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Miles v. Northcott Hospitality International, LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 7, 2013

Kim Miles, Plaintiff,
v.
Northcott Hospitality International, LLC, Defendant

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Clayton D. Halunen, Jacob Frey, and Ross D. Stadheim, Halunen & Associates, Minneapolis, Minnesota; for Plaintiff.

Kevin M. Mosher, Jodee K. McCallum, and James S. Reece, Thompson Coe, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for Defendant.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, United States District Court Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 13], which was heard on May 17, 2013. In her Complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims of discrimination based on sex in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (Count 1); disability discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, [1] failure to accommodate, and hostile work environment based on disability (Count 2); and reprisal discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (Count 3), against her former employer, Northcott Hospitality International, LLC. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 26-46 [Doc. No. 1-1].) For the reasons that follow, the Court denies Defendant's summary judgment motion.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Kim Miles' and Nasir Raja's Work Histories at Northcott

Defendant Northcott Hospitality International, LLC (" Northcott" ), headquartered in Chanhassen, Minnesota, develops and operates restaurant and lodging operations throughout the United States. (Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of its Mot. for Summ. J. at 4 [Doc. No. 15].) Along with its Perkins and Houlihan restaurants, Northcott owns the AmericInn Hotel franchise. (Id.)

On September 7, 2010, Plaintiff Kim Miles (" Miles" ) began working at Northcott. (Dep. of Kim Marie Miles at 22 [Doc. No. 22-5].) As a Business Manager, Ms. Miles trained and assisted AmericInn franchisees--approximately fifty-one properties in total--on implementing the brand's standards and franchisee service programs. (Ex. J to Aff. of Kevin M. Mosher [Doc. No. 16-1]; Compl. ¶ 6.) Ms. Miles' responsibilities included marketing for hotels, training hotel staff, facilitating the opening of new properties, inspecting properties, enforcing brand standards, liaising between Northcott department and hotel franchisees, and fielding any issues facing franchisees. (Comp. ¶ 6.) The majority of Ms. Miles' work required travel. (Ex. J to Aff. of Kevin M. Mosher at 3 [Doc. No. 16-1].) In 2010, Ms. Miles received positive performance reviews from her supervisor at the time, John Synstegaard, and complimentary comments from CEO Paul Kirwin and clients. (Miles Aff. ¶ ¶ 3-4 [Doc. No. 23].)

On February 22, 2010, Nasir Raja began his employment at Northcott. (Dep. of Nasir Raja at 6 [Doc. No. 22-4].) In February 2011, Mr. Raja was promoted to Senior Vice President of Franchise Operations and became Ms. Miles' supervisor. (Id. at 26, 28.) With a background in consulting, Mr. Raja used an improvement methodology called Six Sigma, which aims to eliminate all waste in organizations.

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(Id. at 7-9.) At the time of his promotion, Mr. Raja supervised eight employees: Scott Doble, Jessica Rogers, Susan Jespersen, Mary Tjenstrom, Jenny Heger, Jeff Pascua, John Synstegaard, Carrie Bushman, and Kim Miles. (Id. at 27.) Soon after Mr. Raja's promotion, Ms. Miles asked him to increase her responsibilities, which he did. (Miles Dep. at 99.) As a result, compared with other Business Managers, Ms. Miles had more work than Mike Welcher, approximately the same as Jeff Pascua, and less than Jessica Rogers. (Id.)

Between Ms. Miles' date of hire and eventual departure, Ms. Miles neither experienced any decrease in pay or benefits, nor was she denied a promotion or raise. (Id. at 104-105.)

