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Pecore v. Jennie-O Turkey Store, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 11, 2014

Luana Pecore, Plaintiff,
v.
Jennie-O Turkey Store, Inc., Defendant.

Bonnie N. Smith, Matthew H. Morgan, Janet M. Olawsky, Nichols Kaster, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for Plaintiff.

Ryan E. Mick, Jillian Kornblatt, Jessie Erin Rosenthal Mischke, Dorsey & Whitney LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

RICHARD H. KYLE, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Luana Pecore previously worked for Defendant Jennie-O Turkey Store, Inc. ("Jennie-O") as the manager of its Hidden Valley turkey farm in Faribault, Minnesota. After Jennie-O terminated her employment in 2012, she commenced this action alleging that it had discriminated against her on account of her sex, and subjected her to a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Minnesota Human Rights Act ("MHRA"), Minnesota Statutes § 363A.01 et seq. She also alleged that Jennie-O had retaliated against her for complaining about mistreatment and had violated the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Act ("MOSHA"), Minn. Stat. § 182.65 et seq., and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act ("MWA"), Minn. Stat. § 181.931 et seq. Presently before the Court is Jennie-O's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted in part, the Title VII and MHRA claims will be dismissed, and the Court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining claims.

BACKGROUND

Viewed in the light most favorable to Pecore, the record reveals the following facts. Jennie-O is a leading producer and processor of turkeys. It hired Pecore as an assistant farm manager at its Hidden Valley farm in 2004; she was promoted to farm manager later that year. In that role, she lived on the farm and was responsible for the care of Jennie-O's turkeys, which ranged in age from just hatched (a "poult") to seven weeks old. At all pertinent times, Pecore's immediate supervisor was Danny Thomas.

Generally speaking, Pecore performed her job well; she took good care of her turkeys and received high "livability" scores, that is, the percentage of poults that survived to adulthood. Thomas noted some concerns with her performance, however, including high production costs (particularly with regard to the use of fuel). Indeed, Pecore recognized in an (undated) self-evaluation that she "tr[ied] very hard, but miss[ed] some things" and "need[ed] improvement, " especially with regard to fuel usage.

Though she had been a good employee for several years, things changed in 2012 after Jennie-O began to focus more stringently on the costs of turkey production. Managers were required to assist on other farms and could no longer stop working for the day after completing chores on their own farms. Around this time, Pecore's performance started to decline, resulting in increased counseling from Thomas. In addition, Ryan Brunner, Hidden Valley's assistant manager, felt Pecore's work ethic waned, requiring him to pick up the slack.

Meanwhile, Pecore learned in April 2012 that Jennie-O workers on a different farm (Deerfield) had been burned with BioCres 50, a cleaning agent used to sanitize the farm's water lines. When Thomas informed Pecore that BioCres 50 might be used at Hidden Valley, she requested a Material Safety Data Sheet ("MDS Sheet")[1] for the chemical, as well as protective gear. Thomas failed to respond to Pecore's request, and hence she bought the protective gear on her own using a company credit card. When Thomas learned of the purchase, however, he yelled that she could not keep the gear because every employee would want it. Ultimately, he allowed her to keep the gear but threatened that his supervisor, Steven Houzenga, had instructed Thomas to "write [her] up to teach [her] a lesson."

Over the ensuing weeks, Pecore continually requested MDS Sheets for BioCres 50 and another cleaning chemical, DC&R, [2] but never received them. In addition, Thomas (allegedly) assigned her to work in the Hidden Valley barn approximately 20 times while DC&R was being used. By late May 2012, Pecore asked to meet with Shirley Drentlaw, Jennie-O's human resources (HR) manager, to discuss the chemicals used at the farm. Thomas reacted angrily, asking Pecore why she had involved HR. Ultimately, Pecore, Thomas, and Drentlaw met on June 11, 2012, to discuss Pecore's concerns.

According to Pecore, Thomas's hostility escalated over the ensuing months. For example, on July 19, 2012, she received a written warning for not being at the farm during assigned working hours (7:00 am to 3:00 pm). She claims she had finished her chores by mid-morning and had left to run "personal errands" when Thomas called and asked her to spray the barns with water (as it was a hot day). Though she does not dispute having left early, she claims Thomas "completely fabricated" the reasons for the warning because farm managers were "almost always allowed to leave... after completing their chores." For the remainder of her employment, Thomas directed her to check on her barns every two hours and would call her several times a day to ensure she had done so and had completed her other duties, actions he did not undertake with other managers.

Pecore also points to an incident in August 2012 in which Thomas commented on her attire. On a hot summer day, Pecore wore a sleeveless t-shirt without wearing a bra. She was unconcerned that others could see through the open sleeve holes, as she had undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer and, in her words, "ha[d] nothing" for anyone to see. Moreover, male employees frequently worked shirtless on hot days. Nevertheless, after several male employees "giggled, " Thomas commented that she should change her clothing because "[n]obody should have to look at something like that." Pecore felt humiliated by this comment.

Pecore also claims Thomas treated her less favorably than male farm managers and other employees. She asserts, for instance, that he repeatedly yelled at her that it was "his way or the highway"; did not permit her grandson to ride on farm equipment, when the grandchildren of male managers were allowed to do so; and told her to "pull it up" when he found her urinating outside.[3] She also claims Thomas gave her more work than male managers but offered her less help to complete it, including frequently reassigning Brunner to work on other farms so he could not assist Pecore. He also altered her working hours, making it difficult to pick up her grandson from school.[4]

Pecore eventually complained to Drentlaw about Thomas's treatment. She asserted she was being "singled out" because she was female and complained Thomas had admitted "sabotaging" a former female farm manager (Trish Swenson) by "piling" her turkeys[5] in order to get her fired, and she expressed concern Thomas would do the same to her. She also expressed fear that Thomas would retaliate against her for speaking to HR. Drentlaw denied Thomas had sabotaged anyone and told Pecore he was likely "just trying to be a big shot, " and she took no further action in response to the complaints. A short time later, Thomas met with Pecore and "counseled" her regarding the number of sick days she had taken in 2012. On the way out of the meeting, he informed her that he knew she had spoken with Drentlaw, and he told her to only go through him (the "chain of command") in the future. Nevertheless, Pecore reiterated her complaints to Drentlaw in a subsequent telephone call and requested a new supervisor, but no change came.

In October 2012, Pecore took a pre-planned vacation. On the day of her departure, a Jennie-O veterinarian visited Hidden Valley and noted a significant number of concerns, which she relayed to Thomas. When Pecore returned to work on November 1, 2012, she had a voicemail from Thomas ordering her and Brunner to attend a meeting with him and Pat Madden from HR later that same day. According to Pecore, she immediately called Thomas and asked that Drentlaw be present at the meeting, and Thomas informed her the meeting would be rescheduled when Drentlaw was available. Nevertheless, the meeting went forward as planned, without Pecore in attendance.[6] Thomas then suspended her for three days without pay, for "refus[ing] to attend ...


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