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Lavin v. United Technologies Corporation

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 23, 2015

FERNANDO LAVIN ET AL
v.
UNITED TECHNOLOGIES CORPORATION ET AL

Dale Fiola, Attorneys Present for Plaintiffs.

Joseph Marra, III, Timothy Hix, Attorneys Present for Defendants.

CIVIL MINUTES - GENERAL O'

CHRISTINA A. SNYDER, District Judge.

Proceedings: DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT OR, IN THE ALTERNATIVE, PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT AGAINST PLAINTIFF GERMAN SANDOVAL (Dkt. 63, filed Jan. 21, 2015)

DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT OR, IN THE ALTERNATIVE, PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT AGAINST PLAINTIFF FERNANDO LAVIN (Dkt. 64, filed Jan. 21, 2015)

I. INTRODUCTION

On October 7, 2013, plaintiffs Fernando Lavin and German Sandoval filed this action against United Technologies Corporation ("UTC") and Goodrich Corporation, doing business as UTC Aerospace Systems ("Goodrich") in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Dkt. 1.[1] Defendants subsequently removed the action to this Court. Id. On September 23, 2014, plaintiffs filed the operative First Amended Complaint ("FAC"). Dkt. 30.

Lavin asserts the following claims: (1) wrongful termination in violation of public policy; (2) retaliation in violation of public policy; (3) violation of the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq.; (4) violation of the California Family Rights Act ("CFRA"), Cal. Gov. Code § 12945.2; and (5) disability discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), Cal. Gov. Code §12900, et seq. See generally FAC. Sandoval asserts the following claims: (1) wrongful termination in violation of public policy; (2) retaliation in violation of public policy; (3) violation of the FMLA; and (4) violation of the CFRA. Id.

On January 21, 2015, defendants filed motions for summary judgment, or in the alternative, partial summary judgment, against each plaintiff. Dkts. 63, 64. On February 1, 2015, plaintiffs filed separate oppositions. Dkts. 71, 72. Defendants replied on February 9, 2015. Dkts. 77, 78.[2] On February 23, 2015, the Court held a hearing on the instant motions. After considering the parties' arguments, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the motions, as set forth below.[3]

II. BACKGROUND

A. Background on Defendants

1. Defendants' Business Activities

Defendant Goodrich designs, manufactures, and services systems and components for commercial, regional, business, and military aircraft, helicopters, and other platforms. Brandt Decl. ¶ 3.[4] Lavin and Sandoval were both employed in one of the two lines of business at Goodrich's Santa Fe Springs Facility, the details of which are confidential. The product Lavin and Sandoval worked on is manufactured pursuant to a subcontract with a government contractor.

Defendant UTC researches, develops, and manufactures high-technology products in numerous areas including aircraft engines and helicopters. Brandt Decl. ¶ 8. UTC acquired Goodrich in July 2012. Id. Goodrich remained a separate entity after the acquisition and now does business as UTC Aerospace Systems. Id.

2. Goodrich's Employment Policies

As set forth in its Employee Handbook ("Handbook"), Goodrich maintains policies against unlawful discrimination and retaliation on the basis of protected characteristics, and requires all employees to report any activities thought to violate any law, regulation, or company policy. DSUFL ¶ 2; LSGD ¶ 2. Goodrich has official "open communications" / "open-door" policies and maintains written protocols for internal incident reporting if an employee believes he is experiencing discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. DSUFL ¶ 3; LSGD ¶ 3. Concerned employees may also contact their manager, Human Resources, or a toll-free Goodrich Helpline. Id.

The Handbook sets forth Goodrich's attendance policies. At all times relevant to this case, Goodrich maintained a "no-fault" attendance policy, meaning: "absences are not judged to be excused or unexcused. It is assumed when an employee is not at work, it is for good reason." Defs.' Joint Appendix of Evidence ("DJAE") Ex. 19 at 39. The Handbook contains the following attendance-related definitions:

Absence - Failure to show up for your scheduled shift.
Tardy - Not being at your machine or workstation ready to work at the beginning of the scheduled shift, ready to work at the end of break time, lunch time, or not adhering to the scheduled shift.
Proper Notification - Providing proper and timely notification to managers or supervisors of absences and tardiness as outlined in the policy.
Patterns of Issues - Inability to be on time, punctual, or at work as scheduled on a consistent basis.
Occurrence - A numerical value assigned to incidents of tardiness, absenteeism, or lack of notification.

Id. With certain exceptions, every instance of absence or tardiness counts as an "occurrence" under these policies.[5] Id. Pursuant to the Handbook's "Proper Notification" section, an employee is required to call his manager, supervisor, or lead "at least 30 minutes before the [employee's] scheduled starting time" if the employee will be late or unable to report to work. Id. at 39-40. The Handbook contemplates "approved leaves of absence, " such as "family/medical or extended medical, bereavement, jury duty, military, etc." Id. 40. For such approved leaves of absence, an employee is required to give his supervisor "as much notice as possible." Id.

The Handbook also provides for paid "intermittent leave" and unpaid "personal leaves of absence." Id. at 75, 79. Intermittent leave "is provided to employees for use in case of personal illness, injury, or personal business which lasts less than seven consecutive days." Id. at 75. An employee receives either five or four-and-a-half hours of intermittent leave per month. Id. "A personal leave of absence is an authorized absence granted by the company without pay for pressing personal reasons." Id. at 79. An employee may only take an unpaid personal leave of absence once he has exhausted his Intermittent Leave and Vacation time. Id.