B. Ms. Miles' First Complaint of Discrimination

Shortly after Mr. Raja's promotion, Ms. Miles began to have concerns regarding his treatment of women in the office. In May 2011, Ms. Miles told Mr. Raja that she felt he was " genderly harassing me [Ms. Miles]." (Miles Dep. at 31-32, 34.) Ms. Miles alleges that Mr. Raja then looked at her and said, " right now I trust you about zero percent. Now I have to go tell Paul [Kirwin, CEO] and Brian [Schwen, CFO] that you think I'm harassing you." (Id. at 103.) Ms. Miles allegedly responded, " I'm not saying you are, but I feel that. That's how I feel. And he [Mr. Raja] said, this conversation is done." (Id.) In the weeks and months following this conversation, Ms. Miles felt that Mr. Raja was " pretty rough" with her. (Id. at 32.) For example, in a meeting with Ms. Miles, Mr. Raja allegedly

. . . put his hands up--both hands up in front of my [Ms. Miles'] face and said stop and shut up. And then he got up and stood behind his chair and said I was a disgrace, I should be ashamed of myself. He said a few more things.

(Id. at 33.) This meeting allegedly stemmed from a complaint bye Jessica Rogers to Mr. Raja about a comment Ms. Miles said to her in April 2011. [2] (Id. at 33-35.)

C. Ms. Miles' First Performance Review Under Mr. Raja and Her Second Complaint of Discrimination

After his promotion, Mr. Raja created a performance evaluation form called the Northcott Achievement Plan (" NAP" ). (Raja Dep. at 31.) The NAP formalizes conversations regarding employee performance between supervisors and employees, providing separate spaces for their respective comments. (Id. at 35-37.) Employee objectives are created at the beginning of the year, monitored, and reviewed in the middle of and at the end of the year. (See Ex. 5 to Aff. of Ross D. Stadheim [Doc. No. 21-5].)

In August 2011, Ms. Miles issued her mid-year NAP. (Id.) Ms. Miles and Mr. Raja disagreed in the " Team Player" section. (Id.) Whereas Ms. Miles felt she was a " great team player," Mr. Raja wrote that Ms. Miles " brought negativity" and " drama" to the team. (Id. at KM000182.) Following the practice when a supervisor and employee disagree on a section, Mr. Raja and Ms. Miles put together a revised action

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plan. Mr. Raja concedes that he forced Ms. Miles to write the following in the first person:

In the past a few of my team members have felt my negativity and the bringing of politics to the team. My action plan is to focus on myself and not be so competitive. Always put my team first and have a positive attitude.

(Id.; Raja Dep. at 68.)

On August 8, 2011, Ms. Miles made her second complaint of discrimination--this time to Jean Wall, Human Resources Director. (Dep. of Jean Wall at 30 [Doc. No. 22-6]; Ex. 15 to Aff. of Ross D. Stadheim [Doc. No. 22-3].) Ms. Miles alleged that Mr. Raja was harassing her and setting her up for termination. (Wall Dep. at 30-31.) Miles also asked about the " legality" of signing her mid-year NAP because she " didn't agree with it." (Miles Dep. at 168.) After this meeting, Ms. Miles followed up with Ms. Wall between two and four times. (Id. at 165-66.) Ms. Miles also gave Ms. Wall an envelope containing a three-page letter, dated August 19, 2011, which addressed some of the concerns that Ms. Miles had raised previously with Ms. Wall. (Wall Dep. at 40.) As the envelope to the letter was labeled, " [p]lease only open on my [Ms. Miles'] permission," it remained unopened in her personnel file until Ms. Miles asked for its return in January 2012. (Id. at 41; Ex. EE to Aff. of Kevin M. Mosher [Doc. No. 16-2].)

After Ms. Miles made her report, Ms. Wall allegedly stated that Mr. Raja " isn't doing anything illegal," and Ms. Miles responded, " yes, he is, he's doing gender harassment." (Miles Dep. at 166.) Ms. Wall said that she would talk to the CFO, Brian Schwen. (Id.) Northcott did not investigate the validity of Ms. Miles' allegations. (Wall Dep. at 39-40.)

