United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Northeastern Division
WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Eaves brought this action against her former
employer Eye Centers of Tennessee, LLC (“Eye
Centers”), pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. §
1001 et seq., and Tennessee law, alleging that Eye
Centers retaliated against her for testifying in court about
Eye Centers mismanaging its retirement savings plan. Before
the Court is Eye Centers' Motion for Summary Judgment
(Doc. No. 29). Eaves has responded in opposition (Doc. No.
31), Eye Centers has replied (Doc. No. 37), and Eaves filed a
sur-reply (Doc. No. 41). For the following reasons, Eye
Centers' motion will be granted in part and denied in
January 29, 1989, Eye Centers hired Eaves as an optician, and
she held that position until she became the “Optical
Coordinator” sometime around 1998. (DSOF ¶¶
7, 13, 18, 19.) As Optical Coordinator, Eaves was responsible
for, among other things, managing Eye Centers' entire
optical department, traveling to the company's satellite
offices to consult with opticians, and reporting product and
financial information to Raymond Mays, who was her direct
supervisor and Eye Centers' CEO. (Id.
¶¶ 20-24; PSOF ¶¶ 2-3.) As long as she
completed her job duties, Eaves was permitted to work
remotely, was not required to physically report to work every
day or record her time worked, and was generally responsive
to anyone that needed to reach her by cell phone. (PSOF
¶¶ 14-16.) Eaves performed her job well.
(Id. ¶ 13.) There are no documents, records, or
performance evaluations evidencing that Eaves ever had any
performance or disciplinary issues during her employment with
Eye Centers, (Id. ¶ 17), at least until after
she testified in court as described below.
Eaves' employment, Eye Centers offered its employees the
opportunity to participate in a 401(k) Profit Sharing Plan
(the “Plan”). Eaves contributed to the Plan until
late-2013 or early-2014 when she became concerned about both
her inability to access her funds and Mays' refusal to
provide basic information about the Plan. (DSOF ¶¶
49-51, 61.) These concerns were substantiated in or around
2014 when the Department of Justice (“DOJ”)
commenced an investigation into Eye Centers' potential
mismanagement of its Plan. (Id. ¶ 55.) As part
of the DOJ's investigation, Eaves and other Eye Centers
employees were subpoenaed and testified before a federal
grand jury regarding Mays' potentially illegal Plan
transactions. (Id. ¶ 62.) Based on its
investigation and the grand jury testimony, the DOJ produced
a criminal information against Mays on December 8, 2015.
See United States v. Mays, No. 2:15-cr-00005 (M.D.
Tenn.), Doc. No. 1. In response, Mays ultimately pled guilty
to three counts of “False Statement in Employee Benefit
Plan Records, ” in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1027,
and was sentenced to 2 years of probation. Id., Doc.
this time, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) filed
a civil lawsuit against Eye Centers, Mays, the Plan, and Eye
Centers' owner, Dr. Larry Patterson, in Perez v. Eye
Centers of Tennessee, LLC et al., No. 2:14-cv-00115
(M.D. Tenn.) (“DOL case”). Eaves was deposed
in the DOL case on August 1, 2017, and provided trial
testimony against the named defendants on August 8, 2017.
(DSOF ¶¶ 68, 73.) Mays and Dr. Patterson were
present at the trial and witnessed Eaves' testimony.
(Id. ¶ 71.) Other than Dr. Patterson and Mays,
Eaves was the only current Eye Centers employee who testified
at trial in the DOL case. (PSOF ¶ 21.) After trial, the
defendants were found liable and ordered to restore losses to
the Plan in an amount exceeding $500, 000.
started to distrust Eaves after she cooperated and testified
against Eye Centers in the DOL case, particularly because he
thought the DOL case was frivolous and that the government
was unfairly targeting the company. (Id.
¶¶ 22, 32.) On August 22, 2017-a mere two weeks
after Eaves testified at trial in the DOL case-Mays responded
to Eaves' email requesting information about a
patient's refund with: “Never communicate with me
directly again. If a patient needs information [then] have
someone else talk to me about it.” (Doc. No. 1-8; DSOF
¶ 88; PSOF ¶ 29.) Notwithstanding this email, Eaves
still needed Mays' approval and authorization to perform
her job duties. (PSOF ¶ 4.) Also after trial, Mays asked
another employee, Christa Thompson, to prepare optical bills
for submission, even though Eaves had previously performed
this task. (DSOF ¶ 95.)
receiving Mays' August 22, 2017 email, Eaves eventually
contacted an attorney, Dudley Taylor, to try and resolve her
issues with Mays. (PSOF ¶ 42.) On September 6, 2017,
Taylor sent a letter to Eye Centers' counsel stating, in
. . . Mays, one of your clients, has effectively ostracized
[Eaves] and is preventing her from effectively performing the
duties required of her through the employment by [Eye
Centers]. These actions on the part of Mr. Mays became
evident to [Eaves] shortly after she testified in early
August. If there was any uncertainty as to whether this was
deliberate or inadvertent, that uncertainty was resolved
through an exchange of emails between [Eaves] and Mr. Mays on
August 22, 2017. . . .
[Eaves] is the optical coordinator for [Eye Centers], as you
know. Although it might be possible for employees in certain
positions to continue to perform their jobs without direct
contact with Mr. Mays, that is not true with respect to the
position of [Eaves]. The prohibition of any direct contact
with Mr. Mays not only has an adverse effect on [Eaves], but
it is surely detrimental to the efficient operations of [Eye
I am far from being an expert in employment law. I do know
enough, however, to recognize constructive retaliatory
discharge when I read this short exchange. . . .
(Doc. No. 1-9; PSOF ¶ 43.) The next day, September 7,
2017, Mays' sent the following email to Eaves:
I am writing to clarify my August 22nd email regarding
communicating with me. For future conversations regarding
work matters I request that you copy Christa [Thompson] on
emails. When we speak, let's have a third party present
during the conversation. This should not limit or interfere
with your job responsibilities. Please let me know if these
procedures are not acceptable or if you have any questions
about these instructions.
(Doc. No. 1-10; DSOF ¶ 89; PSOF ¶¶ 45-46.)
September 8, 2017, Eye Centers' lawyer, Kyle Watlington,
responded to Mr. Taylor with a letter stating:
. . . In your [September 6, 2017] letter, you raised concerns
about [Eaves'] working conditions. It is our
understanding that [Eaves] has not reported for work since
August 22, 2017. [Eye Centers] shares your concerns and wants
her to return to work immediately. It has no intention of
terminating her employment or otherwise making her employment
conditions objectively intolerable.
[Mays] would like [Eaves] to have a third party copied on any
emails directed to him so that there is a neutral witness
involved and for them to have a similar witness for any
in-person conversations. . . . Those steps are standard
business practices and should protect everyone's
interests. . . .
(Doc. No. 1-11, at 2.) Mr. Taylor and Mr. Watlington then
engaged in the following email exchange between September 8,
2017 and September 11, 2017:
Mr. Taylor: Thank you for your prompt response, Mr.
Watlington, but what is the rationale for proposing ...