Fuhrmann v. Staples Office Superstore E., Inc.

Decision Date11 December 2012
Docket NumberDocket No. Yor–11–551.
Citation2012 ME 135,58 A.3d 1083
CourtMaine Supreme Court


Tina Heather Nadeau, Esq. (orally), Daniel G. Lilley Law Offices, P.A., Portland, for appellant Jamie Fuhrmann.

Ariel D. Cudkowicz, Esq., and Anthony S. Califano, Esq. (orally), Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Boston, Massachusetts, and Peter Bennett, Esq., The Bennett Law Firm, P.A., Portland, for appellees Staples, Inc., and Staples The Office Superstore East, Inc.

John P. Gause, Esq. (orally), Maine Human Rights Commission, for amicus curiae Maine Human Rights Commission.

James R. Erwin, Esq., Ella L. Brown, Esq., and Katharine I. Rand, Esq., Pierce Atwood LLP, Portland, for amici curiae Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses, Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, Maine Innkeepers Association, Maine Restaurant Association, Maine Motor Transport Association, Maine Merchants Association, and Maine Grocers' Association.

Curtis Webber, Esq., Linnell, Choate & Webber, LLP, and Richard L. O'Meara, Esq., Murray, Plumb & Murray, Portland, on the briefs, for amicus curiae Maine Employment Lawyers Association.

William J. Schneider, Attorney General, Kelly L. Turner, Asst. Atty. Gen., and Susan P. Herman, Asst. Atty. Gen., Augusta, on the briefs, for amicus curiae State of Maine.



Dissent/Concurrence: LEVY, MEAD, and GORMAN, JJ.


[¶ 1] Jamie Fuhrmann appeals from the entry of a summary judgment in favor of Staples the Office Superstore East, Inc., by the Superior Court (York County, Fritzsche, J.) and the court's dismissal of her claims against four individual supervisors, Christian Steppe, John LeMieux, Matthew Auger, and Annette Rodick, for whistleblower discrimination pursuant to the Whistleblowers' Protection Act (WPA), 26 M.R.S. § 833(1)(A) (2011), and the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA), 5 M.R.S. § 4572(1)(A) (2011). Fuhrmann contends that a summary judgment for Staples was improper because she presented a prima facie case of whistleblower discrimination and there remain material facts in dispute. She also argues that the court erred by dismissing her claims against her workplace supervisors based on its determination that they could not be held individually liable pursuant to the WPA and the MHRA. We agree with Fuhrmann that material facts remain in dispute regarding her whistleblower claim but conclude that the WPA and the MHRA do not provide for individual supervisor liability.1 We therefore vacate the judgment in part and remand for further proceedings.


[¶ 2] Jamie Fuhrmann began working for Staples at its South Portland store in December 1999. While working there, she gave birth to her first child in 2000 and her second child a few years later, as a single mother. Fuhrmann worked a set schedule of Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the South Portland store and worked additional hours when childcare was available. In 2006, she requested a transfer from the South Portland store to Staples's Biddeford store in order to be closer to her children's new daycare. Fuhrmann met with Biddeford general manager Christian Steppe prior to transferring and requested that she be allowed to keep her set weekday hours. Steppe was able to accommodate that schedule and Fuhrmann began working as a full-time furniture associate in Biddeford in 2006.

[¶ 3] At some point after Fuhrmann began at the Biddeford store, the store moved to a new location in a retail plaza. Because of the move, the store lost some small-business sales during daytime hours, and sales began to peak in the evenings. Staples used a computerized system to evaluate sales data and employee scheduling efficiency, and it had customer reports showing that customer satisfaction was low in the evening hours. Staples asserts that this data demonstrated that the furniture department needed more coverage in the evenings and on weekends, but Fuhrmann asserts that the data was not department-specific and showed only that the store as a whole needed more support in that timeframe.

