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Price v. Equilon Enterprises LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

February 18, 2014

RACHEL A PRICE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
EQUILON ENTERPRISES LLC, d/b/a SHELL OIL PRODUCTS US, a Delaware Limited Liability Company, Defendant.

ORDER

JOHN C. COUGHENOUR, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's two motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. Nos. 94 & 95.) Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and hereby GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the motions for the reasons explained herein.

I. BACKGROUND

This is an employment discrimination case arising out of Defendant Equilon Enterprises, LLC's alleged discrimination against Plaintiffs on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. (Dkt. No. 54.) Plaintiffs, two LGBT women, allege that they were discriminatorily denied promotions in 2008, 2011, and 2012, based on their gender or sexual orientation, in violation of Title VII as well as the Washington Law Against Discrimination ("WLAD"). ( Id. at 6.) In each case, Plaintiff alleges that less qualified heterosexual men were awarded the promotion. ( Id. at 3-5.) Defendant contends that it had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for denying Plaintiffs the promotions. Plaintiffs also state that Defendant subjected them to a hostile work environment, as some of their coworkers allegedly made degrading or derogatory comments about their gender or sexual orientation. ( Id. at 2-3.)

Defendant moves for summary judgment on all claims. (Dkt. Nos. 94 & 95.) Specifically, Defendant argues that a number of the Title VII claims are procedurally barred; that none of the hostile work environment claims under either Title VII or the WLAD may be asserted, as Plaintiffs have not made out a prima facie case on that issue; and that Defendant had legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons to deny the promotions to Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs filed a consolidated response. (Dkt. No. 113.) Defendant filed timely replies. (Dkt. Nos. 115 & 116.)

II. DISCUSSION

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the Court must enter summary judgment if the record shows "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether an issue of material fact exists, the Court must determine "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Accordingly, the Court must "draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

In an employment discrimination dispute, a plaintiff generally needs to "produce very little evidence in order to overcome an employer's motion for summary judgment. This is because the ultimate question is one that can only be resolved through a searching inquiry-one that is most appropriately conducted by a factfinder, upon a full record.'"[1] Chuang v. Univ. of Cal. Davis, Bd. Of Trustees, 225 F.3d 1115, 1124 (9th Cir. 2000) (quoting Schnidrig v. Columbia Mach., Inc., 80 F.3d 1406, 1410 (9th Cir. 1996)). The Ninth Circuit has "emphasized the importance of zealously guarding an employee's right to a full trial, since discrimination claims are frequently difficult to prove without a full airing of the evidence and an opportunity to evaluate the credibility of the witnesses." McGinest v. GTE Serv. Corp, 360 F.3d 1103, 1112 (9th Cir. 2004).

Here, Defendant moves for summary judgment on all claims asserted in Plaintiffs' Fourth Amended Complaint. (Dkt. Nos. 94 & 95.) Plaintiffs respond only to arguments regarding the WLAD claims that relate to the allegedly discriminatory failure to promote in 2008, 2011, and 2012. ( See Dkt. No. 105.) Nonetheless, "a non-movant's failure to respond" to arguments made in a motion for summary judgment does not constitute "a complete abandonment of its opposition to summary judgment." Heinemann v. Satterberg, 731 F.3d 914, 917 (9th Cir. 2013). However, "the opposing party's failure to respond to a fact asserted in the motion permits a court to consider the fact undisputed for the purposes of the motion.'" Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2)).

A. Discriminatory Denial of a Promotion under the WLAD

"In discrimination cases, summary judgment is often inappropriate because the WLAD mandates liberal construction' and the evidence will generally contain reasonable but competing inferences of both discrimination and nondiscrimination that must be resolved by a jury.'" Johnson v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 244 P.3d 438, 443 (Wash.Ct.App. 2010) (footnotes omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate, however, "when the plaintiff fails to raise a genuine issue of fact on one or more prima facie elements." Id. (footnote omitted).[2]

Under the WLAD, an employer may not "discriminate against any person in compensation or in other terms or conditions of employment because of... sex... [or] sexual orientation." RCW ยง 49.60.180(3). To establish a sex or sexual orientation discrimination claim, a plaintiff must show that she can put forward a prima facie case, consisting of: "(1) membership in a protected class; (2) the employee is qualified for the employment position or performing substantially equal work; (3) an adverse employment decision including termination or denial of promotion; and (4) selection by the employer of a replacement or promoted person from outside the protected class." Kuest v. Regent Assisted Living, Inc., 43 P.3d 23, 26 (Wash.Ct.App. 2002). The employee alleging discrimination must establish specific and material facts to support each element of the prima facie case. Id. at 26-27. "If a prima facie case is established, a legally mandatory, rebuttable presumption of discrimination temporarily takes hold' and the employer must produce sufficient evidence of a legitimate and nondiscriminatory explanation for the employment action." Id. at 27 (quoting Hill v. BCTI Income Fund-I, 23 P.3d 440, 446 (Wash. 2001)). If the employer satisfies its burden, the employee must provide evidence of pretext. Id. But "once evidence supporting a prima facie case, a non-discriminatory explanation, and pretext have been presented and the record contains reasonable but competing inferences of both discrimination and nondiscrimination, it is the jury's task to choose between such inferences.'" Id. (quoting Hill, 23 P.3d at 449).

Here, Plaintiffs have satisfied their obligation to put forward sufficient evidence to prove their prima facie case with respect to the 2011 and 2012 promotions.[3] The first, third, and fourth elements are clearly satisfied. Defendant concedes that both Plaintiffs are members of two protected classes. Moreover, Plaintiffs satisfy the third element because they were not promoted. Finally, the fourth element is satisfied because heterosexual men were awarded each of the contested positions.

Moreover, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to satisfy the second factor as to both the 2011 and 2012 promotion opportunities. Defendant argues that Rachel Price did not qualify for the 2011 position because she had three safety violations, (Dkt. No. 94 at 15), and so "[Defendant] had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for not promoting Price." ( Id. ) Similarly, Defendant argues that "[it] had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its decision, " not to offer the 2011 promotion to Tessa Gehardt because she "had difficulties working with other employees." (Dkt. No. 95 at 15.) However, Defendant puts forward no ...


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