In addition to reporting Mr. Raja's discriminatory treatment to Ms. Wall, Ms. Miles spoke with three vice presidents at Northcott: Mark Clarey, Ron Burgett, and John Synstegaard. (Miles Dep. at 70-71.) Ms. Miles' discussion with Mr. Clarey focused on how Mr. Raja treated her and the likelihood of transferring to Mr. Clarey's department. (Id.) Mr. Clarey told Ms. Miles that she needed to " do whatever I [Ms. Miles] needed to take care of myself." (Id. at 71.) Ms. Miles also spoke with her former supervisor, Mr. Synstegaard, about Mr. Raja's differential treatment. (Id.) Mr. Synstegaard advised Ms. Miles to find another position because Mr. Raja's behavior would never change. (Id.) Mr. Burgett was allegedly aware of how Mr. Raja treated women. He and another employee--Shawn Lidberg, a supervisor in the construction department--advised Ms. Miles to report Mr. Raja because what he was doing was " illegal." (Id. at 71-72.)

D. Ms. Miles' Diagnosis of Meniere's Disease in Her Right Ear

On January 16, 2012, Ms. Miles was diagnosed with Meniere's disease in her right ear, resulting in seventy to seventy-five percent hearing loss in that ear. (Miles Dep. at 47-48.) Ms. Miles was diagnosed with the same disease in her left ear approximately ten years ago, which resulted in complete hearing loss in the left ear. (Id. at 169.) Ms. Miles currently uses a powerful hearing aid to cope with her disability. (Id. at 48.) Northcott does not dispute that Ms. Miles suffers from a disability. (Raja Dep. at 83; Wall Dep. at 40.)

Mr. Raja testified that he first learned of Ms. Miles' hearing disability in January 2012, when Ms. Miles told him that she was having a hard time hearing, was going to the doctor, and might need a hearing a Id. (Raja Dep. at 84.) On January 18, 2012, Ms. Miles informed Mr. Raja of her diagnosis. (Miles Dep. at 50-51.) Ms. Miles told Mr. Raja that her physicians

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were hoping that it was a tumor that could be removed to restore her hearing. (Id.) In response, Mr. Raja " giggled and laughed." (Id. at 51.) Mr. Raja also allegedly said, " I'm going to take off my employer hat and put on my coach hat and just tell you I think maybe it's time you quit." (Id.)

The next day, Mr. Raja removed Ms. Miles from her extra projects because she " was not able to fulfill what was expected of her." (Raja Dep. at 101-102; Miles Dep. at 64.) Mr. Raja denied removing her from these projects because of her hearing issues. (Raja Dep. at 101.) Mr. Raja also took away some of the properties assigned to Ms. Miles. (Miles Dep. at 64.) Before Ms. Miles' diagnosis, they had not discussed the possibility of Ms. Miles losing some of her properties. (Id.) Later that month, Mr. Raja removed Ms. Miles from her video shoot project. (Id. at 195.) Ms. Miles alleges that she had never had projects taken away from her previously. (Id. at 64.) In addition, Jessica Rogers allegedly degraded Ms. Miles on account of her hearing loss. (Id. at 55-56.) Ms. Miles alleges that Ms. Rogers would tell co-workers, " don't bother talking to [Ms. Miles], she can't hear you anyway," and she would throw items at Ms. Miles to get her attention. (Id.)

E. Ms. Miles' Requests for Reasonable Accommodation

Before her diagnosis of Meniere's disease in her right ear, Ms. Miles asked Mr. Raja to sit next to her on her right side during team meetings, because she had difficulties hearing in large rooms that echoed. (Miles Dep. at 54.) Mr. Raja allegedly stated that " he would do his best but he couldn't promise it." (Id.) Ms. Miles commented that " it was like he almost made it a point to sit the farthest away from me when I asked him two different times to sit next to me." (Id.) Ms. Miles also asked Mr. Raja if she could listen to webinars in her cubicle, where she had access to an ear bud, rather than in a conference room that echoed. (Id. at 62.) Ms. Miles told Mr. Raja that she needed this accommodation because of her hearing loss. (Id. at 62-63.) Mr. Raja denied this request as well because he wanted everyone in the conference room. (Id.)

