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Eaves v. Eye Centers of Tennessee, LLC

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

January 13, 2020

ELIZABETH EAVES, Plaintiff,
v.
EYE CENTERS OF TENNESSEE, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Elizabeth Eaves[1] 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 part.

         I. UNDISPUTED FACTS[2]

         On 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.

         Throughout 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. No. 21.

         Around 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”).[3] 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.[4]

         Mays 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.)

         After 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, [5] Mr. Taylor sent a letter to Eye Centers' counsel stating, in relevant part:

. . . 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 Centers].
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.)

         On 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 ...

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