Axness v. Aqreva LLC

Decision Date27 July 2015
Docket NumberNo. CIV 14–4078.,CIV 14–4078.
Citation118 F.Supp.3d 1144
CourtU.S. District Court — District of South Dakota
Parties Julie AXNESS, Plaintiff, v. AQREVA LLC, Carla Campbell, in her capacity as an employee of Aqreva, Child & Adolescent Neurology, and Dr. Jorge Sanchez, as owner of Child & Adolescent Neurology, Defendants.

Eric T. Preheim, Fuller & Williamson, LLP, Sioux Falls, SD, for Plaintiff.

Alex M. Hagen, Cadwell, Sanford, Deibert & Garry, LLP, Laura K. Hensley, Lisa Hansen Marso, Thomas J. Welk, Meghann M. Joyce, Boyce Law Firm, Sioux Falls, SD, for Defendants.


LAWRENCE L. PIERSOL, District Judge.

Plaintiff and Defendants each bring motions for summary judgment in this Title VII employment discrimination action. Plaintiff moves for partial summary judgment as it relates to the definition of "employer" under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Specifically, Plaintiff moves the Court to, as a matter of law, preclude Defendants Aqreva LLC and Carla Campbell from availing themselves of the defense that they are not Plaintiff's Title VII "employer." Defendants, in turn, each move for summary judgment in their respective favors as to the entirety of the action. For the reasons herein, each motion is denied in full.


The facts of this case are disputed. What is clear from the undisputed facts, however, is that Child & Adolescent Neurology ("CAN") is a clinic operated by its principal and sole practitioner, Defendant–Dr. Jorge Sanchez ("Sanchez"). In October 2009, CAN entered into a "Client Services Agreement" (the "Agreement") with Aqreva's predecessor-in-interest, the Medical Practice Management Division of Eide Bailly LLP. In August 2010, Dr. Sanchez consented to an assignment of the Agreement to Aqreva. It is undisputed that the Agreement identified Aqreva as an independent contractor. Under the Agreement, Aqreva is paid a percentage of bills collected on CAN's behalf.

Julie Axness ("Plaintiff" or "Axness") was a medical assistant at CAN. It is undisputed that she was hired by Dr. Sanchez and was qualified for the position. During the application process, DefendantCarla Campbell ("Campbell"), a regional supervisor employed by Aqreva, received Axness's application materials and relayed them to Dr. Sanchez. It is disputed to what degree Campbell assisted prospective employees in filling out employment documents for CAN, but it is undisputed that she was authorized as a representative of CAN when filling out these forms. Subsequently, Dr. Sanchez interviewed Axness and offered her the job as an at-will employee. Campbell was not present for the interview. During her time at CAN, Axness was the only full-time employee. Axness's beginning wage was $12 per hour. The wage was raised to $12.36 in October 2012, but it is disputed whether the raise was solely within the discretion of Dr. Sanchez's. One of the undisputed duties provided by Aqreva to CAN, however, was processing payroll checks by calculating the wages based on hours worked and subtracting the appropriate withholdings.

As part of her employ, Axness worked alongside and answered to Dr. Sanchez. Axness's duties at CAN ranged from answering the telephone, contacting or visiting with patients, and handling medications for patients. It is disputed, however, the frequency with which Axness interacted with Campbell in-person or the degree of interaction, generally. The degree of supervision wielded by Campbell over Axness is also contested. The record does, however, contain various emails from Axness to Campbell related to time-off requests, temporary replacements for these various times off, and the like.

While employed at CAN, Axness became pregnant in September 2012. On September 24, 2012, Axness emailed Campbell seeking information relative to CAN's leave policy, the amount of leave CAN would grant, and the potential of hiring a temporary replacement for Axness. Campbell informed Axness that usage of employment agencies in order to fulfill coverage for absences was "cost prohibitive." It is disputed how frequent CAN used employment agencies, but it is not disputed that CAN had used them prior to and subsequent to Axness's employment.

Axness also had a conversation with Dr. Sanchez about maternity leave, pay, coverage for Axness in her absence, and the amount of time off available for leave. Campbell was not present for this conversation and it is disputed how involved she was with the maternity leave decision. Sanchez made the initial determination as to Axness's leave and informed Axness that she was entitled to four weeks of maternity leave. It is undisputed, however, that Dr. Sanchez never used the word "guarantee" in relation to maternity leave entitlement. It was also during this time period that Axness was told by Campbell that usage of a temporary employee from an employment agency was "cost prohibitive." Whether Campbell made such a determination independently or through consultation with Dr. Sanchez is one of the primary points of dispute.

During pregnancy, Axness occasionally fell ill or was otherwise unable to work at CAN. When such occasion arose, Axness would contact Dr. Sanchez to inform him and request permission to arrive at work late or not at all. The degree of Campbell's involvement in such requests is disputed. Axness was also hospitalized during her pregnancy. Consequently, she missed several days of work. After receiving approval from Dr. Sanchez, an employment agency was used to temporarily replace Axness during that time.

