Bell v. Rinchem Co.

Decision Date11 February 2016
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 4:14-40177-TSH
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts

Hennessy, M.J.

Currently pending before the court are three separate but related motions to dismiss plaintiff Craig Bell's ("Bell" or "plaintiff") First Amended Complaint for Damages and Injunctive Relief and Demand for Jury Trial (the "Amended Complaint") (Docket #30). Bell seeks redress as a result of the defendants' purported misdeeds relating to Bell's employment with, and eventual termination from, defendant Rinchem Company, Inc. ("Rinchem"). For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that defendants CGL Transportation, LLC and Charles Brienholt's motion (Docket #31), defendants Matthew Van Norman, Anthony Wilder, and Christopher Worthen's motion (Docket #33), and defendants Rinchem, Paul Boisvert, Gwen Inman, and Shane Candelaria's motion (Docket #35) be allowed in part and denied in part.

Factual and Procedural History

The following facts are drawn from the Amended Complaint and are accepted as true for purposes of this motion. In September 2004, Bell began working as a container specialist and freight handler for Rinchem, which provides chemical and specialty materials warehousing and distribution services (Docket #30 at ¶12). His duties included signing off on shipments' documentation and acknowledging compliance with all federal, state, and local laws. Id. at ¶ 20. He was trained to disclose and report any illegalities or improprieties in regulatory compliance. Id. (citing statutes). At all relevant times, defendant Paul Boisvert ("Boisvert") was Rinchem's Marlborough facility's general manager; defendant Anthony Wilder ("Wilder") was Rinchem's floor supervisor and charged with supervising Bell, and defendant Matthew Van Norman ("Van Norman") was Rinchem's assistant manager. Id. at ¶ 16. Plaintiff identifies defendant CGL Transport, LLC ("CGL") as a company "related to," and providing transportation services for, Rinchem,1 and defendant Charles Brienholt ("Brienholt") as the president and director of both Rinchem and CGL. Id. at ¶ 17.

On May 24, 2013, plaintiff was alerted by an alarm attached to container load INT1983, a hazardous (diborane) gas shipment set for delivery to New Jersey, and from there to Tel Aviv, Israel. Id. at ¶¶ 21, 25. He alleges that the container, which was owned by Rinchem, contained temperature devices that either were not started by another employee, or malfunctioned on a "very hot day." Id. at ¶ 25. Because he was not initially assigned to this container, Bell learned of the problem only after being alerted by the container's alarm. See id. at ¶ 25. Bell "attended to and looked at temperature gauges on the containers which triggered the alarm." Id. at ¶ 21. After Belladdressed the issues in the presence of a second employee named Brett, the container was shipped approximately forty-five minutes after originally scheduled. See id. at ¶ 25.

Bell maintains that dangerous substance shipments such as Container INT1983 must be accompanied by documentation of "when a container temperature device was started, monitored and departure/arrival time(s)"; without this information, the buyer may refuse the shipment. See id. at ¶ 26. He alleges that this "was almost never done as required." Id. Instead, Bell's name and signature were—at the direction of Bell's supervisors and without Bell's permission—regularly used by other employees, "thereby exposing plaintiff to liability and misrepresenting his certification and responsibility for any risks" caused by defendants' conduct. Id.

In June 2013, Bell allegedly learned of "serious and repeated violations" of various laws and guidelines concerning container preparation, temperature and pressure monitoring, hazardous gas transport, employee health and safety, truck placarding requirements, and commercial motor vehicle safety. See id. at ¶ 22. He states that "he was confronted by his supervisors seeking his acquiescence in the unlawful practice," and that these individuals "falsely alleg[ed] faulty documentation by plaintiff with respect to the diborane shipment." See id.

On June 19, 2013, Boisvert, "unfairly and without required due process," issued plaintiff a written warning regarding Container INT1983. Id. at ¶ 23. The warning, which was accompanied by a two-day suspension, asserted a swath of allegations of negligence in connection with the diborane shipment. See id. Boisvert is alleged to have falsely informed Bell that due to Bell's missteps, the shipment was not accepted in Tel Aviv, resulting in an $80,000.00 loss; according to Bell, this "was not the case and plaintiff later learned they did accept that container." Id. Bell further alleges that a Rinchem counseling memo dated June 19, 2013 "falsely stated that 'any further infractions of this kind will result in termination,'" an ultimatum with which he now takesparticular issue because he claims to have previously lodged objections about a range of statutory violations, only to be met with similar threats of termination. See id. at ¶ 24.

