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Magden v. Easterday Farms

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 3, 2017

EASTERDAY FARMS, et al., Defendants.



         BEFORE THE COURT is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 33). Response and Reply briefs have been filed. (ECF No. 36 & 47). The court heard telephonic oral argument on the Motion on April 27, 2017. Ronald Van Wert appeared on behalf of Defendants. Patrick McGuigan and William Kim represented Plaintiff. This Order memorializes and supplements the court's oral rulings.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Bennett Magden alleges he was discriminated against on the basis of religion. Plaintiff alleges he was hired by Defendants in September 2010 to work as a tractor maintenance driver. (Am. Complt. ¶ 4.1). Defendant claims his supervisor, Eric Freeman, "attempted to proselytize" him at work, and gave him a Mormon bible. (Id. at 4.6 - 4.8). Plaintiff is not Mormon and was offended by Mr. Freeman's actions. (Id. at 4.11). On July 3, 2014, during a business meeting, Plaintiff told Cody Easterday about the proselytizing. (Id. at 4.13). Plaintiff alleges the following week he again told Mr. Freeman he did not want to discuss religious issues at work, Mr. Freeman became angry, and fired Plaintiff on July 8, 2014. Plaintiff brings his claims pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq, and the Washington Law Against Discrimination ("WLAD") § 49.60 et seq.

         Defendants deny Plaintiff was discriminated against in any manner. Defendants admit Mr. Freeman gave Plaintiff a copy of the Mormon Bible, but deny Mr. Freeman engaged in proselytizing. Defendants claim Plaintiff was terminated for unsatisfactory job performance. Defendants seek summary judgment on several grounds. Defendants argue Easterday Farms Produce, Co. and Easterday Ranches, Inc. are improper parties and the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over them. (ECF No. 33, p. 4-8). Defendants also argue Plaintiff cannot maintain a Title VII claim against the individual partners of Easterday Farms. Lastly, Defendants argue Plaintiff cannot establish a claim under Title VII or the WLAD because his job performance was not satisfactory at the time of termination.

         II. Factual Background

         In summary judgment proceedings, the facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-movant, in this case the Plaintiff. The following facts are set forth in a light favorable to the Plaintiff and key factual disputes are noted.

         Plaintiff Bennet Magden began working for Defendants on September 14, 2010. Plaintiff began work as a tractor maintenance/lube truck driver and was being paid $11 an hour. (ECF No. 34-1, Magden depo. p. 98). After about three months, he received a raise to $14/hour and after approximately one year he became a salaried employee at $40, 000/year. (Id. at 98-99). In January 2014, Plaintiff was promoted to Assistant Manager and his salary was raised to $50, 000/year. His supervisor during the course of his employment was Eric Freeman.

         Cody Easterday is the president and CEO of Easterday Farms, an unincorporated partnership. (ECF No. 34-2, Easterday depo. p. 9). Easterday Farms employs about 80 people, and was Plaintiff's employer.[1] Mr. Easterday testified he considered Plaintiff to be a good worker, with a "great attitude" who was "punctual" and "energetic." (Id. at 20). Plaintiff's immediate supervisor, Mr. Freeman, also testified Plaintiff "did a great job of lube truck." (ECF No. 34-3, Freeman depo. p. 21). He testified Plaintiff "never screwed up, " the work was "done right" and Plaintiff was "fast" and "hustled" (Id.). He further agreed with Mr. Easterday's characterization of Plaintiff as punctual with a positive attitude. (Id.).

