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Barlia v. MWI Veterinary Supply, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

January 24, 2017

JULIE BARLIA, Plaintiff,

          PRESENT Honorable Gerald E. Rosen United States District Judge


          Gerald E. Rosen, United States District Judge


         Plaintiff Julie Barlia commenced this action in this Court on January 21, 2015, alleging that her former employer, Defendant MWI Veterinary Supply, Inc., [1]violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., by discharging her due to her disability and retaliating against her when she requested an accommodation of this disability. This Court's subject matter jurisdiction rests upon Plaintiff's assertion of claims arising under the federal ADA. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         By motion filed on April 4, 2016, Defendant now seeks an award of summary judgment in its favor on each of Plaintiff's ADA claims. In support of this motion, Defendant first contends that Plaintiff has failed as a matter of law to establish one or more elements of a prima facie case of disability discrimination or retaliation. Next, even assuming that Plaintiff could establish this prima facie case, Defendant argues that she cannot show that her employer's legitimate reasons for terminating her employment were a pretext for unlawful discrimination or retaliation.

         Defendant's motion has been fully briefed by the parties. Having reviewed the briefs in support of and in opposition to Defendant's motion, as well as the accompanying exhibits and the remainder of the record, the Court finds that the relevant allegations, facts, and legal issues are sufficiently presented in these written submissions, and that oral argument would not aid the decisional process. Accordingly, the Court will resolve Defendant's motion “on the briefs.” See Local Rule 7.1(f)(2), U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan. This opinion and order sets forth the Court's rulings on this motion.


         A. The Parties

         Defendant MWI Veterinary Supply, Inc. is a distributor of animal health products. Plaintiff Julie Barlia began her employment with Defendant on October 27, 2008 as an outside sales representative (“OSR”) assigned to a sales territory in southeastern Michigan. Throughout her employment, Plaintiff reported to Terry Walsh, Defendant's Great Lakes Regional Sales Manager, and Mr. Walsh, in turn, reported to Defendant's Vice President of Eastern Sales, Spencer Breithaupt.

         B. Plaintiff's Job Performance

         As an OSR, Plaintiff was responsible for promoting and selling animal health products to veterinary care providers in her sales territory. (See Defendant's Motion, Ex. 2, Plaintiff's Dep. at 108.) Starting in at least 2013, and perhaps in 2012, Plaintiff was expected to achieve at least 95 percent of her sales goal each month. (See Id. at 106.)

         In fiscal year (“FY”) 2013, [2] Plaintiff's sales fell below the 95-percent target for three consecutive months - January, February, and March of 2013. (See Defendant's Motion, Ex. 7, Walsh 4/1/2016 Decl. at ¶ 38; Plaintiff's Response, Ex. 11, FY 2013 Sales Results.) During this three-month period, Defendant realigned its Great Lakes Region's sales territories to create a territory for a newly-hired OSR, Jeffrey Kloosterman, and some of Plaintiff's accounts were taken from her in this realignment. (See Plaintiff's Dep. at 101, 103-04, 122-25; see also Plaintiff's Response, Ex. 13.)[3] To account for these changes, Plaintiff's monthly and annual sales goals were reduced by five percent, and she was given a “bridge” payment to help her through this transitional period. (See Plaintiff's Dep. at 125; see also Defendant's Motion, Ex. 6, Walsh Dep. at 54, 73-74; Ex. 8, Breithaupt Dep. at 19-21.)

         Despite the adjustment to her sales goals, Plaintiff again failed to achieve her 95-percent target in April, May, June, and September of 2013, for a total of seven out of twelve months in FY 2013 below the 95-percent goal. (See Walsh 4/1/2016 Decl. at ¶ 38; Plaintiff's Response, Ex. 11, FY 2013 Sales Results.) In a fiscal year-end performance review conducted in September of 2013, Plaintiff received an average rating of 1.87 - just below the rating of 2 for meeting expectations - in the quantitative portion of her evaluation, but her average ratings were 2.5 and 2.4, respectively, in the areas of core values and technical skills. (See Defendant's Motion, Ex. 11, FY 2013 Performance Review.)

         In FY 2014, Plaintiff continued to fall short of her monthly sales goals, failing to meet her 95-percent target each month from October 2013 through February 2014. (See Walsh 4/1/2016 Decl. at ¶ 38; Plaintiff's Response, Ex. 11, FY 2014 Sales Results.) For a two-day period in mid-December of 2013, Mr. Walsh rode along with Plaintiff on her sales calls, [4] and he then sent her a December 19, 2013 e-mail summarizing the discussion during this “ride-with.” (See Defendant's Motion, Ex. 13, Walsh 12/19/2013 E-mail; see also Plaintiff's Dep. at 137-38.) In this e-mail, Mr. Walsh reminded Plaintiff of Defendant's 95-percent sales target and noted that her territory was “currently at 83% of [her] FY [20]14 goal, ” but he acknowledged that she was doing a “great job” with one of the product lines she was marketing and selling. (Walsh 12/19/2013 E-mail.) Mr. Walsh proposed strategies for Plaintiff to “regain [her] momentum, ” and stated that “[w]e will revisit your progress toward achieving your goal at the end of March, with expectations of meeting 95% of goal.” (Id.)

