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Kinch v. Pinnacle Foods Group LLC

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

July 17, 2017

LYNDA KINCH, Plaintiff,
PINNACLE FOODS GROUP LLC, a foreign limited liability company, Defendant.


          Nancy G. Edmunds, United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Pinnacle Foods Group LLC's motion for summary judgment. (Docket 10.) Plaintiff Lynda Kinch's claims arise from the termination of her employment by Defendant. This action was removed from state court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. (Dkt. 1.) Plaintiff brings state law claims against Defendant including claims for interference with the legitimate expectation of just-cause employment (Count I), violations of Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 37.2101 et seq. for discharge against public policy-retaliation (Count II), age discrimination (Count III) and sex discrimination (Count IV), and an action to compel compliance with the Bullard-Plawecki Employee Right To Know Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 423.501 et seq. (Count V)[1]. (Compl., dkt. 1-1.) The Court heard this matter on May 31, 2017. For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Background & Facts

         Pinnacle Foods Group LLC ("Defendant" or "Pinnacle") produces Vlasic pickles and similar products at a facility in Imlay City, Michigan (the "Imlay City Plant"). (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 2.) Plaintiff Lynda Kinch ("Plaintiff" or "Kinch") was hired into the Imlay City Plant on February 4, 1993, when it was owned by the Campbell Soup Company, and began working for Pinnacle in 2001, following Pinnacle's acquisition of Vlasic Foods International, Inc. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 4, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. A, dkt. 14-2; Ryan Aff. ¶ 3, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. B, dkt. 10-3.)

         On February 10, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint for sexual harassment against operations manager Richard Raffaelli alleging that Raffaelli had made offensive comments to Plaintiff and others. (Kinch Dep. 98, dkt. 10-4; Album Aff. ¶ 3, dkt. 10-8; Formal Complaint Against Richard Raffaelli, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. E, dkt. 14-6.) In the complaint, Plaintiff alleged harassing conduct by Raffaelli beginning as early as August 2012. (Formal Complaint Against Raffaelli, dkt. 14-6.) Plaintiff went on medical leave in February 2013, due to the stress of Raffaelli's harassment. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff was released by her doctor to return to work on April 8, 2013, and pursuant to direction of her Plant Manager, Gary Lauber, she returned to work on April 9, 2013. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 9.) Following an investigation of Plaintiff's complaint, which was conducted by outside counsel for Defendant, Defendant terminated Raffaelli's employment. (Album Aff. ¶ 4, dkt. 10-8; Kinch Dep. 101, 103, dkt. 10-4.) The parties disagree as to when Raffaelli was ultimately terminated; Plaintiff alleges both that Raffaelli was not terminated until June 2013 and was instead on leave until then, and that Senior Vice President of Human Resources Glenn Album informed her on April 9, 2013, that Raffaelli had already been terminated. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 10; Album Dep. 102:14-20, dkt. 14-7.)

         When Plaintiff returned from medical leave on April 9, 2013, Album delivered her 2012 Performance Evaluation. (Album Dep. 59, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. H, dkt. 10-9.) While Plaintiff was on medical leave, her prior supervisor, Grace Hudson, had resigned from her position as Human Resources Manager, and Hudson's temporary replacement, Mary Gebhard, could not deliver the performance evaluation due to her status as a contract employee. (Album Dep. 59-60, 63.) Plaintiff's 2012 performance review had been written by Hudson with input from others. (2012 Performance Review Form for Lynda Studer[2], Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. F, dkt. 10-7.) Plaintiff's lowest overall rating in the 2012 review was in the category of "influencing others, " rated at "below expectations." (Id.) Hudson made the following comments regarding Plaintiff's interactions with others:

Lynda needs to display patience and try to be more flexible while dealing with others. The tone and style that comes accross (sic) are not always appropriate in the workforce. Lynda sometimes can be percieved (sic) as too direct and forceful. Feedback from various employees or their perceived perception, is that she talks down to employees. Lynda could get better results from others if she controled (sic) her none (sic) verbal communication and is cognizant of her tone when communicating to employees.


