Martin v. Winn-Dixie La., Inc.

Decision Date23 September 2015
Docket NumberCase No. 3:13-CV-00682-JWD-SCR
Citation132 F.Supp.3d 794
Parties Melissa R. Martin, Plaintiff, v. Winn–Dixie Louisiana, Inc., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Louisiana

Jill L. Craft, Crystal Lafleur, Natasha Leigh George, Jil L. Craft, Attorney At Law, LLC, Baton Rouge, LA, for Plaintiff.

Daisy Gurdian Kane, Rene' E. Thorne, Charles F. Seemann, III, Jackson Lewis P.C., New Orleans, LA, David T. Wiley, Jackson Lewis P.C., Birmingham, AL, for Defendant.

ORDER AND RULING ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
JUDGE JOHN W. deGRAVELLES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT, MIDDLE DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
I. INTRODUCTION

Lately pregnant, a long-term employee, a certain store's co-director, asks her direct supervisor for a restructured set of duties, i.e. an accommodation of responsibilities, none deemed "essential" or "primary." Her doctor advises it; the health of baby and mother demand it. To her, it seems neither unusual nor problematic, her proposed alterations having been previously afforded by her employer to many other colleagues laboring under similar physical limitations. The supervisor forwards the request to the corporate headquarters located on Florida's Atlantic coast. Eventually, in response, an offer she cannot refuse is made: accept a demotion or take the leave to which the law entitles you. She takes the leave, as it makes the most sense. She needs the money, and the insurance is most crucial, while her fiancée cannot help, for he is unemployed. A healthy baby is born a few weeks late. Four weeks later, the new mother contacts Human Resources with the happy news—and an odd question: why will my store discount card no long work? The answer soon comes from HR: Ma'am, you were fired two weeks ago. On the basis of this story, a complaint was drafted, and this case was born. The mother's name is Ms. Melissa R. Martin ("Martin" or "Plaintiff"); her employer is Winn–Dixie, Inc. ("Winn–Dixie" or "Defendant").1

At present, however, before the Court is one motion: Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("MSJ"), (Doc. 31), filed after a motion to dismiss, (Doc. 17), but before this Court partly granted the latter, (Doc. 37).2 Plaintiff has responded ("Plaintiff's First Opposition"), (Doc. 38), and after this Court dismissed all but five claims, a quintet of motions followed: a supplemental opposition by Plaintiff ("Plaintiff's Supplemental Opposition"), (Doc. 41), a reply by Defendant ("Defendant's Reply"), (Doc. 44), a sur reply by Plaintiff ("Plaintiff's First Sur Reply"), (Doc. 48), a first sur reply by Defendant ("Defendant's First Sur Reply"), (Doc. 55), and a second by Defendant ("Defendant's Second Reply"), (Doc. 58). In brief, Defendant maintains that no genuine issues of material fact exist as to each one of Plaintiff's remaining claims: (1) sexual/pregnancy discrimination in violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ("PDA"), a part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"); (2) Louisiana's pregnancy discrimination law; (3) sexual harassment in violation of Title VII; (4) sexual harassment in contravention of Louisiana's equivalent; and (5) the distinct state tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"). In the absence of such a dispute, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 563 demands judgment in its favor. Plaintiff contests Defendant's legal analysis and its evidentiary characterization. She emphasizes that she has made the requisite prima facie case for sexual discrimination and provided enough evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find Defendant liable for both sexual harassment and IIED. One dispute over a technical evidentiary matter and another focused on the issue of exhaustion are subsumed within the larger controversy.

This Court agrees and disagrees in part with Defendant. As a threshold matter, it rejects Defendant's arguments that it must set aside and ignore Plaintiff's tardily submitted evidence—a declaration by Mr. Wayne Ivy ("Ivy Declaration")—pursuant to Rules 26(a)(1) and 37(c)(1) and treat Plaintiff's still extant claims as not properly exhausted. It does so because both contentions defy the Rules' clear text, well-established case law, and the relevant documents. It also finds that, based on federal and state discrimination law, Plaintiff has met her minimal burden as to these two discrete claims. More than enough evidence exists to lead a jury to reasonably conclude that Defendant discriminated against Plaintiff due to her pregnancy and has advanced a purely pre-textual justification. While Defendant believes only nearly identical comparators will do, sufficiently close comparators, the PDA's minimum, can be found. Meanwhile, the descriptions provided of Plaintiff's former post contradict its assertions, and its agents have offered contradictory testimony as to whether the physical activity that Plaintiff could not do—lifting, pushing, and pulling up to eighty pounds—was truly an essential function. In contrast, as Plaintiff has failed to allege a sufficient quantum and level of actions by Defendant or its certain agents to support a harassment claim and has not offered the kind of proof necessary to support an IIED claim, this Court must dismiss those claims pursuant to Rule 56. Now, therefore, Plaintiff's claims for discrimination alone remain, as she has satisfied Rule 56's minimum.