         On January 29, 2014, Plaintiff sent an e-mail to Defendant's human resources director, Debby Ball, asking to be excused from attending an out-of-town national sales meeting (“NSM”) that was scheduled for the following week. (See Defendant's Motion, Ex. 3, Plaintiff's 1/29/2014 E-mail.) In support of this request, Plaintiff stated that she had met with her doctor “regarding some symptoms that I have been experiencing, ” and that her doctor had “recommend[ed] that I do not travel at this time.” (Id.) Plaintiff also provided a brief note from her physician, stating that Plaintiff had “experienced symptoms consistent with thyroid and hormonal imbalance” and had “lost weight[] consistent with these issues, ” and asking that “she not fly in an airplane or take trips outside this geographic area” while she was still “being evaluated and treated.” (Defendant's Motion, Ex. 3, 1/28/2014 Doctor's Note.) On January 30, 2014, Ms. Ball advised Mr. Walsh that “[w]e have received a note from [Plaintiff's] medical provider indicating that she cannot currently travel outside of her sales region, ” and that she therefore “w[ould] not be attending the NSM.” (Defendant's Motion, Ex. 16, Ball 1/30/2014 E-mail.)[5]

         Plaintiff again failed to achieve her 95-percent sales target in April of 2014, meaning that she had met this goal in only one of the first seven months of FY 2014, and her overall average during this seven-month period was 86.5 percent. (See Walsh 4/1/2016 Decl. at ¶¶ 24, 38.) Thus, at some point in April of 2014, Mr. Walsh spoke to Defendant's director of human resources, Ms. Ball, regarding Plaintiff's repeated failure to meet her sales goals, and he decided to implement a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) for Plaintiff. (See Id. at ¶ 26; see also Defendant's Motion, Ex. 14, Ball Dep. at 25.)

         On May 9, 2014, Plaintiff was advised that she was being placed on a PIP, and a copy of the plan was sent to her by e-mail. (See Plaintiff's Dep. at 155-57, 210-11; see also Defendant's Motion, Ex. 12, Performance Improvement Plan.) The PIP stated that Plaintiff was not meeting Defendant's sales expectations or the company's expectations regarding the “frequency and quality of [her] communication” with her supervisor, Mr. Walsh. (PIP at 1.) The PIP then described the improvements and corrections expected from Plaintiff, including (i) that “[e]ffective immediately, [she] must maintain an average of 95% of her monthly goal for the months of May, June and July 2014, ” (ii) that by May 31, 2014, Plaintiff would “provide [Mr. Walsh] with a plan of action on how she will improve her sales of” a particular piece of equipment, “so that she can ensure that she meets the requirement of one sale per quarter, ” and (iii) that “[e]ffective immediately, no later than noon each Monday, [Plaintiff] is to send [Mr. Walsh] a ‘Route Activity Sheet' or call plan detailing her activities from the previous week.” (Id. at 2.) Finally, Plaintiff was cautioned that if she failed to meet the objectives set forth in the PIP, “additional discipline up to and including termination of employment will occur.” (Id.) On May 14, 2014, Plaintiff returned a signed copy of the PIP to a human resources representative, indicating that she “acknowledge[d] receipt” but “d[id] not agree this action is justified.” (Id.)

         C. Plaintiff's Termination in a Company-Wide Workforce Reduction

         On or around May 14, 2014, Ms. Ball generated a list of Defendant's employees and their annual salaries, in order to assist a “leadership team” of Defendant's senior-level executives in “examining the impact of potential expense-reduction measures, including a potential workforce reduction.” (Defendant's Motion, Ex. 15, Ball 4/3/2016 Decl. at ¶¶ 11-12; see also Ball Dep. at 52-53, 56, 58-59.) Defendant's president and chief executive officer, Jim Cleary, then sent a company-wide e-mail on May 20, 2014, stating that the company's financial results for the most recent quarter fell short of expectations, and that the company thus planned to “implement significant expense-reduction measures.” (Defendant's Motion, Ex. 22, Cleary 5/20/2014 E-mail.)

         In response to this call for cost-cutting measures, Defendant's Vice President of Eastern Sales, Spencer Breithaupt, held a May 27, 2014 conference call with his regional sales managers, including Mr. Walsh, and asked each of them to identify one or two individuals in his or her region who should be considered for layoff in the event that Defendant elected to reduce its workforce. (See Walsh Dep. at 66-68, 75; Breithaupt Dep. at 99-102.) Mr. Walsh selected Plaintiff as the individual to face a possible layoff, explaining that she was the only employee in his region who was currently on a PIP, that she had “struggled with her sales over the course of a year and a half, ” and that she had “bec[o]me disengaged from [her] position” following the realignment of her sales territory. (Walsh Dep. at 27-30.)

         Mr. Breithaupt adopted this recommendation, and Plaintiff's employment was terminated on June 3, 2014. (See Walsh Dep. at 73; Breithaupt Dep. at 101-02; Plaintiff's Dep. at 165.) As stated by Mr. Cleary in a June 4, 2014 company-wide e-mail, roughly five percent of Defendant's employees were discharged in the company's workforce reduction, and Defendant also closed two of its distribution centers. (Defendant's Motion, Ex. 22, Cleary 6/4/2014 E-mail; see also Ball 4/3/2016 Decl. at ¶ 15 (estimating that Defendant's workforce was reduced by approximately four percent).) According to Mr. Walsh, Plaintiff was not replaced and her former position was not posted following her termination. (See Walsh 4/1/2016 Decl. at ¶ 43.) Instead, an inside sales representative handled the orders placed by phone from within Plaintiff's sales territory, and a “specialty sales representative, who covers multiple states, has visited [Plaintiff's] former customers, as necessary.” (Id.)

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Standards Governing ...

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