because of her sex, plus her status as a caretaker. Compl. ¶ 28. The First Circuit has recognized that “the assumption that a woman will perform her job less well due to her presumed family obligations is a form of sex-stereotyping and that adverse job actions on that basis constitute sex discrimination.” Chadwick v. Wellpoint, Inc., 561 F.3d 38, 44 (1st Cir. 2009). “[S]ex-plus claims are a flavor of gender discrimination claims where an employer classifies employees on the basis of sex plus another characteristic.” Franchina v. City of Providence, 881 F.3d 32, 52 (1st Cir. 2018) (quotation marks omitted). “[A]t the advent of sex-plus claims, courts recognized that ‘[t]he effect of [Title VII] is not to be diluted because discrimination adversely affects only a portion of the protected class.' ” Id. at 53 (quoting Sprogis v. United Air Lines, Inc., 444 F.2d 1194, 1198 (7th Cir. 1971)). “The inquiry in a Title VII disparate treatment case is whether the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff on the basis of a protected attribute.” Cumpiano v. Banco Santander P.R., 902 F.2d 148, 153 (1st Cir. 1990). A plaintiff may rely on either direct evidence of unlawful animus, or she may establish discriminatory intent through the burden-shifting framework set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Cumpiano, 902 F.2d at 153.

         At the first step of the McDonnell Douglas framework, the Plaintiff must “establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, a prima facie case of discrimination.” Caraballo-Caraballo v. Corr. Admin., 892 F.3d 53, 57 (1st Cir. 2018). To establish a prima facie case: “(1) the plaintiff must be a member of a protected class; (2) she must be qualified for her job; (3) she must suffer an adverse employment action at the hands of her employer; and (4) there must be some evidence of a causal connection between her membership in a protected class and the adverse employment action, e.g., in the case of a firing, that the position was filled by someone with similar qualifications.” Bhatti v. Trustees of Bos. Univ., 659 F.3d 64, 70 (1st Cir. 2011). At step two of the McDonnell Douglas framework, the Defendant must articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing the Plaintiff. Caraballo-Caraballo, 892 F.3d at 62. At step three, the burden shifts back to the Plaintiff to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant's stated business reason was pretext for unlawful discrimination. Johnson v. Univ. of P. R., 714 F.3d 48, 54 (1st Cir. 2013).

         The parties have narrowed the issues. The Defendant concedes for purposes of summary judgment that the Plaintiff has made an adequate showing on the first three elements of her prima facie case. See Def.'s Mot. 9-10, & n.3. The Plaintiff concedes, also for purposes of summary judgment, that the Defendant has articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action by identifying the efficiency gains from having full-time delivery specialists in the Portland store. See Pl.'s Opp'n 16-17 (ECF No. 40). The remaining issues are whether the Plaintiff has established a causal connection between her membership in a protected class and the adverse employment action sufficient to make out a prima facie case and whether the Plaintiff has developed enough evidence to show that the Defendant's stated reason for the adverse action was a pretext for sex-based discrimination.

         The Plaintiff's burden to establish the causation element of her prima facie case is not a difficult one. Caraballo-Caraballo, 892 F.3d at 57. The fourth element may be satisfied by showing that “the employer had a continued need for someone to perform the same work after [the Plaintiff] left.” Cumpiano, 902 F.2d at 155. Here, Hebert essentially told the Plaintiff that if she was unable to work full-day shifts, she would lose her shifts to an employee who could work eight hours. CSMF ΒΆ 98. This continued need for a delivery specialist is enough for a prima facie showing of ...

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