Gaston v. The Restaurant Co.

Decision Date05 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. C02-3015-MWB.,C02-3015-MWB.
Citation260 F.Supp.2d 742
PartiesLarry GASTON, Plaintiff, v. THE RESTAURANT COMPANY a/k/a The Restaurant Company of Delaware d/b/a Perkins Restaurant and Bakery, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Michalel J. Carroll, Coppola, Snadroe, McConville & Carro, PC, West Des Moines, IA for Plaintiff.

Shannon Mmiagill, Litter & Mendelson, PC. Minneapolies MN, Richard H. Moller, Meller LLP, Sioux City, IA .Donald W apolis, MN, for Defendent.

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

BENNETT, Chief Judge.

                TABLE OF CONTENTS
                I. INTRODUCTION ....................................................... 743
                      A. Procedural Background ........................................... 743
                      B. Factual Background .............................................. 744
                  II. LEGAL ANALYSIS ..................................................... 747
                      A. Standards For Summary Judgment .................................. 747
                         1. The parties' burdens ......................................... 747
                         2. Summary judgment in employment discrimination cases .......... 747
                      B. Gaston's ADA Claim .............................................. 749
                      C. Gaston's Disparate Treatment Claim .............................. 749
                      D. Discharge In Violation Of Public Policy Claim ................... 758
                         1. Prong one: Protected activity ................................ 758
                         2. Prong two: Adverse employment action .......................... 759
                         3. Prong three: Causal connection ............................... 759
                 III. CONCLUSION ...................................................... 762
                
I. INTRODUCTION
A. Procedural Background

On February 21, 2002, Larry Gaston ("Gaston") filed a complaint against his former employer, defendant The Restaurant Company d/b/a Perkins Restaurant and Bakery ("Perkins"), alleging three causes of action: (1) a claim of disability discrimination; (2) a claim of sexual discrimination; and (3) a claim of retaliatory discharge in violation of Iowa public policy. Gaston contends that all three led to his discharge in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq, the Iowa Civil Rights Act ("ICRA"), chapter 216 of the Iowa Code, and Iowa public policy.

A trial in this matter is presently scheduled for August 4, 2003. Mr. Gaston is represented by Michael Carroll of Coppola, Sandre, McConville & Carroll P.C., West Des Moines, Iowa. Perkins is represented by Donald Selzer, Jr. and Chad W. Strathman of Littler Mendelson, P.C., Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Richard Moeller of Berenstein, Moore, Berenstein Heffernan & Moeller, L.L.P., Sioux City, Iowa. Before discussing the standards for Perkins's Motion for Summary Judgment, however, the court will first examine the factual background of this case.

B. Factual Background

Whether or not a party is entitled to summary judgment ordinarily turns on whether or not there are genuine issues for trial, Quick v. Donaldson Co., 90 F.3d 1372, 1376-77 (8th Cir.1996); Johnson v. Enron Corp., 906 F.2d 1234, 1237 (8th Cir.1990), and the court must view all the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the facts. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 587; Quick, 90 F.3d at 1377 (same). Thus, a summary of the undisputed and disputed facts is essential to the disposition of Perkins's Motion for Summary Judgment.

Gaston first worked for Perkins in the capacity of general manager of its Clear Lake, Iowa, restaurant beginning in May 1999. Gaston was recruited for the position by the then Regional Manager, David Ahlberg ("Ahlberg"), to cure the present financial and performance issues the restaurant suffered. Perkins asserts that the Clear Lake restaurant continued to have financial issues under Gaston's management. On September 29, 1999, Ahlberg sent a letter to Gaston stating that the "restaurant is under performing from a financial standpoint." Def.'s Ex. 8, at 0006. Ahlberg noted in the letter that the restaurant in August, year-to-date (YTD), was under the sales plan by $43,000 and under the profit plan by $26,800, respectively. Def.'s Ex. 8, at 0006. Gaston denies Perkins's assertion and contends that he was able to achieve, "[f]or the most part," the profit plan during the time he managed the Clear Lake Restaurant. PL's Dep., at 000008. Gaston admits that the restaurant's labor costs one month exceeded that specified by the plan and attributed this increase to the restaurant's sales being softer than anticipated. Gaston also cites softer than anticipated sales as interfering with his ability to achieve the sales and profit plans in May and August YTD, as indicated in Ahlberg's letter. PL's Dep., at 000008. However, Gaston interpreted Ahlberg's letter as merely "constructive criticism," and did not believe that the letter was a factor in his leaving the company approximately three months later. PL's Aff., at 000146. In fact, Gaston asserts that during the three months after he received the letter, the Clear Lake restaurant's performance did not falter but improved. PL's Dep., at 000009. Perkins states that Gaston voluntarily quit as general manager of the Clear Lake Perkins for a lower-paying job with Super 8 Motel. Gaston admits that he initially suffered a reduction in salary when he accepted the position with Super 8 Motel, but took the position nevertheless because it was still in the hospitality business "but without all the issues that went with [working with food]." PL's Dep., at 000009.

Gaston returned to work for Perkins on a part-time basis at the Mason City restaurant in July 2000, after Ahlberg and Kevin Miller ("Miller"), then general manager of Perkins's Waterloo restaurant, approached Gaston about the job. Thereafter, Gaston began functioning as the general manager of the Mason City restaurant. Gaston does not claim that he was treated unfairly while working for Ahlberg. According to Gaston, it was when Ahlberg was replaced as Regional Manager by Chris Bosch ("Bosch") that things changed for the worse. For starters, on September 7, 2000, Bosch gave Gaston a final written warning. The letter began by addressing Gaston's practices regarding human resource issues. Perkins argues, as documented by Bosch in the written warning that Bosch discovered "since July 2000, [that] Gaston quickly had developed a negative pattern in the area of employee relations at the Mason City store." Bosch's Aff., at 2. As evidence of this negative pattern, Perkins and Bosch cite Gaston's receipt of three AlertLines and a Guest Line within five days of each other. Perkins's AlertLine program is a 1-800 number available to all Perkins's employees, anonymously, in order to complain about working conditions and other employee complaints. Perkins alleges that two of the AlertLines were in regard to Gaston's ability to handle crisis management. The first complaint was from a terminated employee who complained she was treated unfairly. Gaston denies the allegation because he claims to have legitimately terminated her due to inappropriate conduct— swearing in the restaurant in front of customers. The second complaint came from a guest who allegedly witnessed Gaston terminating an employee. Gaston denies that a second termination occurred, and adds that he never dealt with employee relations issues in front of customers. Pl.'s Dep., at 76-77. The third complaint was received from an applicant who wanted to interview with the Perkins's Mason City restaurant. Gaston claims that he was not aware of the situations giving rise to the second and third AlertLine calls. Pl.'s Dep., at 78.

Also in the final written warning, Bosch states that some of the new employees were allowed to work despite the fact that their personnel files lacked the proper documentation in violation of company policy. Gaston disputes this accusation and contends that the new employee personnel files complied with company policy. Gaston admitted that the personnel files of those employees already employed at the Mason City Perkins before he became general manager, were not complete and he and Miller posted a notice in the store alerting those employees affected. Finally, the written warning issued by Bosch detailed the financial results of the Mason City restaurant through August, informing Gaston that "These levels are not acceptable." Def.'s Ex. 12, at 0023. In addition, Bosch attached the letter that Ahlberg sent to Gaston while Gaston was the manager of the Clear Lake Perkins. In his warning, Bosch commented that "The letter addresses your lack of ability to gain financial control of [sic] restaurant unit # 1065. This letter is clearly touching upon CPH and DOE issues. This is very disturbing and causes concern to me." Def.'s Ex. 12, at 0023. Similarly, when Bosch presented the warning to Gaston he told Gaston that "I don't think you're up to the task. I really don't think that you can do this job for us. I'm going to give you a week's paycheck if you just get up and walk away from the restaurant." Pl.'s Dep., at 70.

Gaston responded to the final written warning and verbal comments by Bosch by telling Bosch that he "did not think it was fair.... I [Gaston] did not think I was given ample time to address all the issues and take care of the needs that needed to be taken care of to bring the Mason City store back on the track to recovery." Pl.'s Dep., at 70. Gaston declined Bosch's offer to leave Perkins's employment, and told Bosch that he would get the store back on track. Gaston admits that at the September 7, 2000, meeting with Bosch and Miller, he did not believe Bosch issued him the final written warning for any other reason than those stated in the warning.

Perkins's...

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