In order to cover Axness during her maternity leave, Dr. Sanchez requested she secure a replacement for the relevant time period by contacting her previous classmates. When such attempts failed, Dr. Sanchez asked Aqreva to locate a qualified individual. To that end, Campbell placed employment advertisements on a website maintained by KELO–LAND television, a regional news station in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and sent emails to several of her contacts. During this initial search, a qualified applicant was located who was to cover for Axness during her leave and as necessary prior to Axness's departure. This applicant was offered the job, she accepted, but subsequently reneged. Prior to the potential employee's cancellation, however, Axness was aware of the proposal. She even met the potential replacement and inquired whether the temporary employee would be at CAN in time sufficient for Axness to train her on necessary job duties.

In April 2013, Dr. Sanchez and Campbell explained to Axness that Dr. Sanchez sought to shift from a single full-time employee to two part-time employees. At this time, while it undisputed that Axness vocalized her objection to being reduced to strictly part-time hours, it is disputed whether that objection constituted Axness voluntarily terminating her employment with CAN.

On April 19, 2013, Campbell again placed an employment advertisement seeking a certified medical assistant on KELO–LAND's website. On April 22, 2013, Campbell received an application for employment from Tamara Kelly (a/k/a Tami Stenzel) ("Kelly"). On May 6, 2013, Kelly was hired to work for CAN in Axness's stead as a full-time employee. Kelly admits in her deposition that, at the time, she had allowed her certification as a CNA to lapse and when her employment at CAN commenced she had not yet renewed her certification.

On May 6, 2013, Axness underwent a C-section, which was approximately three weeks ahead of her scheduled due date. Several days later, Axness contacted Dr. Sanchez regarding her desire to return to CAN. The undisputed facts are unclear on this point, but the parties seem to agree that Axness requested to bring her newborn with her into CAN's office for the first several weeks of her return. Dr. Sanchez subsequently informed Campbell of Axness's proposal, which was ultimately declined.

On May 23, 2013, Axness received a phone call from Campbell and Dr. Sanchez, both of whom were in CAN's office. The facts surrounding what followed are contested by the parties, but it was during this phone call that Axness's return-to-work proposal was formally declined. Following the phone call, Axness received a release agreement from Campbell, which required she sign the release as a condition of obtaining severance pay from CAN. By signing the agreement, Axness would have agreed not to pursue any employment related charges. It is disputed whether more than severance was withheld as a condition of signing the release. Attached to the release agreement was a note from Campbell requesting that Axness sign the release form before she be sent her final "payroll" check. Axness declined to sign the release agreement.1

At the time of Axness's receipt of the separation agreement, she had accrued an additional 1.53 hours of paid time off (PTO). The undisputed facts make clear that at least one person handling Axness's payroll and PTO entitlements was Leann Vaughan ("Vaughan"), an Aqreva employee. Although they had never met in-person, Axness was aware that Vaughan handled payroll for CAN and the two had communicated prior about a separate PTO related issue. On May 14, 2013, Vaughan calculated Axness's wages for April 28 to May 11, 2013. The 1.53 hours of PTO were the result of hours worked by Axness during that period. On May 14, 2013, Vaughan had not been aware that it was Axness's last pay period and did not include the 1.53 hours of PTO in the relevant pay check. On May 28, 2013, Vaughan was told that Axness's employment at CAN had concluded and that Axness was eligible for severance if she signed and returned a release agreement. It is disputed whether oversight caused Vaughan to exclude the PTO from Axness's final check or whether she was instructed to by Campbell pending Axness's signing of the release agreement. The PTO was not paid to Axness until she began a South Dakota administrative proceeding.

Axness subsequently filed a...

To continue reading

Request your trial
3 cases
  • Noreen v. Pharmerica Corp., Civil No. 14–2878 (RHK/SER).
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Minnesota
    • July 31, 2015
  • Wade v. Sanford Med. Ctr., Dakota Corp.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Dakota
    • August 10, 2018
    ...used to evaluate Title VII claims. See Huck v. McCain Foods, 479 N.W.2d 167, 169-70 (S.D. 1991); see also Axness v. Aqreva LLC, 118 F. Supp. 3d 1144, 1157 (D.S.D. 2015) (noting that South Dakota courts examine claims under the SDHRA "under a standard identical to that applied to Title VII c......
  • Toomer v. Fed. Reserve Bank St. Louis
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri
    • September 15, 2021
    ... ... at 1069-70 (quoting Spirides v ... Reinhardt, 613 F.2d 826, 831-32 (D.C.Cir.1979)) ... (alteration in original). See also Axness v. Aqreva ... LLC, 118 F.Supp.3d 1144, 1154-56 (D.S.D. 2015) ... With ... the foregoing in mind, Plaintiff's Complaint ... ...

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT