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Wood v. Midwest Performance Pack Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 22, 2018

BETTY WOOD, Plaintiff,
v.
MIDWEST PERFORMANCE PACK, INC., f/k/a MATADOR PROCESSORS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Betty Wood and her husband founded Matador, Inc. in 1973. Matador was a food processing facility that focused on making chile rellenos and other breaded food products that could be frozen and sold to wholesale food distributors. In 2015, after experiencing financial difficulty and bankruptcy, Matador was purchased by Defendant Midwest Performance Pack, Inc. After the purchase was completed, Defendant retained all Matador employees including Plaintiff, who it retained as a consultant. This lawsuit arises from the subsequent breakdown in the parties' relationship.

         Plaintiff alleges she was singled out for unequal treatment and harassment by her supervisor. Plaintiff contends she complained of such treatment, but was disparaged and eventually retaliated against by way of termination for her actions. She asserts claims for age discrimination, retaliation, violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), breach of contract, breach of implied contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 21]. Plaintiff has filed her response in opposition [Doc. No. 28] and Defendant has replied [Doc. No. 31]. The matter is fully briefed and at issue.

         UDISPUSTED MATERIAL FACTS

         Plaintiff (and her husband until his death in the early 1980's) owned Matador Processors, Inc. from approximately 1973 until approximately May 2015. In May 2015, Defendant purchased Matador's assets from Matador's creditor through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. Defendant did not acquire Matador's debts as a result of the purchase. At the time of Defendant's purchase, Matador employed less than twenty individuals.[1]

         Chris Allensworth, Defendant's President, and Rick Jackson, its Director of Sales and minority owner, decided to hire Plaintiff and retain other Matador employees after the purchase was complete. No. written contract was executed by the parties regarding the terms of Plaintiff's employment, nor was Plaintiff offered a retirement program. Defendant's decision to hire Plaintiff was motivated by her forty-year experience in manufacturing chili rellenos and the guidance she could provide MPP based on her experience. Jackson hired Plaintiff, and Jackson is the only person Plaintiff spoke with regarding Defendant's decision to hire her as an employee.

         Plaintiff's job duties included general office duties on an as-needed basis, laundering employee aprons and running company errands. Plaintiff did not have any management or decision-making authority, and she was not authorized to make decisions relating to sales, vendors, creditors, strategic decisions, the purchase of machinery or any other management decisions.[2] At the time she was hired, Plaintiff was eighty-five (85) years old.

         Plaintiff and Jackson began to experience tension in their work relationship. For example, Plaintiff felt that the new management did not devote enough attention to sales. For his part, Jackson felt like Plaintiff was still trying to run the company and was unhappy with every decision Defendant made in the management of the business. Plaintiff thought that Jackson was rude because he was allegedly not dependable, would not listen to her, and did not discuss anything with her. Jackson also disapproved of Plaintiff's reference to herself as the “Head Nigger In Charge, ” or HNIC, when she had owned Matador[3] and her use of the term “the Mexicans” or “Mexican Workers” in reference to Matador's Hispanic employees.

         In Fall 2015, Plaintiff wrote an air conditioning company and asked them to repossess Matador's air conditioning unit. Her letter stated, in pertinent part:

Good Morning Mark and Brad -
Matador sold May 5th, 2015 - the new owners refuse to take care of this small balance covering the Compressor to provide air conditioning for THEIR new employees.
Can you repossess the unit? I wish you could ….

         Plaintiff admits she did not have authority to ask the company to repossess the unit, but she felt responsible for equipment sold to Matador prior to Defendant's acquisition, since Defendant did not acquire Matador's debts as a result of the purchase.

         In December 2015, Jackson learned that Plaintiff had asked the air-conditioning company to repossess the unit and decided Defendant could no longer tolerate Plaintiff's apparent indifference to the limitations of her new position and racially derogatory and insubordinate behavior. Jackson concluded Plaintiff should be terminated and spoke with Allensworth about terminating Plaintiff's employment. Allensworth approved Jackson's recommendation for Plaintiff's termination. On or around December 30, 2015, Jackson terminated Plaintiff's employment.

         Plaintiff's allegations of age discrimination relate only to Jackson's conduct. Plaintiff alleges her age was “mentioned several times” by Jackson, but she is unable to recall any specific details or context regarding any alleged age-based comments. As noted supra, Plaintiff felt Jackson was rude, did not listen to her and did not discuss anything with her because she was older. In this regard, Plaintiff's allegation that her termination was discriminatory is based on Defendant's hiring of Jalie “Jodi” Lankford (“Lankford”), who was fifty-eight (58) years old at the time. Lankford was employed to perform accounting and bookkeeping work; Plaintiff never performed accounting and bookkeeping work during her employment. Plaintiff never made any complaints about discrimination during her employment.

         STANDARD OF DECISION

         Rule 56(a), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, provides that “[t]he 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.” The Court views the material undisputed[4] facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. T.D. v. Patton, 868 F.3d 1209, 1219 (10th Cir. 2017). The Court's function at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter asserted, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Birch v. Polaris Indus., Inc., 812 F.3d 1238, 1251 (10th Cir. 2015). An issue is “genuine” if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). An issue of fact is “material” if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Id.

         Once the moving party has met its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to present sufficient evidence in specific, factual form to establish a genuine factual dispute. Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991). The nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. Rather, it must go beyond the pleadings and establish, through admissible evidence, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that must be resolved by the trier of fact. Salehpoor v. Shahinpoor, 358 F.3d 782, ...


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