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Richmond v. Mission Bank

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 13, 2015

JAN RICHMOND, Plaintiff,
MISSION BANK, Defendant.


JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.

Defendant Mission Bank seeks summary judgment on the claims brought by Plaintiff Jan Richmond, asserting the claims fail because Plaintiff voluntarily resigned from her position at Mission Bank, and there were legitimate business reasons for each change in her job duties. (Doc. 30.) Plaintiff opposes summary judgment, arguing the facts demonstrate Mission Bank wrongfully terminated her employment. (Doc. 35.)

Because there are genuine issues of material facts related to whether Plaintiff voluntarily resigned or was fired, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is DENIED.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff, a former employee of Mission Bank, initiated this action by filing a complaint against Mission Bank on February 10, 2014. (Doc. 2.) Plaintiff alleged that after A.J. Antongiovanni became the bank president, she was removed from a private office and assigned a cubical "notwithstanding the fact private offices were empty and available, and Plaintiff engaged in activities that required privacy and confidentiality." (Id. at 2.) In addition, Plaintiff alleged Antongiovanni hired an executive assistant in 2012 without announcing the job - despite Mission Bank's "policy of posting within the bank all open and available employment positions" - and the new assistant was "substantially younger than Plaintiff." (Id. ) Plaintiff alleged the new assistant received a private office because "she handled confidential matters." (Id. )

In 2013, Plaintiff was the only vice president excluded from a management seminar. (Doc. 2 at 3.) Further, Plaintiff alleged that her job duties were reduced to "the point that she was ultimately only performing work relating to administrative functions for the board of directors." (Id. ) However, Antongiovanni's new assistant "began performing administrative functions for the board of directors." (Id. ) Plaintiff asserted it was "clear" that Antongiovanni and Mission Bank "were pushing Plaintiff out of the bank as an employee." (Id. ) Plaintiff alleged that she "met with Antongiovanni and advised him [that] she realized what was happening, indicated she felt like she and others were victims of age discrimination, and requested that the bank offer her a severance package." (Id. at 3.)

Plaintiff filed claims with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the EEOC, and received "right-to-sue" letters from both agencies. (Doc. 2 at 4.) Accordingly, she initiated the action now pending before the Court, asserting Defendant is liable for: (1) wrongful termination in violation of public policy; (2) wrongful termination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 626; (3) wrongful termination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), Cal. Gov't Code § 12940; (4) failure to take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and retaliation; and (5) retaliation in violation of FEHA. (Id. at 5-12.)

Mission Bank filed the motion for summary judgment now pending before the Court on January 30, 2015. (Doc. 30.) Plaintiff filed her opposition on February 24, 2015 (Doc. 35), to which Defendant filed a reply on March 3, 2015 (Doc. 37).

II. Legal Standards for Summary Judgment

The "purpose of summary judgment is to pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial." Matsuhita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate when 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 addition, Rule 56 allows a court to grant summary adjudication, or partial summary judgment, when there is no genuine issue of material fact as to a particular claim or portion of that claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Lies v. Farrell Lines, Inc., 641 F.2d 765, 769 n.3 (9th Cir. 1981) ("Rule 56 authorizes a summary adjudication that will often fall short of a final determination, even of a single claim...") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The standards that apply on a motion for summary judgment and a motion for summary adjudication are the same. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 (a), (c); Mora v. Chem-Tronics, 16 F.Supp.2d 1192, 1200 (S.D. Cal. 1998).

Summary judgment, or summary adjudication, should be entered "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the "initial responsibility" of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. An issue of fact is genuine only if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact finder to find for the non-moving party, while a fact is material if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Wool v. Tandem Computers, Inc., 818 F.2d 1422, 1436 (9th Cir. 1987). A party demonstrates summary adjudication is appropriate by "informing the district court of the basis of its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)).

If the moving party meets its initial burden, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to present specific facts that show there is a genuine issue of a material fact. Fed R. Civ. P. 56(e); Matsuhita, 475 U.S. at 586. An opposing party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Id. at 587. The party is required to tender evidence of specific facts in the form of affidavits, and/or admissible discovery material, in support of its contention that a factual dispute exits. Id. at 586 n.11; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Further, the opposing party is not required to establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor; it is sufficient that "the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." T.W. Electrical Serv., Inc. v. Pacific Elec. Contractors Assoc., 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987). However, "failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

The Court must apply standards consistent with Rule 56 to determine whether the moving party demonstrated there is no genuine issue of material fact and judgment is appropriate as a matter of law. Henry v. Gill Indus., Inc., 983 F.2d 943, 950 (9th Cir. 1993). In resolving a motion for summary judgment, the Court can only consider admissible evidence. Orr v. Bank of America, NT & SA, 285 F.3d 764, 773 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Beyene v. Coleman Sec. Servs., Inc., 854 F.2d 1179, 1181 (9th Cir. 1988)). Further, evidence must be viewed "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party" and "all justifiable inferences" must be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. Orr, 285 F.3d at 772; Addisu v. Fred Meyer, Inc., 198 F.3d 1130, 1134 (9th Cir. 2000).

III. Undisputed Material Facts[1]

On July 2, 2007, Plaintiff began her employment with Mission Bank in a position entitled (JSF 1; UMF 1.) She was scheduled to work 32 hours per week as the Board Secretary and Executive Administrative Assistant to Richard Fanucchi, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Mission Bank, for which her annual salary started at $66, 000. (Id. ) Her job duties were classified as "administrative and customer service." (JSF 1.) Plaintiff was given a private office at Mission Bank's Downtown Branch in Bakersfield, California. (JSF 4.)

