Colon v. Colomer

Decision Date06 August 2020
Docket NumberCIV. NO. 18-1360 (MDM)
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico
PartiesVICTOR M. VEGA COLON, Plaintiff, v. COLOMER & SUAREZ SAN JUAN, INC. Defendant.

Plaintiff Victor M. Vega Colon ("Vega") brings this action against his former employer Colomer & Suarez ("Defendant" or "C&S") alleging discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment in violation of The Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ("USERRA,") 38 U.S.C. § 4311. Additionally, Vega claims that C&S unlawfully retaliated against, and terminated, him in violation of Puerto Rico Law 115 of December 20, 1991, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, §§ 194 et seq. ("Law 115") and Puerto Rico Law No. 80 of May 30, 1976, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29 §§ 185a-185m ("Law 80,") respectively. Vega further claims that C&S failed to compensate him for overtime hours worked in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA,") 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq, and Puerto Rico Law No. 379 of May 15, 1948, 29 L.P.R.A. § 271 et seq. ("Law 379").

Presently before the Court is C&S' motion for summary judgment. (Docket No. 94-96). On its part, Vega filed a memorandum in opposition to C&S' motion. (Docket 133 and 133-1).1 C&S then filed a reply to Vega's opposition. (Docket No. 144). In light of the findings of fact and legal discussion set forth below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part C&S' motion for summary judgment.

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). "An issue is genuine if 'it may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party' at trial, . . . and material if it 'possess[es] the capacity to sway the outcome of the litigation under the applicable law.'" Iverson v. City of Boston, 452 F.3d 94, 98 (1st Cir. 2006) (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

The moving party, in this case C&S, bears the initial burden to demonstrate the lack of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Moreover, at the summary judgment stage, the court does not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Id. If the court finds that some genuine factual issue remains, the resolution of which could affect the outcome of the case, then the court must deny summary judgment. Id. at 248.

In cases like this one, which involve questions of motive or intent, the movant's burden is particularly rigorous. Medina v. Adecco, 561 F. Supp. 2d 162, 165-66 (D.P.R. 2008). Unsettled issues regarding motive and intent will often preclude summary judgment. See Lipsett v. Univ. of P.R., 864 F.2d 881, 895 (1st Cir. 1988). The court should deny summary judgment when the nonmoving party "can point to specific facts detailed in affidavits and depositions—that is, names, dates, incidents, and supporting testimony—giving rise to an inference of discriminatory animus." Lipsett, 864 F.2d at 895. Summary judgment may be appropriate, however, if the non-moving party's case rests merely upon "conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation." Forestier Fradera v. Mun. of Mayaguez, 440 F.3d 17, 21 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting Benoit v. Technical Mfg. Corp., 331 F.3d 166, 173 (1st Cir. 2003)).

II. Factual Background

Taking all disputed facts in the light most sympathetic to Vega, as the party opposing summary judgment, the Court makes the following factual findings, which are either undisputed or conclusively supported by the evidentiary record.2

C&S is a company that distributes products from wholesalers to various retailers throughout the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Vega began working as a Merchandiser for C&S in November of 2008. He was later terminated from that position on April 12, 2018. C&S employs numerous merchandisers, whose duties include driving to certain retail stores along a specific route and providing products to retailers in accordance with their individual needs. Merchandisers are also responsible for stocking the shelves with the products they have delivered to the retailers.

Vega's daily working schedule was from 8:00AM until 5:00PM and his compensation included commissions and incentives for sales made within his assigned territory. Vega was required to fill out a "Daily Report" each time he visited a store as part of his working duties or obligations and in the ordinary course of business. At the end of his shift, Vega was required to call his supervisor to report that he had finished his daily duties. Every day Vega would call his supervisor in order to inform him that he had finished his work.

Throughout most of Vega's tenure with C&S, he served in the United States military. He enlisted with the Army Reserve on June 4, 2009 and remained an active member through the date of his termination. Vega's service required him to attend various military exercises, which often conflicted with his work schedule.3 When Vegareceived an order from his superiors in the Army requesting his participation in a military exercise, he would present the order to his supervisors at C&S, and would thereafter attend the military exercises, returning to work after their completion.4

In January 2016, Juan Manuel Ortiz ("Ortiz") became Vega's direct supervisor. According to Vega's deposition testimony, his participation in military exercises invited hostility from Ortiz, who oversaw and coordinated the Merchandisers' schedules. Vega stated that Ortiz would routinely make comments related to his military service, telling him that his service was "a problem," and that he "could no longer tolerate" Vega's repeated absences due to military leave. According to another Merchandiser at C&S, Pedro Casillas-Rivera ("Rivera"), Ortiz would often make similar comments about Vega to him and to other employees when Vega was absent from work due to his military exercises.5 Rivera stated that Ortiz complained of Vega's military absences "a whole bunch of times" and that Ortiz commented in meetings that Vega's absences "affected him," that "[Vega] must not continue working, and that [Ortiz] was going to fire [Vega]."6 Another employee, Humberto Figueroa, stated that he, too, regularly heard Ortiz make comments to the same effect regarding Vega's military leaves.7

Vega also stated in his deposition that when he would tell Ortiz that his military orders were mandatory, Ortiz would respond that there were other employees at C&S who were in the military but who elected not to attend the exercises and encouraged Vega to follow suit. Vega avers that eventually, he began to fear that he would beterminated due to his participation in the military exercises, so he began to skip exercises.8

In addition to the above-stated comments, Vega indicated in his deposition that Ortiz would allegedly refuse to provide him assistance when he struggled to fulfill his duties at the various retailers along his route. Vega stated that Ortiz would meet his requests for help with derisive comments such as, "Aren't you in the Army?" and would thereafter fail to assign other Merchandisers to help him carry out his purportedly onerous assignments. However, Vega was accompanied, at times, by other Merchandisers who did assist him along his route.9

In addition to the above, Vega stated that he experienced other instances of negative treatment from Ortiz; namely, that Ortiz denied him a request to take vacation time to attend a school trip for his son's graduation and that Ortiz left him out of congratulatory emails, which Vega alleges were sent to all other employees at C&S (but him).10 Furthermore, according to Vega, sometime in 2017, the conditions of his work changed substantially when Ortiz assigned him a "new" merchandising route. Each Merchandiser at C&S had a daily assigned route, which included several retailers within the same geographic radius. Vega's initial route included Caguas and was comprised solely of stores in that area but was allegedly changed to one in the Metropolitan area including "more difficult" stores primarily in San Juan. However, also according to Vega, though the route was officially laid out "on paper," the routes constantly changed. Vega testified in his deposition, that he could be working one day in Caguas, another in the 65th Infantry Street, and another in Isla Verde or Carolina, for instance.11

The alleged change in Vega's route came on the heels of a brief email correspondence between him and Ortiz, which then led to a heated verbal exchange.More specifically, after Vega had returned from a vacation, Ortiz sent Vega an email requesting his presence in his office. Vega stated that though he had received and opened the email, he mistakenly neglected to read it. After Vega failed to appear at Ortiz' office that morning, having not read the email, Ortiz sent Vega a second email stating that he was upset that Vega had chosen to disregard his request. Vega then replied to Ortiz' email, stating that he did not appreciate that Ortiz was questioning his honesty regarding his assertion that he had not read the email. In response, Ortiz sent a third email to Vega requesting his immediate appearance at the office. When Vega later showed up at the office, he and Ortiz engaged in a tense discussion regarding whether Vega had in fact read Ortiz'...

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