On June 26, 2013, plaintiff began his two-day disciplinary suspension, and upon returning to work sought to revisit "his old and new complaints of safety breaches involving his name." Id. at ¶ 28. Instead, he was called into Boisvert's office and forced, at the risk of termination, to sign an employee counseling memo stating that he accepted responsibility for the lack of documentation on the diborane shipment. Id. He characterizes this development as defendants falsely blaming him for an incident "that could have resulted in product rejection or worse, potential explosion and/or the creation of an extremely dangerous public health and safety condition." See id. at ¶ 30. Bell alleges further post-employment retaliation and discrimination by Rinchem in the form of continued blame for the incident, and makes reference to exercising his "rights to free speech as a citizen and under the employers['] grievance and discipline procedures." See id. at ¶¶ 31-32.

On or about July 1, 2013, Bell discovered written evidence of "potential serious and repeated safety and health violations" related to Rinchem customer DOW Chemical's shipping and transportation documents concerning Rinchem containers. Id. at ¶ 33. He notified Wilder and Boisvert of this impropriety and requested an investigation, and alleges that as a result, "he was unfairly disciplined and retaliated against, including termination, by defendants who were unlawfully allowing his name to be signed on hazardous goods shipping documents." Id. at ¶¶ 33-34. On July 3, 2013, Bell confronted Boisvert about his perceived retaliation and age discrimination, and threatened to discuss the matter with defendant Shane Candelaria, Rinchem's human resources department, and/or OSHA. Id. at ¶ 35. Boisvert responded that if plaintiff reported the matter, he would be fired. Id.

Plaintiff then filed with human resources and Candelaria a complaint regarding his suspension, defendants' unaddressed safety violations, misrepresentations and forged signatures, threatened retaliation, and age discrimination. Id. at ¶ 37. On July 14, 2013 he participated in a telephone hearing with Gwyn Inman of Rinchem's human resources department about these and other matters. Id. at ¶ 38. His appeal testimony "was met with disdain and bias" and was denied on July 16, 2013, on which date he was terminated. Id. His termination was explained as resulting from a "slowdown in work," which plaintiff now alleges is pretextual. Id. at ¶¶ 36, 42. He asserts that he was in fact terminated "in retaliation for engaging in protected employment conduct such as the reporting of his name being signed without his authority . . . and for reasons which were not true, made in bad faith, and were pretext to his termination for whistleblowing, retaliation, age discrimination and wrongful termination." Id. at ¶ 43. He connects his termination with the "investigative aftermath of the [diborane] gas shipment event(s)," and contends he was fired for good faith communications, disclosures, and complaints of defendants' myriad breaches. See id. at ¶¶ 44-45. In October 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint with the MCAD, which was withdrawn in March 2014 in order to file a civil action. Id. at ¶¶ 47-48. In November 2013, he gave written notice to the Department of Labor of forgeries on shipping documents as well as related violations. See id. at ¶ 46.

On the strength of these allegations, plaintiff has asserted ten claims against various combinations of defendants: a federal whistleblower action (Count I); retaliation under federal whistleblower statutes (Count II); retaliation under the state whistleblower statute (Count III); wrongful termination (Count IV); federal and state age discrimination and retaliation (Count V); unlawful discrimination and retaliation under Title VII (Count VI); breach of contract and violation of good faith and fair dealing (Count VII); misrepresentation, conspiracy and negligent supervision(Count VIII); promissory estoppel and breach of implied contract (Count IX); and violations of M.G.L. c. 12 §§11(h)-(i) (Count X).2 As noted, three sets of defendants have filed distinct but largely similar motions to dismiss: CGL and Brienholt (Docket #31); Van Norman, Wilder, and Worthen (Docket #33); and Rinchem, Boisvert, Inman, and Candelaria (Docket #35). Plaintiff has opposed each motion, and each set of defendants has filed a reply. By order dated May 28, 2015, the Honorable Timothy S. Hillman referred the instant matter to this court for, inter alia, dispositive motions. See Docket #29.

Service of Process

Defendants Van Norton, Wilder, and Norman have sought dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P....

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