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Vincent L. Hollister v. Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Markets

January 22, 2013

VINCENT L. HOLLISTER,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MRS. GOOCH'S NATURAL FOOD MARKETS, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Leslie E. Kobayashi United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Before the Court is Defendant Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Market, Inc.'s ("Defendant") Motion for Summary Judgment ("Motion"), filed September 7, 2012. Plaintiff Vincent Hollister ("Plaintiff") filed his memorandum in opposition on December 13, 2012, and Defendant filed its reply on December 19, 2012. This matter came on for hearing on January 3, 2013. Appearing on behalf of Defendant were Jeffrey Harris, Esq., and Kristi O'Heron, Esq., and appearing on behalf of Plaintiff were Charles Brower, Esq., and Michael Healy, Esq. After careful consideration of the Motion, supporting and opposing memoranda, and the relevant legal authority, Defendant's Motion is HEREBY GRANTED for the reasons set forth below.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the First Circuit Court of the State of Hawai'i on November 15, 2011, which Defendant removed to this Court on April 3, 2012. The Complaint alleges violations of state discrimination laws based on age and gender, and intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"). Plaintiff claims that he worked for Defendant in its Whole Foods Market stores from January 13, 1999 until he was "terminated from his position of Store Operations Supervisor [("SOS")] on August 19, 2010." [Complaint at ¶ 9.] According to Plaintiff, in June 2010, Defendant eliminated the SOS position and replaced it with the Inventory Control Specialist position ("ICS"). [Id.]

Plaintiff claims that the "company-wide practice" was to place the SOS in the newly created ICS positions, but that Defendant's Kahala store management decided to issue a "special" assignment to a younger female assistant and Plaintiff for the ICS position, which created a competition between them. [Id. at ¶ 9.] According to Plaintiff, there were instances of insubordination by the younger female employee for which no corrective action was taken by management, and that she was not held accountable for taking personal calls while at work. On August 10, 2010, Plaintiff's younger female co-worker was selected for the ICS position, and Plaintiff was terminated on August 19, 2010 because his SOS position had been eliminated. Plaintiff claims that he was capable of performing his job function and should not have been terminated. [Id.]

The Complaint alleges the following claims:

(1) violations of Haw. Rev. Stat. § 378-2 due to sex (male) and age (59) (Count I); (2) a hostile work environment claim based upon discrimination (Count II); (3) an IIED claim; and (4) a defamation claim (Count IV). Plaintiff also seeks an award of punitive damages. Counts II (hostile work environment) and IV (defamation) were dismissed by stipulation on July 10, 2012. [Dkt. no. 34.]

I. Defendant's Motion

Defendant moves for summary judgment on all the claims in Plaintiff's Complaint on the grounds that: (1) it did not discriminate against Plaintiff based on sex or age; (2) Plaintiff has no emotional distress claim because Defendant did not engage in "outrageous" conduct; and (3) punitive damages are not warranted because Defendant did not engage in "willful or wanton misconduct." [Mem. in Supp. of Motion at 1-2.]

A. Discrimination

Defendant argues that it had a legitimate business reason for hiring Sonia Limberis (a younger female employee), rather than Plaintiff for the ICS position based on their performance before an interview panel. Defendant required all applicants for the ICS position to follow the same interview process, including the completion of an assignment, "taking the initiative to discuss the position with team leaders in advance of the interview, using paid time to prepare for the interview, and meeting with the same group of panelists." [Id. at 7.] Defendant asserts that Ms. Limberis submitted a thorough assignment, gave a superior performance at her interview, and had experience and skills useful in the new position. According to Defendant, Plaintiff "gave a lackluster performance during his interview, and that panelists considered this to be a key factor in their decisionmaking." [Id.]

The interview panel was comprised of six Kahala store employees: Assistant Store Team Leader Robin Burton (age 33), Whole Body Team Leader Sandra Kuo (age 38), Kahala store Receiver Brian Tomaszewski (age 49), Prepared Foods Buyer Christine Georgedes (age 33), ICS/Receiving Associate Laurie Kennedy (age 56), and Store Team Leader Lindsay Benson (age 29). [Defendant's Concise Statement of Facts in Support ("CSOF"), Decl. of Lindsay Benson ("Benson Decl."), at ¶¶ 4-5.] The panel conducted interviews on August 11, 2010, and conducted a preliminary vote, a discussion, and a second vote. After the discussion and second vote, the panel unanimously selected Ms. Limberis for the ICS position. The panel noted that Plaintiff "gave vague or incomplete answers to questions posed and might have difficulty in training and working with others." [Id. at ¶ 6.] Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot show that he was clearly superior to Ms. Limberis. [Mem. in Supp. at 8-9.]

