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Rech v. Alter Trading Corp.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

July 25, 2018

Gerri M. Rech, Plaintiff,
v.
Alter Trading Corporation, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Paul A. Magnuson United States District Court Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, the Motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Gerri Rech worked at Defendant Alter Trading Company as a scale clerk from October 2008 until November 2015. (Ives Aff. (Docket No. 29) Ex. D-2 (Rech Dep.) at 40.) Alter is a scrap metal company headquartered in Missouri; Rech worked at Alter's facility in St. Paul. (O'Leary Aff. (Docket No. 26) ¶ 5.) She claims that she was repeatedly harassed by both her immediate supervisor and the facility's general manager and that the harassment forced her to take a medical leave. She was ultimately terminated and did not ever return to work. Alter contends that her termination was part of a reduction in force after a sharp downturn in the scrap metal industry, and that Rech was chosen for termination because of her poor performance and because she was in an unprotected leave status, not because she is a woman.

         Rech was one of the only women employed at Alter's St. Paul facility. She worked at the front desk, weighing scrap cargo and paying customers for the scrap. (Rech Dep. at 42; LaSee Aff. (Docket No. 28) Ex. C-2 (description of scale clerk's duties).) In 2013, the facility's general manager left his position, and Doug Reisdorfer became general manager. According to Rech, at about the same time, her immediate supervisor, Gary Stevens, began harassing her, calling her a “dumb broad” and making other insulting comments in front of other workers and customers. (Rech Dep. 50-51.) Rech also claims that Stevens ripped up the applications of females applying for open position following another female employee's retirement. Stevens told Rech that he did not want to work with women and that Alter would not hire another woman for 40 years. (Id. at 51, 71.) She asserts that a prior female clerk filed a complaint against Stevens, and Stevens told Rech that the “b*tch tried to get me fired” but that he was “sneaky” and “got away with it.” (Id. at 66, 69.) Rech alleges that Stevens showed her a copy of the complaint (id. at 67-68), but Alter has no record of any complaint being filed against Stevens by any other employee. (LaSee Aff. ¶ 13.)

         In August 2014, Rech contends that Stevens yelled at her, telling her that he “f-ing hate[d]” her and that he wished she would “f-ing quit.” (Rech Dep. 64-66.) Rech became so upset that she walked out to the loading dock to call Reisdorfer. (Id.) While she was on the phone with Reisdorfer, Stevens allegedly locked the door behind her so that she could not return to her office. (Id.) Reisdorfer reported the incident to Alter's Human Resources department.

         Alter's HR investigated the incident and conducted interviews with Rech, Stevens, and other employees at the St. Paul facility. (LaSee Aff. ¶ 11.) Alter ultimately determined that Rech's allegations were not substantiated and that, instead, Rech herself had committed violations of company policy by taking excessively long breaks and talking to other employees and to customers about her co-workers. (Id. Ex. C-4.) Alter's HR staff also counseled Stevens to improve his relationship with Rech. (Id.)

         Thereafter, Rech contends that Reisdorfer started papering her personnel file with either incorrect or overblown violations of company policy. According to Rech, before she reported Stevens's behavior, she had never had a negative performance report. After she complained about Stevens, however, she received multiple negative reports. In December 2014, Alter's HR followed up with Rech about the situation with Stevens. She reported that things were much better and that she was “happy with Gary.” (LaSee Aff. Ex. C-5.) Rech alleges that Stevens resumed his verbal harassment shortly thereafter but she did not want to report it because of the retaliation she had experienced. (Rech Dep. at 81.)

         In July 2015, Rech took a medical leave of absence. (Id. at 122.) She received FMLA leave from Alter and short-term disability insurance payments from Alter's disability insurance carrier. (Id. at 123.) Alter contends that Rech stopped providing medical information to Alter and the insurer in August, despite multiple requests that she provide updated information. (LaSee Aff. ¶ 36.) Rech asserts that she asked her doctor to send medical information to Alter but that he apparently did not comply. (Rech Dep. at 126.) Her leave expired in mid-October (id. at 135), and although Alter contacted her several times to ascertain when she planned to return to work, she did not respond. (Id. at 136.)

         Meanwhile, Alter claims that it was planning a company-wide reduction in force (“RIF”), and Rech was selected for termination. Alter attributes Rech's selection to her negative performance reviews, her failure to communicate when she planned to return to work, and her failure to return to work despite exhausting FMLA leave. (Reisdorfer Aff. (Docket No. 27) ¶ 22.) Rech was the only female of the 11 employees in the Northern Lakes Region[1] selected for the RIF. (O'Leary Aff. ¶ 13.) Stevens was also selected for the RIF, although he had previously decided to retire in December 2015, only a month after the RIF. (Reisdorfer Aff. ¶ 21.) Another male employee at the St. Paul facility was also included in the RIF, but he died before the RIF took effect. (Id. ¶ 20.) Alter contends that it laid off employees nationwide, but it does not specify the percentage of its workforce included in the RIF.

         Alter asserts that it did not re-fill Rech's position until May 2017, when it hired a female to fill the position. Rech testified in her deposition that she did not know whether she was replaced or who replaced her. (Rech. Dep. at 180.)

         Rech filed a charge of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights on March 7, 2016. The charge raises both harassment and reprisal on the basis of sex. Rech elected to file suit rather than proceed with the MDHR charge, Minn. Stat. § 363A.33, and commenced this lawsuit in state court on May 30, 2017. Alter timely removed the case to federal court. Count I of Rech's Complaint claims hostile work environment in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Count II is a claim for wrongful discharge under the MHRA, and Count III raises a wrongful-discharge claim under Title VII.

         Alter seeks summary judgment on all counts. It contends first that Rech's hostile-work-environment claim is untimely because the events on which that claim is based happened in 2014, well beyond the MHRA's one-year statute of limitations. Alter also argues that Rech has failed to make out a prima facie case of hostile work environment because the harassment of which she complains was not severe and pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of her employment. Finally, Alter argues that Rech's wrongful-discharge claims fail because she has no evidence, direct or indirect, of a discriminatory motive with respect to her termination, and that, regardless, Alter's stated reasons for her termination were not pretextual.

         In response to Alter's Motion, Rech filed a declaration that differs in material respects from her deposition testimony. (Rech Decl. (Docket No. 31).) As only one example, she testified in her deposition that she did not know who replaced her after she was terminated (Rech Dep. 180), but her declaration contends that she was replaced by a male co-worker. (Rech Decl. ¶ 148.) Rech attempts to excuse these inconsistencies, claiming that Alter failed to include the complete transcript of her deposition in its submissions and that the missing pages would have “clarified or explained” many of the topics addressed in her ...


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