Additionally, the Handbook provides for paid family leave and short-term disability leave. Id. at 76, 77. Both types of leave run concurrently with leave taken pursuant to the FMLA and CFRA. Id. During plaintiffs' employment, Goodrich utilized the Reed Group, a third-party administrator, for administering employee leaves and requests for accommodation. Brandt Decl. ¶ 14.

Disciplinary action for absences or tardiness begins "after intermittent time and/or tardy allowance is exhausted." Id. Employees are provided with either five or four and a half hours of intermittent leave per month, as noted above, as well as seven tardies each year. See id. at 40, 75. However, "in situations where tardiness, a pattern of poor attendance, or improper notification becomes apparent, disciplinary action could begin even if an employee still has intermittent time remaining." Id. at 40-41. The Handbook provides that "[d]isciplinary action will not be taken for approved leaves of absence mentioned in the Proper Notification section." Id. at 41 (emphasis in original).

Attendance-related disciplinary action is based upon the number of "occurrences" an employee accrues. Id. "Occurrences" are counted as follows:

1. Tardiness of less than a full hour will count as a half an occurrence.
2. Failure to give proper notification will count as half an occurrence.
3. Absences of a full shift or tardiness of more than one hour is counted as one occurrence.
4. A no-call/no-show (failure to call and failure to show up for work) will be considered an additional occurrence.

Id. at 40. The Handbook also outlines progressive discipline for attendance issues:

1. One full occurrence (or two halves) will constitute a first level warning.
2. Two full occurrences (in any combination of whole or half occurrences) will constitute a second level warning.
3. Three full occurrences (in any combination of whole or half occurrences) will constitute a third and final warning.
4. Four full occurrences (in any combination) will constitute termination.
5. Three consecutive scheduled workdays of no-call/no-show will be considered as a voluntary termination.

Id. at 41 (emphasis in original). The Handbook also sets forth a general progressive disciplinary structure of warnings, suspensions, and termination, but states that "Carbon Operations reserves the right to terminate employment in all cases of rule infractions" and that a "serious violation of Company rules or policies... may result in immediate termination." Id. at 43-44 (emphasis in original). Defendants submit uncontroverted evidence that other individuals besides Lavin and Sandoval have been terminated for (non-protected-leave-related) absenteeism issues. DSUFL ¶ 7; LSGD ¶ 7.

Goodrich also maintains an "Continuous Improvement" policy "focused on the continuous and systematic identification and elimination of waste." Id. at 15. As part of this policy, Goodrich encourages employees to present improvement ideas known as "kaizen." See Griffin Dep. 46:-47:16; 94:6-95:7; Lavin Depo. 42:12-53:2. Before implementing any significant change to the relevant manufacturing process, however, Goodrich is required to obtain approval from the contractor. DSUFL ¶ 17; LSGD ¶ 17.[6]

B. Background on Plaintiff Fernando Lavin

Lavin's claims arise out of the termination of his employment by defendants, and related warnings. Lavin contends that his termination was the result of unlawful discrimination based on two distinct sets of protected activity. First, Lavin alleges that defendants unlawfully terminated him due to his disability and the related exercise of his rights under the FMLA and CFRA. Second, Lavin alleges that defendants unlawfully terminated him for promoting a cost savings idea-an idea which defendants allegedly suppressed in order to defraud the U.S. government.

Lavin began working for Goodrich in 1997 as a machinist in the Santa Fe Springs Facility and remained in that position until his termination on or about September 1, 2012. DSUFL ¶¶ 8, 40; LSGD ¶¶ 8, 40; Lavin Depo. 60:12-25. Upon being hired, Lavin acknowledged receipt of Goodrich's anti-discrimination, "open door, " and attendance policies. DSUFL ¶ 6; LSGD ¶ 6. Lavin does not have an engineering degree, or any post-secondary education in engineering. DSUFL ¶ 12; LSGD ¶ 12.

1. Plaintiffs' Machining Idea

Prior to 2009, Lavin and Sandoval proposed an idea to Goodrich that would change the manufacturing process for one of Goodrich's products (the "machining idea"). The details of this process and product are confidential, but are set forth in the under seal version of this order. The parties dispute the feasibility and potential cost savings of the machining idea, but plaintiffs believe that the idea could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in total costs. Subsequent to Lavin's submission of the idea to management, he received four pay raises. DSUFL ¶ 28; LSGD ¶ 28. Ultimately, the machining idea was not implemented. Plaintiffs theory is that Goodrich scuttled the idea in order to defraud the federal government; defendants deny that they were motivated by any improper motive.

Lavin contends that he faced "backlash and threats" for advancing the machining idea. He asserts that, during an audit of the Goodrich facilities in 2009, Bazshushtari told him, "using a firm voice, " not to mention the idea. Lavin Decl. ¶ 22. Bazshustari does not dispute this; rather, he testified that he made this statement to Lavin because [the machining idea] had not yet been thoroughly vetted, "and premature ideas are never good ideas to disclose to our customers." Bazshushtari Depo. 771-78:2.

Further, Lavin claims that in March, May, and July 2012, he was warned by three senior Goodrich employees that he could face termination "like German Sandoval" should he continue advocating for the (by then rejected) machining idea. Id. ¶ 23.[7] Lavin admits that he has no proof that Goodrich ever lied to the government. Lavin Decl. 88:1-7. But he declares that, based on these admonishments and Griffin's September 8, 2010 email indicating positive test results, he "reasonably deduced and suspected that Goodrich was attempting to conceal the significant cost-saving features that would save" money for the contractor and, ultimately, the federal government as the end user of the product. Id. ¶ 24. He further declares that he "reasonably believed based upon my years of employment... and a general understanding of contract requirements... that Goodrich [was] required by law under the Truth in Negotiations Act... to disclose favorable cost-saving ...


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