         In late-August 2013, Mr. Freeman, who is Mormon, gave Plaintiff a copy of the Mormon Bible while they were at work. Plaintiff contends "about every two weeks" thereafter Mr. Freeman would ask if Plaintiff had read the verse Mr. Freeman had folded the page over on. (Magden depo. p. 50). Mr. Freeman admits he gave Plaintiff a copy of the Mormon Bible, but claims he discussed it on only two occasions. (ECF No. 34-3, Freeman depo. p. 97). Plaintiff claims Mr. Freeman would ask him questions such as: 1) what are you doing with the Bible?; 2) where is the Bible at?; 3) why aren't you reading the Bible or the verse I indicated? (Magden depo. at 51). Plaintiff testified he often tried to change the subject to avoid talking about religion. He testified he did not complain to anyone when he was first given the Bible at work because he was trying to advance his career and was not at that time an Assistant Manager. (Id. at 31).

         Mr. Easterday and Mr. Freeman contend the quality of Plaintiff's work began to decline after he was promoted in January 2014. They argue the meeting of July 3, 2014 was set to discuss Plaintiff's performance issues. Plaintiff testified he was not aware of performance issues and thought the July 3, 2014 meeting was to discuss farm operations, such as "making plans for the early potatoes and then for harvest". (Magden depo. p. 34-35).

         Plaintiff claims the July 3rd meeting began with Mr. Easterday threatening to terminate him if he did not listen to Mr. Freeman. (ECF No. 38, Magden Dec. ¶ 12). Plaintiff then claims Mr. Easterday raised some issues, including a weed spraying issue, and Plaintiff presented his side of the story and disputed he had ever hung up the phone on Mr. Freeman. (Id. at ¶ 13). Plaintiff states neither Mr. Easterday or Mr. Freeman brought up any issues with Plaintiff leaving work early or absenteeism. (Id. At ¶ 14). Plaintiff claims Mr. Easterday said he should not have jumped to conclusions and asked if there were other issues they needed to discuss. Plaintiff then took the opportunity to complain about Mr. Freeman proselytizing at work, giving him a Mormon Bible, and urging him to read scripture. (Id.). Plaintiff claims Mr. Easterday essentially ignored his complaint and said he had nothing to do with that. Mr. Easterday testified he understood Magden to be complaining about the proselytizing, but he conducted no investigation, and concluded immediately there was no discrimination. (Easterday depo. p. 66-68). Plaintiff claims the meeting ended with Easterday and Freeman telling him he was doing a good job, and they told him to take a three-day weekend for the Fourth of July holiday. (Magden Dec. ¶ 14).

         Plaintiff returned to work on July 7, 2014. On July 8, 2014, Mr. Freeman approached him and asked why he had complained to Mr. Easterday about the religious issue. (Id. at ¶ 15). Plaintiff claimed he told Freeman he only wanted to talk about work, and not personal matters. Freeman responded by saying Plaintiff was "defiant". Plaintiff claims he told Freeman he needed to leave early that day because his wife was about to give birth and was on bed rest. Plaintiff claims Freeman gave him permission to leave early. (Id. at ¶ 15). Mr. Freeman denies he gave Plaintiff permission or knew Plaintiff's wife was about to give birth. (Freeman depo. p. 93-94). Mr. Freeman called Plaintiff at about 6:30 p.m. on July 8th and left him a voicemail telling him he was terminated due to poor communication.

         III. Discussion

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         The purpose of summary judgment is to avoid unnecessary trials when there is no dispute as to the material facts before the court. Northwest Motorcycle Ass'n v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 18 F.3d 1468, 1471 (9th Cir. 1994). The moving party is entitled to summary judgment when, viewing the evidence and the inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). While the moving party does not have to disprove matters on which the opponent will bear the burden of proof at trial, they nonetheless bear the burden of producing evidence that negates an essential element of the opposing party's claim and the ultimate burden of persuading the court that no genuine issue of material fact exists. Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Companies, 210 F.3d 1099, 1102 (9th Cir. 2000). When the nonmoving party has the burden of proof at trial, the moving party need only point out that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001).

         Once the moving party has carried its burden, the opponent must do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, the opposing party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.

         Although a summary judgment motion is to be granted with caution, it is not a disfavored remedy: “Summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986)(citations and quotations omitted).

         B. Improper ...

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