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Flowers v. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

May 1, 2018

JON FLOWERS, Plaintiff,
v.
FRED HUTCHINSON CANCER RESEARCH CENTER, Defendant.

          ORDER

          John C. Coughenour UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. No. 33). Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and hereby GRANTS the motion for the reasons explained herein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2001, Plaintiff Jon Flowers (“Flowers”), started working for Defendant, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (“Fred Hutch”) in its Human Resources Department. (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 3.) Sometime in July 2012, Flowers' supervisor, Han Nachtrieb (“Nachtrieb”) announced that the Department would soon be posting an opening for a newly created Employment Manager position. (Dkt. No. 39 at 1-2.) A few weeks later when Flowers told Nachtrieb that he wanted to apply for the position, Nachtrieb told him that another employee, John Bartley (“Bartley”), had already applied, interviewed, and been hired. (Id.) Bartley is Caucasian, while Flowers is African American. (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 3-4.)

         Unbeknownst to Flowers, Nachtrieb had earlier told a Recruiting Supervisor, Narreda Cooper (“Cooper”), that he would not be posting the Employment Manager position. (Dkt. No. 40 at 1.) Nachtrieb told Cooper that he had decided to hire Bartley and to keep that information to herself. (Id. at 1-2.) When Flowers approached Cooper to inquire about the open position, Cooper merely told him that no one had applied. (Id. at 2.) On August 1, 2012, Bartley's job as the Employment Manager took effect. (Dkt. No. 34 at 15.) In January 2013, after Cooper was terminated by Fred Hutch, she told Flowers about Nachtrieb's decision to hire Bartley without posting the position or interviewing other applicants. (Dkt. No. 40 at 2.)

         On September 26, 2013, Flowers filed a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) (Dkt. No. 34 at 5.) In his grievance, Flowers asserted that Fred Hutch “has engaged in a pattern and practice of promoting less qualified Anglo employees for management positions within the Human Resources Department while denying me promotional opportunity to a management position within the department.” (Id.) After conducting an internal investigation of the discrimination claim, Fred Hutch terminated Flowers. (Id.) Flowers subsequently filed a second claim with the EEOC asserting Fred Hutch had retaliated against him for filing his first complaint. (Dkt. No. 34 at 7.)

         After obtaining a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, Flowers brought this lawsuit charging Fred Hutch with disparate treatment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).[1] (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 5-6.) Fred Hutch now moves for summary judgment on Flowers' disparate treatment claim, arguing that it is time-barred. (Dkt. No. 33 at 1.) Fred Hutch asserts that Title VII required Flowers to bring his discrimination claim within 300 days of filing his grievance with the EEOC. (Id.) Flowers argues that his discrimination claim is timely under the doctrines of equitable estoppel and equitable tolling. (Dkt. No. 38 at 1.)

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In making that determination, the Court must view the facts and justifiable inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Once a summary judgment motion is properly made and supported, the opposing party “must come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (emphasis in original) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)).

         B. Title VII Statute of Limitations

         To bring a Title VII discrimination claim, a plaintiff must first file a charge with a state EEOC agency within 300 days of experiencing an unlawful employment practice. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1)[2]; see also Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 113 (2002) (“Each discrete discriminatory act starts a new clock for filing charges alleging that act. The charge, therefore, must be filed within the . . . 300-day time period after the discrete discriminatory act occurred.”) Where a Title VII discrimination claim is based on discrete acts that occurred outside of the 300-day filing window, the claim is time-barred. See Morgan, 536 U.S. at 109; Siddiqui v. AG Commc'n Sys. Corp., 233 Fed.Appx. 610, 612 (9th Cir. 2007). The 300-day filing clock commences when a plaintiff becomes aware of the adverse employment action that supports his or her discrimination claim. See Lukovsky v. City & Cty. of San Francisco, 535 F.3d 1044, 1051 (9th Cir. 2008) (“claim accrued when the plaintiffs received notice they would not be hired . . . .”).

         In his complaint, Flowers alleges a single discriminatory act to support his Title VII discrimination claim. (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 5.) Flowers states that “[he] applied for a promotion to the Employment Manager position but was not promoted. Instead, a white, Caucasian employee was promoted to the position.” (Id.) It is undisputed that the discrete act supporting Flowers' discrimination claim is Fred Hutch's decision to promote Bartley rather than him. The undisputed evidence further demonstrates that Bartley officially began working as the Employment Manager in early August 2012, and Flowers was aware that Bartley had gotten the job. (Dkt. Nos. 34 at 15, 39 at 2.) Therefore, the 300-day clock began to run once Flowers knew Bartley had been hired in August 2012. Flowers did not file his EEOC claim regarding this allegedly discriminatory hiring decision until September 2013-well beyond the 300-day window required by Title VII. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1). Based on this evidence, Fred Hutch has met its initial burden on summary judgment to demonstrate that Flowers' Title VII discrimination claim is time-barred.

         In response, Flowers asks the Court to apply the doctrines of equitable estoppel or equitable tolling to prevent his discrimination claim from being time-barred.[3] (Dkt. No. 38 at 1.) Flowers asserts that these equitable doctrines are appropriate because Nachtrieb intentionally misled him about the circumstances surrounding Bartley's promotion, and he could not reasonably ...


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