As such, for the reasons more fully explained below, this Court GRANTS and DENIES IN PART the Defendant's MSJ.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
A. Defendant's Policies

The purpose of a co-director is to "lead, manage and develop" her (or his) team and the store's operations. (Doc. 31-4 at 11–12.) The non-exhaustive list of job functions leaves no doubt that the thrust of what the co-director must do is manage operations and recruiting and to delegate as appropriate. (See id. ) Although Defendant reserved the right to change this list at its discretion, physical lifting, pushing, and pulling requirements were not designated as "primary" and "essential" at the time of Plaintiff's employment.4 (Id. ) Within the category of "primary (essential) functions," only the eighth and final task even alludes to such physical demands, as a co-director is expected to "[m ]anage facility assets, including promptly addressing maintenance and safety issues, and daily maintenance of floor conditions."5 (Id. at 12 (emphasis added).) This written description goes on to warn that work hours can vary between days, evenings, weekends and holidays. (Id. at 15.)

Nonetheless, a co-director should be able to carry, push, lift or pull up to eighty (80) pounds for up to one-third of each work day. (Id. at 14). The listed percentage range for this physical activity, however, is between 1% and 33%. (Id. ) In fact, a co-director is expected to sit ("frequently," defined as between 34-66%") and to stand and walk ("continuously," defined as between "67-100%") more often than to lift, push, or carry "up to 80" pounds. (Id. ) Interestingly, defendant's counsel conceded as much during Sutton's deposition, objecting: "There's no category of essential physical demands. There's never, occasionally, frequently, continuously." (Doc. 31-5 at 9 (emphasis added).) While Sutton seemed to regard such physical tasks as "essential" in a colloquial sense—"You may have just one person open a store and have very little backup. And it would be essential that she be able to perform her duties if she was there by herself," (id. at 10)he did not identify lifting, pushing, and pulling as amongst a co-director's essential "duties" when asked to describe that position's "essential" duties. Instead, he intoned: "To assist the store director with whatever he needs, in charge of profits, sales, making sure we attain our budgets, helping direct people in the store, setting ads for the upcoming week, just helping to maintain and run the store." (Doc. 31-5 at 5–6). In contrast, Ms. Myndi Savoy ("Savoy"), the human resources generalist for Winn–Dixie's Prairieville store, insisted that "unloading the trucks" was a "primary responsibilit[y]." (Doc. 31-6 at 5.) Regardless, the description does not explicitly prohibit co-directors from seeking help or using pallet trucks, jacks, or forklifts to accomplish any heavy lifting. (Doc. 31-4.)

Defendant's associate handbook ("Handbook") provides further detail. It states that all Winn–Dixie employees labor "at-will," employment terminable "by either the [a]ssociate or ... [c]ompany at any time, for any reason, with or without notice." (Doc. 31-4 at 20.)6 According to the Handbook, forty-hour weeks are considered to be a regular work period (plus any overtime on a "deemed necessary" basis). (Id. at 27.) Although the Handbook does not mention procedures for accommodating employees with disabilities such as pregnancy, it is Winn–Dixie's policy, consonant with its obligation under federal and state law, to "reasonably accommodate qualified applicants or associates with disabilities and who can perform the essential functions of his or her job, with or without accommodation." (Doc. 31-4 at 39 (emphasis added).) Like the written description provided for the co-director position, the Handbook does identify the pulling, lifting, and pushing requirement summarized on the former's final page as "essential" or "primary."

B. Plaintiff's Employment: Pre– and Post-Pregnancy

On December 15, 1995, Defendant hired Plaintiff as a part-time cashier. (Doc. 1-1 at 2; Doc 31-1 at 1; Doc. 38-1 at 2.) Over the next fifteen years, she held various positions at sundry Winn–Dixie stores located in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Doc. 31-1 at 1.) Eventually, Defendant promoted her to co-director, described as "the second most senior store-level management position" and as interchangeable with the term "co-manager" in the MSJ, while she was stationed at the store located on Burbank Drive. (Id. at 1 & 2 n.2; Doc. 38-1 at 2.) She was transferred to another store, sited in Prairieville and designated Store Number 1590...

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