In January 2012, shortly after Ms. Miles informed Mr. Raja about the Meniere's diagnosis in her right ear, Ms. Miles asked Mr. Raja and Ms. Wall for an accommodation to work from home. (Raja Dep. at 84; Wall Dep. at 53-54.) This request, too, was denied. (Wall Dep. at 54.)

When asked whether Northcott had engaged in any interactive process to determine if working from home was feasible, Ms. Wall stated that she had not. (Id.) Mr. Raja confirmed the same:

Q: Did you ever engage in any sort of interactive process with Ms. Miles to determine whether working at home could be an option or did you just blanketly say no?
A: Blanketly say no. I wanted her to work from the office, yes.
. . .
Q: Did you ever engage in an interactive process with Ms. Miles to determine whether she could, in fact, work from home and still complete all of her tasks?
A: Short answer, no.
Q: Did you ever consider restructuring Ms. Miles'[sic] job to accommodate her?
A: No.
Q: Did you ever consider maybe a part-time or a modified work schedule to accommodate her disability?
A: No.

(Raja Dep. at 88-89.) Mr. Raja explained that it was the " company culture" to work from the office, and that if he granted Ms. Miles' request, he would have to allow others as well. (Id. at 85-86.) Mr. Raja

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stated that he did not consider restructuring Ms. Miles' job or work schedule to accommodate her disability. (Id. at 89.)

On February 13, 2012, Ms. Miles updated Mr. Raja and Ms. Wall on her diagnosis via email. (Ex. 11 to Aff. of Ross D. Stadheim at N004103 [Doc. No. 21-11].) In this email, Ms. Miles explained that she could not hear her telephone ring and that she heard only approximately one-fourth of what was said in meetings. (Id.) Mr. Raja wrote in response:

. . . If you don't feel well and cannot come into work, then you should take sick days off. You will have to work with Jean to make sure that works with your request for leave. If you feel well and can work, then you will need to come into the office. As I mentioned to you, I will make sure to accommodate you in any way I can. I will try my best to make the work environment comfortable for you. You will have to help me by letting me know what you need. I, as well as your team, will be happy to work with you.

(Id. at N004102.) Ms. Miles felt that Mr. Raja's offer to accommodate her was an empty one, given his failure to accommodate her previous requests and his practice of saying one thing and writing another in his emails. (Miles Dep. at 221.)

F. Ms. Miles' Third Complaint of Discrimination

In January 2012, Ms. Miles completed her year-end review for 2011. (Ex. M to Aff. of Kevin M. Mosher at KM000191 [Doc. No. 16-1].) Under her performance for " Team Player," Ms. Miles stated her belief " that my communication with my supervisor is on a much higher level and has made a 180 degree turn to the better[.] This is one area where I have made a 150% improvement." (Id. at KM000201.) Ms. Miles qualified her interactions with Mr. Raja as having improved " only in December" of 2011 because he " just kind of laid off me and ignored me" and " there wasn't as much harassment. Of course, I traveled, too. So I just--I felt that I did what I was supposed to do, and I made a 180-percent turn of what he said I had to do from the mid-year NAP." (Miles Dep. at 138.)

In February 2012, Ms. Miles met with Ms. Wall again, telling her that Mr. Raja was " back at it again." (Id. at 182.) On February 6, 2012, Ms. Miles sent a lengthy email to Ms. Wall and Mr. Kirwin. (Ex. 6 to Aff. of Ross D. Stadheim [Doc. No. 21-6].) The letter repeated Ms. Miles' previous complaints, such as Mr. Raja's differential treatment of women in her department and that he was setting up Ms. Miles ...


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