Coe v. Northern Pipe Products, Inc.

Citation589 F.Supp.2d 1055
Decision Date02 December 2008
Docket NumberNo. C 07-3068-MWB.,C 07-3068-MWB.
PartiesMelody COE, Plaintiff, v. NORTHERN PIPE PRODUCTS, INC., Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa

Mark D. Sherinian, Sherinian & Walker Law Firm, West Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiff.

Angela Ellen Dralle, Dorsey & Whitney, Des Moines, IA, Lynn Block, Todd Zimmerman Dorsey & Whitney, LLP, Fargo, ND, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

                TABLE OF CONTENTS
                I. INTRODUCTION...................................................................1064
                      A. Factual Background.........................................................1064
                         1. The parties and principal actors........................................1065
                         2. Coe's performance problems and termination..............................1066
                         3. Coe's allegations of sexual harassment..................................1068
                         4. The aftermath of Coe's allegations......................................1069
                      B. Procedural Background......................................................1070
                        1. Coe's claims.............................................................1070
                        2. NPP's motion for summary judgment........................................1070
                  II. LEGAL ANALYSIS................................................................1071
                     A. Standards For Summary Judgment..............................................1071
                        1. General principles.......................................................1071
                        2. Disregard of evidence from "interested" or "impeached" witnesses.........1073
                        3. Special concerns in employment discrimination cases......................1077
                     B. The Nature Of Coe's "Sex Discrimination" Claim..............................1078
                        1. Quid pro quo versus hostile environment harassment.......................1078
                        2. Coe's claim..............................................................1080
                     C. Arguments Concerning Coe's Quid Pro Quo Claim...............................1080
                        1. NPP's initial argument...................................................1080
                        2. Coe's response...........................................................1081
                        3. NPP's reply..............................................................1082
                        4. The parties' oral arguments..............................................1082
                     D. Actionable Sexual Advances..................................................1083
                        1. Demands for sexual favors................................................1083
                        2. Touching.................................................................1084
                        3. Coe's evidence of sexual advances........................................1084
                     E. The Connection Between The Advances And The Job Detriments..................1085
                     F. Independent Decisionmakers And "Cat's Paws".................................1086
                        1. Formulations of the "cat's paw" rule.....................................1087
                        2. Applications of the rule in this circuit.................................1088
                        3. The necessary extent of the biased subordinate's "participation".........1090
                        4. Application of the appropriate standard..................................1093
                     G. Availability Of A "Mixed Motives" Analysis..................................1094
                        1. "Mixed motives" and "direct evidence"....................................1095
                        2. "Mixed motives" and "independent decisionmakers".........................1095
                        3. Alternative claim or defense.............................................1096
                        4. Coe's "mixed motives" claim..............................................1098
                     H. Vicarious Liability.........................................................1099
                        1. Vicarious liability and the Ellerth/Faragher affirmative defense.........1099
                        2. Harassment by a "supervisor".............................................1099
                        3. NPP's other contentions..................................................1101
                     I. Coe's Retaliation Claim.....................................................1101
                        1. Arguments of the parties.................................................1101
                        2. Elements of a prima facie case...........................................1102
                        3. Coe's prima facie case...................................................1102
                     J. Punitive Damages............................................................1106
                        1. Arguments of the parties.................................................1106
                        2. Applicable standards.....................................................1107
                        3. NPP's "good faith".......................................................1107
                
                III. CONCLUSION.....................................................................1108
                

Among other interesting questions, this sex discrimination and retaliation case raises the unsettled question—in this and other circuits—of the extent of the influence that an allegedly biased subordinate must exercise over a purportedly independent decisionmaker who took adverse employment action against a plaintiff employee before a defendant employer can be held liable for discrimination under a "cat's paw" theory. Although the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has articulated a test for "cat's paw" liability, its applications of that test so far have not answered the precise question posed here. Therefore, this court must now address that question with only general Title VII agency principles and persuasive authorities for guidance.

I. INTRODUCTION
A. Factual Background

The court will not attempt here an exhaustive dissertation on the undisputed and disputed facts in this case. Rather, the court will set forth sufficient of the facts, both undisputed and disputed, to put in context the parties' arguments concerning the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Unless otherwise indicated, the facts recited here are undisputed, at least for purposes of summary judgment. Additional factual allegations and the extent to which they are or are not disputed or material will be discussed, if necessary, in the court's legal analysis.1

1. The parties and principal actors

Defendant Northern Pipe Products, Inc., (NPP) is a manufacturer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe with headquarters in Fargo, North Dakota, and a manufacturing plant in Hampton, Iowa. From April 2005 until her termination in December 2006, plaintiff Melody Coe was employed by NPP as a truck driver to transport pipe manufactured by NPP from its Hampton plant to various purchasers. NPP truck drivers transport raw materials, works in progress, and finished goods; load and unload trucks, with or without helpers; make some mechanical truck repairs; and complete vehicle checks and pre- and post-trip inspections on every trip. On February 15, 2006, Coe and other truck drivers received a notice stating the following: "ALL LOADS MUST BE STRAPPED!! If Loads Are Not Strapped They Do Not Leave The Yard! *Failure to Strap Loads Properly Means Immediate Termination for the Driver!" Coe contends, however, that trucks were sometimes "pre-loaded"—which apparently involved "strapping" and "tarping," as well—by the "yard guys."

The other dramatis personae of primary interest here are Ken Doggett, NPP's Human Resources Manager at the times pertinent here, who was employed at NPP's Fargo office; Steve Burger, NPP's Traffic Manager at the times pertinent here, who was also employed at NPP's Fargo office; and Michelle Hartman, NPP's Administrative Assistant at NPP's Hampton plant at the times pertinent here. As Traffic Manager, Steve Burger's job was to oversee trucking operations and to assure that loads were shipped in a timely manner. Burger also interviewed applicants with Doggett, and Burger and Doggett consulted and usually agreed with each other about potential hirings and terminations. The parties dispute whether Burger had any authority to discipline or terminate employees on his own, however. Coe contends that part of Burger's job was to initiate disciplinary action, but NPP contends that Burger had no authority to discipline employees on his own, but only jointly with Doggett, and that hiring and termination decisions were made in consultation between Burger and Doggett. Burger and Doggett made a joint decision to hire Coe. As the Administrative Assistant for the Hampton plant, Michelle Hartman did general truck driver paperwork, lined up truck drivers' daily loads, posted driver meeting notices, performed administrative work, scheduled company trucks, and worked with outside carriers.

2. Coe's performance problems and termination

NPP asserts that Coe had various performance problems during 2006, some of which Coe admits and others of which she disputes. Those performance problems included an accident in June 2006 in which Coe drove a truck off the road, resulting in the total loss of the tractor and damage to the trailer, for a loss to NPP totaling somewhere between $38,000 and $48,000.2 Coe received a letter of counseling and final warning concerning this accident, signed by Burger, which included the statement, "Final Warning: Driver will be required to complete drivers training prior to returning to duty. Driver will be terminated immediately if the above occurs again." Notwithstanding the accident, Coe received a favorable performance review from Burger in July 2006.

Other alleged performance problems included complaints from other drivers that Coe did not help in the yard to load trucks, which Coe disputes; Coe's loss of a coil pipe off of her truck in November 2006, when she failed to "strap" the...

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