         During Plaintiff's first week back from medical leave, she participated in multiple meetings of "some sort for four days, " was told there were numerous complaints about her, and was informed that she was being put on a final warning. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 11 and Album Email Apr. 15, 16, 2013, Kinch Aff. Ex. C, dkt. 14-2.) In an April 15, 2013 email, Album noted the four meetings that had occurred with Plaintiff since her return to work on April 9 and included summaries of topics and attendees at those meetings. (Album Email Apr. 15, 2013.) Album also noted that since the previous week-and following Plaintiff's 2012 evaluation-two separate human resources employees had independently complained about Plaintiff, stating that she was abrasive and gruff; in his email Album noted Plaintiff's response to this information as being "astounded." (Album Aff. ¶ 5; Album email Apr. 15, 2013.) The parties agree that these two complaints came from Theresa Fullerton, a new hire, and Louana Ruckis, a scheduler. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 7; Album Aff. Ex. G, dkt. 10-8; Kinch Aff. ¶ 13, dkt. 14-2.) Plaintiff points out that no documented complaints were put into her personnel file. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 12.) Lynda's former supervisor, Hudson, testified that she "had never received any formal complaints about Lynda, let alone any serious enough to have put in her personnel file" and that to her knowledge, "there were no complaints in Lynda's file" up until the time Hudson left Pinnacle in February 2013. (Hudson Aff. ¶¶ 20, 21; dkt. 14-3.)

         Album reiterated a suggestion that Plaintiff "begin working more closely with Mary Gebhard, " whom they believed to be "well qualified" to coach Plaintiff and "provide feedback as necessary." (Album email Apr. 15, 2013.) Album's email concluded with the following:

Lynda, this note serves as your final warning. If we continue to hear complaints about your leadership and that you are acting in a way that is intimidating to others, we will terminate your employment without further warning. Please know, we are here to support you and truly hope the (sic) you turn the situation around as we feel you can be a great asset to the HR team and the Imlay City Plant.

(Album email Apr. 15, 2013, dkt. 14-2.)

         On September 23, 2013, newly hired Human Resources Manager Michael Ryan started at the Imlay City Plant. (Ryan Dep. 6-7, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. J, dkt. 10-11.) Ryan replaced Hudson and Gebhard as Plaintiff's direct supervisor. (Kinch Dep. 38.) Plaintiff states that from Ryan's first day until her termination, she and Ryan worked together less than 45 non-consecutive days. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 18.) During Ryan's orientation for the position, he received general feedback regarding the HR staff at the Imlay City Plant, including conversations about "how the plant could do better as far as the accuracy of its work and the timeliness of its paperwork sent from the plant to the office, " and noting challenges with "non-communicative or late, untimely paperwork, untimely with forms, inaccuracies with details on employment status changes, administrative tasks that had some kind of relevance to the employees in the plant." (Ryan Dep. 13-14.) He testified to having received feedback from department leads about the perception of the HR team and he learned that "there was really an unfortunate reputation, . . . that was aligned to the HR department and so a lot of that was based on the feedback others offered with regards (sic) to [Plaintiff's] ways of working." (Ryan Dep. 24.) Ryan was unable to identify any specific instances of Plaintiff's conduct towards others, other than her treatment towards him, which he described as "if something . . . was agitating [Plaintiff], then it became an immediate need for [Ryan] to stop what [he] was doing, be it on the phone or typing something on the computer. A couple of times [Plaintiff] would come in and close the door and simply blurt out I need to talk to you." (Ryan Dep. 27-28, dkt. 10-11.)

         The parties disagree as to whether Ryan provided counseling to Plaintiff in approximately October 2013 with regard to Plaintiff's interaction with a temporary administrative employee named Teresa. (Ryan Dep. 22-23; Kinch Aff. ¶ 19.) Ryan characterized it as one of his "first coaching opportunities" with Plaintiff; Plaintiff calls Ryan's claim that he counseled her "fabricated." (Id.)

         The parties also disagree about the characterization of a November 12, 2013 interaction between Ryan and Plaintiff. Plaintiff in her affidavit explains that HR staff had come to her with a concern about what the staff viewed as a negative article Ryan had written for the plant's newsletter. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 20.) In Ryan's absence, Plaintiff brought it to the attention of the Plant Manager to see if she could do something before it went to print. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff states that the ensuing conversation with Ryan was not a "coaching" conversation and instead consisted of his chastising her and yelling at her, telling her that she had "better never ever go over his head again to the plant manager." (Kinch Aff. ¶ 21.)