Next, Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot provide evidence demonstrating pretext, that Defendant's reason for not hiring him for the ICS position was more likely motivated by discrimination or is unworthy of credence. Defendant notes that two of the interview panelists, Ms. Kennedy and Ms. Georgedes, were friends of Ms. Limberis, but argues that favoring a friend is not evidence of discriminatory animus based on age or sex. Defendant states that each panelist had only one vote in a panel of six employees, neither "friend" made comments or otherwise demonstrated animus based on Plaintiff's age or sex, and Ms. Kennedy belongs in the same protected age category as Plaintiff. [Id. at 11-12.]

Defendant argues that, to the extent Plaintiff relies on the allegation that former Store Team Leader Larry Hoover referred to Plaintiff once as "old man," before Mr. Hoover left the company, such a comment is a "stray remark". It notes that Mr. Hoover was 60 years old in 2010 and belongs to the same protected class as Plaintiff. He left the company on May 5, 2010, three months before the August interviews for the ICS position. It argues that there is no causal connection between the alleged comment and the adverse employment action because Mr. Hoover had no role as a decisionmaker, and the alleged comment was not related to any official act by Defendant. [Id. at 16-17.]

It also argues that the amount of time discussing Plaintiff's application materials is not evidence of discriminatory animus. Defendant argues that it places significant emphasis on the interview process as set forth in a policy manual. Defendant contends that, while Plaintiff may contend that the panel's focus on his inability to get along with co-workers was irrelevant, the ICS position job description provided that the individual selected would be required to train and work with all levels of store management and lead and train receivers. [Id. at 18-19.] To the extend Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Kennedy coached Ms. Limberis before the interview, Defendant argues that there is no evidence of discriminatory animus; rather, Plaintiff was given the same opportunity to use work time to speak with others about the position and nobody refused to speak with him about the position. [Id. at 20-21.]

B. IIED

Defendant argues that Plaintiff's IIED claim fails because there are no allegations of outrageous conduct, and, even taking the allegations in the Complaint as true, his departure from the company was not outrageous. Further, it argues that there is no evidence that Defendant's alleged conduct caused Plaintiff to seek medical treatment, and that any stress he suffered "was self-induced after he declined the Company's offer of paid 'bridge leave' while he sought out alternative positions in any store across the Company." [Id. at 24.]

II. Plaintiff's Memorandum in Opposition

Plaintiff argues in his opposition that there is direct evidence of discrimination in this case because Mr. Hoover referred to Plaintiff as "old man" several times in front of Ms. Limberis. He argues that although Mr. Hoover was no longer with Defendant when Plaintiff was not selected for the ICS position, "he was employed in a supervisory capacity at the time he made the statement." [Mem. in Opp. at 7.] Plaintiff argues that, because there is direct evidence of discrimination, the Court need not rely on the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 441 U.S. 792 (1973), burden shifting framework. [Id.] In the event the Court finds no direct evidence of discrimination, Plaintiff argues that he has established a prima facie case of age and sex discrimination. [Id. at 5.]

Plaintiff contends that he had much more experience that Ms. Limberis, who was his assistant. He argues that, but for the elimination of his existing position, he would not have had to apply and compete for any position within the company. [Id. at 8-9.] He asserts that the interview process was subjective, and that the lone male on the panel initially voted in favor of giving him the job. [Id. at 9 (citing Exh. 14 (9/21/10)).]

With respect to Ms. Kennedy's and Ms. Georgedes' friendship with Ms. Limberis, Plaintiff argues that the process by which friends of Ms. Limberis were selected to the panel demonstrates discriminatory animus. He argues that the "discriminatory bias or animus by Defendant against Plaintiff based on his age and sex, is evident in the selection of nearly all women on the panel, nearly half of whom were friends with Limberis." [Id. at 10.]

Plaintiff also argues that "Defendant wrongly failed to select Plaintiff for the ICS position based on discriminatory conduct. As such it is guilty of outrageous conduct." [Id. at 11.]

Plaintiff maintains that there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude ...


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