By 2011, Plaintiff "was referred to as Mission Bank's Human Resource Administrator, " working under the direction of Fanucchi. (JSF 2, 6.) Her job duties as the Human Resource Administrator included "conducting employee orientations, completing new employee paperwork, performing pre-employment background investigations, preparing employment offer letters, submitting enrollment paperwork for benefits, cancelling employee benefits, informing payroll of deductions for benefits, maintaining employee personnel files, assigning and monitoring parking for employees, [and] processing miscellaneous employee requests including disability claims." (JSF 7.) In addition, Plaintiff "acted as liaison for benefits administrator Healthland, ' reviewed various employee benefit bills and authorized payments, and participated in benefits selections and enrollment." (Id. )

In April 2011, Fanucchi stepped down from his role as President, but remained Chief Executive Officer of the bank. (JSF 3.) A.J. Antongiovanni was appointed as Fanucchi's successor. (Id. ) The same month, Mission Bank's administrative offices relocated to a different building, where Plaintiff was assigned a cubicle space. (JSF 5.)

In 2011 and 2012, Plaintiff's responsibilities included serving as Fanucchi's executive assistant, serving as secretary to Mission Bank's Board of Directors, providing administrative assistance to Antongiovanni, and "human resources administrative work." (JSF 8.) In December 2012, Antongiovanni hired Diana Wolf to be the Operations Administrator of Mission Bank. (JSF 12.) Wolf's job duties included "organizational development" and working Antongiovanni's assistant. (Id. )

In February 2013, Antongiovanni asked Plaintiff "to prepare a list of her job duties." (JSF 18.) Plaintiff prepared the list, "highlighting any duties related to human resources." (JSF 19.) Antongiovanni and Plaintiff met to discuss her job duties in March or April of 2013. (JSF 20.) Plaintiff "alleges that there was one instance where Antongiovanni asked... if it was her plan to retire soon or in the near future.'" (JSF 21.)

Plaintiff received "a positive performance review by Fanucchi" on March 21, 2013. (JSF 22.) On the evaluation, Fanucchi indicated Plaintiff's position was "Administrative Officer, " noting that Plaintiff's "primary responsibilities" were "administrative and... in support of the CEO." (Doc. 30-5 at 11.) However, Plaintiff also performed several functions for other senior officers. (Id. ) Fanucchi explained:

Jan's major responsibility has been preparing and disseminating material to the [B]oard of Directors including correspondence from the President and CEO as well as the monthly board packages. She does an excellent job of preparing the minutes of the Board, and all of the bank's committee meetings. She has also prepared, coordinated and documented several Board training sessions including tests on the various materials....
For the past several years Jan has been the bank's Human Resource Administrator and has done an excellent job developing procedures and maintaining consistency in dealing with the bank's employee personnel issues. She also maintains and monitors the banks [sic] health insurance log to assure that the billings and coverage are accurate.

(Id. ) After this evaluation, Plaintiff was given a $10, 000 bonus, and her "salary was increased to $77, 499.18 effective April 1, 2013." (JSF 23.)

On April 12, 2013, Antongiovanni gave Plaintiff a letter that indicated a reduction in the number of hours Plaintiff worked each week from 32 hours to 24 hours, and in a reduction in salary to $58, 694. (JSF 26; Doc. 30-5 at 14.) In addition, the letter included "a list of [Plaintiff's] essential job duties effective July 1, 2013." (JSF 24.) The difference between the list prepared by Plaintiff in February and the list given to her by Antongiovanni was "the removal of any job duties relating to human resources administration." (JSF 25.)

On April 18, 2013, "Antongiovanni announced via email correspondence to Mission Bank employees that Wolf would now be handling all human resource functions at his direction." (JSF 28.) In addition, the announcement stated Plaintiff "would work directly for Antongiovanni and focus on board related activities.'" (Id. )

On July 1, 2013, Antongiovanni became the Chief Executive Officer of Mission Bank. (JSF 30.) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff received another letter that indicated she was expected to work 32 hours per week, with a proposed annual salary of $77, 499.12. (Id. ) The list of Plaintiff's responsibilities mirrored the list given to Plaintiff in April 2013. (JSF 32.) Plaintiff never worked the reduced schedule previously proposed by Antongiovanni. (JSF 27.)

On August 28 or 29th, Plaintiff met with Antongiovanni after she learned that Wolf would be receiving a private office. (JSF 33-34.) During this conversation, Plaintiff requested a severance package from Mission Bank. (Richmond Depo. 32:3-33:15.) Antongiovanni did not tell Plaintiff she was terminated during the meeting. (UMF 21.) He asked her to go home for the remainder of the day, and Plaintiff did not return until she met with Antongiovanni and a member of the Board of Directors on September 3, 2013, which was her next scheduled workday. (UMF 24-26.) At the meeting, Plaintiff learned her employment with Mission Bank would end on September 6, 2013. (Richmond Decl. ¶ 17; Antongiovanni Depo. 103:23-24.)

IV. Shifting burdens and the McDonnell Douglas framework

Plaintiff's claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") and California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA") involve the shifting of burdens articulated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05 (1973). See Diaz v. Eagle Produce Ltd. Partnership, 521 F.3d 1201, 1207 (9th Cir. 2008) (applying the McDonnell Douglas framework to a discrimination claim under the ADEA); Guz v. Bechtal Nat'l Inc., 24 Cal.4th 317, 354 (2000) ("Because of the similarity between state and federal employment discrimination laws, California courts look to pertinent federal precedent when applying our own statutes").

First, the plaintiff bears the burden to establish a prima facie case of a violation of the ADEA and FEHA. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 411 U.S. at 802; Hawn v. Executive Jet Mgmt., Inc., 615 F.3d 1151, 1155 (9th Cir. 2010). The evidence may be either direct or circumstantial, and the amount that must be produced to create a prima facie ...

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