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Onley v. Jordan

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 4, 2017

JOSEPH B. ONLEY, a married man, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN J. JORDAN, in his individual capacity; RICHARD LARSON, in his individual and official capacities; DANIEL L. PETERSON, in his individual and official capacities; CURTIS J. KNAPP, in his individual and official capacities; and PEND ORIELLE COUNTY PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT, a municipal corporation, Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING IN PART AND GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANTS' SECOND MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          SALVADOR MENDOZA, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Joseph Onley was demoted from his position as a manager with the Pend Orielle County Public Utility District in June 2013 and later terminated in June 2016. The Court previously granted summary judgment in Defendants' (collectively the PUD) favor on Onley's claims relating to his demotion. ECF No. 35. Defendants' now move for summary judgment on Onley's remaining claims relating to his termination. ECF No. 36. The PUD asserts that Onley's due process and breach of contract claims fail because he was terminated for budgetary reasons, as opposed to disciplinary reasons subject to the PUD's progressive disciplinary process. Because issues of material fact remain regarding whether Onley was terminated for disciplinary reasons, the PUD's motion is denied with respect to the due process and breach of contract claims. The PUD further argues that Onley fails to state a prima facie age discrimination claim. Because there is no evidence in the record from which the Court could conclude that age discrimination played a role in Onley's termination, the PUD's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted with respect to Onley's age discrimination claim.[1]

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Onley began work for the PUD as a distribution engineer in June 1986. ECF No. 18 at 2; ECF No. 24 at 2. In 2001, the PUD promoted Onley to the position of CNS[2] manager. ECF No. 24 at 2. On June 18, 2013, the PUD demoted Onley by transferring him from the CNS Manager position to an interim GIS Engineer position.[3] ECF No. 18 at 2. In January 2014, the PUD transferred Onley to another temporary GIS Engineer position. ECF No. 37 at 2. This position involved mapping the location of fiber optic infrastructure, a project that the PUD asserts was intended to be completed by July 31, 2014. Id.

         In late 2015, the PUD received notice that its largest customer, Ponderay Newsprint Company (PNC), intended to terminate its power-supply contracts. ECF No. 37 at 2-3. At the time, PNC represented 70% of the PUD's electricity load and paid $30 million for the delivery of power. ECF No. 37 at 3. Importantly, however, the PUD and PNC are involved in litigation, and at this time, the PUD still supplies power to PNC. ECF No. 39 at 2. The PUD asserts that as a result of this expected loss of business, and related litigation, the PUD evaluated department projects and associated spending in an effort to reduce costs, including IT and CNS projects. ECF No. 37 at 3.

         In June 2016, HR and IT manager Lloyd Clark identified Onley's position as a candidate for elimination because it involved work on a project that was initially scheduled for completion in July 2014. ECF No. 37 at 4. Onley disputes that the project was ever expected to be completed by July 2014 or that his position was a drain on PUD resources, noting that the project was federally funded. ECF No. 39 at 2-3. Clark asked Onley to evaluate where he was at on the project, and Onley responded in a memo that he expected to need approximately 18 months to complete the project. ECF No. 37 at 5.

         The PUD asserts that it determined the project was unnecessary and therefore decided to eliminate Onley's position. Id. PUD General Manager Colin Willenbrock directed Clark to discuss early retirement with Onley as a possibility in lieu of termination. Id. Clark had discussions with Onley about transitioning to retirement on several occasions in early June 2016. Id. at 6. Onley states that Clark asked him to “give him a number” that he would consider to retire. ECF No. 39 at 4. Only told Clark that he had no interest in retiring. Id. Clark nevertheless continued to press Onley about retirement, but stated that the PUD was not trying to push him out. Id.

         On June 14, 2016, Clark presented Onley with an early retirement offer, explaining that downsizing was likely to happen in several areas at the PUD. ECF No. 39 at 5. Onley told Clark he would consider the offer and provide his response the following Monday. Id. On Friday, June 17, Onley went to the office despite planning to take the day off. Id. Onley asserts that Clark again confronted him again about the retirement offer, and that he reaffirmed he would provide his answer on Monday as planned. Id. The PUD, by contrast, asserts that Onley rejected the severance and early retirement offer that day. ECF No. 37 at 6. According to the PUD, Willenbrock then decided to immediately terminate Onley because he was concerned Onley might destroy electronic information or remove documents. Id. at 7. Onley asserts that after he told Clark he would provide his answer on Monday, Clark presented him with a written termination agreement and informed him that his employment was being terminated, effective immediately. ECF No. 39 at 5-6.

         The PUD asserts that it ultimately eliminated eight other positions through attrition. ECF No. 37 at 7. Onley asserts that no other employee was laid off for budget reasons. ECF No. 39 at 3.

         B. Procedural History

         Onley initially filed this action on June 8, 2016, alleging that his June 2013 demotion was in breach of contract and violated his constitutional right to due process. ECF No. 1. On December 9, 2016, Onley filed an amended complaint adding allegations of breach of contract, violation of due process, and discrimination under RCW § 49.60.180 relating to the PUD's termination of Onley's employment in June 2016 after he filed his initial complaint in this case. ECF No. 15. at 8-9. On March 8, 2017, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the PUD on Onley's claims relating to his demotion. ECF No. 35. The PUD now moves for summary judgment on Onley's remaining claims, which relate to his termination in June 2016. ECF No. 36.

         III. ...


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