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Koch v. Lightning Transportation, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

January 6, 2015

TIFFANY KOCH, Plaintiff,
v.
LIGHTNING TRANSPORTATION, LLC, EMPLOYEE SOLUTIONS, LLC d/b/a LIGHTNING TRANSPORTATION SERVICES, and DONALD DENNING, JC., individually, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

KEVIN H. SHARP, District Judge.

Plaintiff's complaint before this Court alleges unlawful discrimination on the basis of pregnancy in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et. seq., and various state law claims including breach of contract, promissory fraud, promissory estoppel, intentional misrepresentation and negligent misrepresentation. Defendant Lightning Transportation, LLC, Employee Solutions, LLC d/b/a Lightning Transportation and as Lightning Transportation Services, and Defendant Donald Denning Jr. have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on all claims in the Complaint. This motion, for the reasons that follow, will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Defendants Lightning Transportation, LLC and Employee Solutions, LLC (collectively, "Lightning") are limited liability companies with their principal places of business in Tennessee. (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 8-9). Defendant Donald Denning is the owner and an officer of Lightning. (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 18). Plaintiff Tiffany Koch is a former employee of either Lightning Transportation, LLC or Employee Solutions, LLC. Although Plaintiff received her paycheck from Employee Solutions, LLC, Lightning Transportation, LLC and Denning made all the decisions related to the terms and conditions of Plaintiff's employment. (Docket No. 17 at ¶ 13).

At the beginning of July, 2010, Plaintiff informed Denning that she was pregnant. (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 2). Although Lightning did not have a maternity leave policy, Denning told Plaintiff "not to worry about it." (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 4). On September 28, 2010, Plaintiff met with Denning to discuss her pregnancy leave. (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 5). During this meeting, Plaintiff alleges that she entered into an oral contract, consummated with a handshake, in which Defendants agreed to allow Plaintiff eight weeks of maternity leave. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants agreed to pay Plaintiff her salary for six weeks of leave. (Docket No. 25-1 at p. 99-111). Plaintiff created a typed document purporting to memorialize the September 28, 2010 agreement, which was never signed by Defendants. (Docket No. 27 at ¶¶ 8-11).

On January 13, 2011, six days before Plaintiff left work and delivered her child, Plaintiff met with Denning again to discuss her maternity leave. (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 13). During this conversation, Denning unequivocally promised Plaintiff at least six different times that she could return to work at the conclusion of her maternity leave. (Docket No. 27 ¶¶ 18-20, 22, 24-25, 27-28). Denning also informed Plaintiff that he could not pay her a full salary during her maternity leave, and suggested to Plaintiff that she apply for unemployment benefits once her maternity leave started. (Docket No. 27 ¶ 16-17). Plaintiff worked on January 18, 2011, (Docket No. 17 ¶ 34) and on January 19, 2011, Plaintiff went on leave to deliver her first child. (Docket No. 25-1 at p. 129).

After receiving no leave payments from Defendants, Plaintiff texted Denning the following: "Hey D.J., I just got your text, was wondering if it would be easier on you and less then [sic] a burden for me to do the unemployment think [sic] which you offered when we talked." (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 45). Denning responded, "Tiffany, ...to tell you the truth things are rough right now and it would probably be best for you." (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 46). Plaintiff filed for unemployment compensation benefits on February 3, 2011. (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 41).

Plaintiff sent Denning two more e-mails discussing her maternity leave and return date. The second e-mail, sent on March 21, 2011, said, "I am assuming you are wanting me to remain on laid-off status. Until you contact me and tell me differently, I will continue to stay home with [my son]." (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 48). Denning responded, "[I]f you can continue with the unemployment, that would be great." (Docket No. 27 at ¶ 49). Defendants subsequently informed Plaintiff that she was terminated, and despite Plaintiff's numerous requests to return to work, she was denied the opportunity to return to her position. (Docket No. 17 ¶¶ 52-53).

Meanwhile, about a month before Plaintiff left to have her baby, Denning spoke with another woman, Nicole Vendure, about "filling in" for Plaintiff. (Docket No. 25-3 at p. 61). Defendants hired Vendure in January 2011 to fill Plaintiff's position and with the understanding that Vendure's employment with Lightning would be long-term. (Docket No. 25-6 at p. 7, 15, 33).

Plaintiff's complaint before this Court alleges unlawful discrimination in violation of Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act as a result of Plaintiff's termination during her pregnancy leave. Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants breached oral contracts and reneged on promises regarding Plaintiff's right to six weeks of maternity pay and the ability to return to work after her maternity leave was over. Finally, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants made intentional and negligent misrepresentations related to the circumstances of Plaintiff's leave and the status of Vendure's employment.

II. APPLICATION OF THE LAW

A party may obtain summary judgment if the evidence establishes there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Covington v. Knox County School Sys., 205 F.3d 912, 914 (6th Cir. 2000). A genuine issue exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, drawing all justifiable inferences in his or her favor. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, (1986). However, the nonmoving party must rely on more than "[c]onclusory assertions, supported only by Plaintiff's own opinions." Arendale v. City of Memphis, 519 F.3d 587, 605 (6th Cir. 2008). Rather, Plaintiffs must "set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Harvey v. Campbell County, Tenn., 453 Fed.Appx. 557, 561 (6th Cir. 2011).

a. Pregnancy Discrimination

In McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), the Supreme Court established a clear framework for analyzing Title VII cases which may also be applied to those cases arising under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Ensley-Gaines v. Runyon, 100 F.3d 1220, 1223-24 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)). First, the plaintiff has the burden of proving a prima facie case of discrimination. Id . The burden of production then shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. Id . If the ...


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