         Ryan's deposition testimony characterizes the November 12 interaction as "a coaching conversation with Plaintiff because she was upset by a newsletter [Ryan] had written and [Plaintiff had] approached the Plant Manager Jeannene Schaffnit rather than reaching out to [Ryan] directly." (Ryan Aff. ¶ 5.) On November 15, 2013, Ryan sent an email to himself documenting the November 12 meeting with Plaintiff, describing the meeting as a "coaching conversation with Lynda about her approach, leadership style and failure to contact me (even while out of the office)." (Ryan Email Nov. 15, 2013, dkt. 10-3.) He noted that at a point in the meeting, Plaintiff looked at the wall clock and exclaimed, "Are we really going to sit here and waste an hour discussing this." (Id.) Ryan noted that he was "quite taken by Lynda's rude and curt statement." (Id.)

         On January 10, 2014, Plaintiff made a comment to Ryan that she had "better be getting a good raise this year because of all the extra duties" she had covered during the green season[4] without extra pay. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 22.) The parties agree that Plaintiff's comment had to do with salary, and both agree that the comment did not go over well with Ryan. (Kinch Aff. 23; Ryan Aff. ¶ 8 and Ex. 4). Plaintiff explained that her statement was in jest. (Kinch Aff. ¶ 23.) On January 13, Plaintiff received an email from Ryan providing some suggestions for her to utilize in conversations with others going forward. Ryan also noted that "[w]e agree that while you have been very clear and brought up on four separate occasions your desire to see a significant increase in the annual merit compensation process (for 2013); we will need to fully review your performance against standards, and that you have my commitment to take the time for that conversation." (Ryan Email to Studer [Kinch], Jan. 13, 2014, Kinch Aff. Ex. F, dkt. 14-2.)

         According to Ryan, as he drafted Plaintiff's 2013 Performance Evaluation, he "determined that despite repeated coaching regarding her demeanor, Plaintiff had showed no improvement, and very little desire or willingness to improve" and he decided to terminate her "due to two key areas of great concern, attitude and behavior." (Ryan Aff. ¶ 10, 11.) Ryan's supervisor, Human Resources Director Sharmela Chandlall-Myrand, Album and Schaffnit, approved Plaintiff's termination. (Ryan Dep. 12, 37-38; Album Dep. 97-99; Schaffnit Dep. 64-65, 90. dkt. 10-12.)

         On January 28, 2014, Ryan terminated Plaintiff's employment with Defendant. Plaintiff initially filed suit in state court and the complaint was removed to this Court on August 2, 2016.

         11. Summary Judgment Standard

         “The 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A moving party may meet that burden “by ‘showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Rule 56 expressly provides that:

A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by:
(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; or
(B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). Rule 56 also provides that

If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may:
(1) give an opportunity to properly support or address the fact;
(2) consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion;
(3) grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials-including the facts considered undisputed-show that the movant is entitled to it; or
(4) issue any other appropriate order.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).

         When the moving party has met its burden under rule 56, “its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Ultimately a district court must determine whether the record as a whole presents a genuine issue of material fact, id. at 587, drawing “all justifiable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Hager v. Pike Cnty. Bd. Of Educ., 286 F.3d 366, 370 (6th Cir. 2002).

         III. Analysis

         A. Whether Plaintiff's Legitimate Expectation Claim Fails As A Matter Of Law

         Plaintiff claims that she had a legitimate expectation that Defendant would only terminate her employment for good cause. (Compl. ¶ 92.) She argues that all managers and/or supervisors terminated "since Defendant Pinnacle was acquired in 2007 have been terminated for cause." (Compl. ¶ 91.) In Michigan, "[e]mployment contracts for an indefinite duration are presumptively terminable at the will of either party for any reason or for no reason at all." Rood v. General Dynamics Corp., 507 N.W.2d 591, 597 (Mich. 1993). "To overcome the presumption of employment at will, a party must present sufficient proof either of a contractual provision for a definite term of employment or a provision forbidding discharge absent just cause." Id. The provision may be explicit, or comprised of "promises implied in fact." Id. Yet courts also recognize a legitimate expectations theory "'founded on the Court's common-law authority to recognize' enforceable obligations that arise 'outside the operation of normal contract principles." Id. (quoting In re Certified Question (Bankey v. Storer Broadcasting Co.), 443 N.W.2d 112, 121 (Mich. 1989) (concurrence)). "The right ...

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