[¶ 4] Between September and October 2007, Fuhrmann made three internal reports about incidents in the Biddeford store. The first two reports involved company policy violations that were investigated by senior loss prevention manager Matthew Auger and resulted in disciplinary actions against Steppe and operations manager John LeMieux. Fuhrmann made her third report in October 2007, reporting to Auger that certain merchandise items that she was preparing for sale at Steppe's direction—including furniture—had been coded in the store's inventory system as charitable donations. Staples has a program through which it codes and sets aside merchandise to be donated, and for which it takes a deduction on its corporate tax return. Company policy requires merchandise coded for donation to be immediately set apart from saleable merchandise. Fuhrmann believed that the coding discrepancy she discovered violated tax laws because it constituted “double dipping” by the company. Staples disputes that Fuhrmann held such a belief.

[¶ 5] Fuhrmann reported the coding discrepancy to Auger both in person and by email, and he conducted an investigation. Auger found that some furniture items coded for donation had already been sold and that other items coded for donation remained in the store's inventory instead of having been set aside. Because a store-specific manager's passcode had been used to code the items, Auger decided to interview the Biddeford store's managers about the miscoding, including Steppe and LeMieux, and he notified Staples's district manager, Annette Rodick, about the investigation.

[¶ 6] Auger interviewed the managers on November 19, 2007, and they all denied responsibility. The parties dispute whether Steppe, LeMieux, and Rodick knew that Fuhrmann had made the report. Auger did not disclose Fuhrmann's identity and Staples asserts that the managers did not know that Fuhrmann had made the report until she commenced this litigation. Fuhrmann asserts that they must have known that she made the report because she was the only full-time furniture associate and Steppe had instructed her to prepare the miscoded furniture items for sale. Because Auger and Rodick were unable to determine who was actually responsible for the miscoding, Steppe was held responsible as the general manager of the store.

[¶ 7] Also in November, Fuhrmann met with Steppe and LeMieux to discuss her work schedule. Steppe told her that she would no longer be able to work her set weekday daytime schedule and would have to make herself available to work nights and weekends. The parties dispute when this meeting occurred. Staples asserts that it took place on or around November 5, 2007, as stated by Fuhrmann in her subsequent complaints to the Maine Human Rights Commission (Commission) and the Superior Court, but Fuhrmann now asserts that the meeting occurred on or around November 28, 2007, which was acknowledged as a possibility by Steppe and LeMieux in their depositions.

[¶ 8] Fuhrmann told Steppe that she could not switch from her set daytime schedule because of her children's daycare hours. Although Staples disputes these facts, Fuhrmann asserts that Steppe denied her request to switch to part-time status and told her that she had one week to rearrange her schedule. Staples asserts that Steppe and LeMieux asked other full-time employees to increase their schedule flexibility around the same time. Fuhrmann asserts that she was not aware of anyone else being asked to shift his or her schedule, but she did not speak with other full-time employees at the time.

[¶ 9] Fuhrmann subsequently spoke with a human resources representative and was told that she could have one month to determine if she could work a non-set schedule that would include evenings and weekends. Based on her childcare needs, Fuhrmann felt forced to resign by the request and gave her two-weeks' notice on December 28, 2007. She worked her regular schedule until her last day at the store on January 11, 2008.


[¶ 10] Fuhrmann filed a complaint with the Commission in April 2008 and was authorized to sue Staples and her four individual supervisors—Auger, LeMieux, Rodick, and Steppe. She filed this action against all five defendants in October 2009. The complaint included claims for whistleblower retaliation as prohibited by both the WPA and the MHRA, sex discrimination pursuant to the MHRA, and punitive damages. The complaint alleged that Staplesand Fuhrmann's four supervisors had unlawfully discriminated against her based both on her status as a woman with children and in retaliation for reporting what she believed to be illegal conduct. All five defendants filed motions to dismiss, which the court granted as to the individual supervisors—concluding that neither the WPA nor the MHRA provides for individual liability—but denied as to Staples. Staples then removed the case to the United States District Court, but it was subsequently remanded to the Superior Court.

[¶ 11] Next, Staples moved for summary judgment. With respect to the claim addressed here, Fuhrmann's whistleblower retaliation claim, the court concluded that the evidence showed that there was no causal link between her internal report about the miscoding of items for donation and the request that she change her work schedule. Summary judgment was awarded to Staples on all counts.


[¶ 12] Fuhrmann appeals from both the court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Staples and its prior dismissal of the four individual supervisors on her whistleblower claim. We must determine whether the summary judgment awarded Staples...

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