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Hunter v. Otis Elevator Co.

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

February 21, 2018




         Pending before the Court is Defendant Otis Elevator Company's motion for summary judgment.[1] (ECF No. 32.) For the reasons discussed more fully below, the Court GRANTS Otis Elevator's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Otis Elevator Company (“Otis Elevator”) manufactures, installs, and maintains elevators and escalators throughout the United States. (ECF No. 33 at ¶ 1.) Plaintiff, Rebecca Hunter (“Hunter”), was employed by Otis Elevator beginning in February of 2010 as an administrative assistant at Otis Elevator's Big Chimney, West Virginia location.[2] (ECF No. 35 at 1.) Hunter states that her duties included lifting heavy boxes and operating a forklift. (Id.) However, Otis Elevator states that Hunter was never asked to operate a forklift. (ECF No. 47 at 8.)

         In 2013, Otis Elevator's Vice President, Chris Doot (“Doot”), implemented the Financial Shared Services (“FSS”) program, which was designed to consolidate administrative functions across all of Otis Elevator's branches to a centralized group in Florida. (ECF No. 33 at ¶ 5.) In the fall of 2014, Doot decided to transition the West Virginia GBO to FSS. (Id. at ¶ 6.) Doot and several other supervisors and managers rated the performance of all administrative assistants in the Southern Region using a multi-tier review process. (Id. at ¶ 7.) Otis Elevator states that Hunter's rating was among the lowest in the region, thus prompting their decision to terminate Hunter's positon and lay off Hunter instead of reassigning her to a different position. (Id. at ¶¶ 7-8.) Otis Elevator planned to inform Hunter of her layoff in January of 2015 and accordingly prepared a severance package. (Id.) However, due to a vacancy in the General Manager position at the West Virginia GBO, Otis Elevator decided to postpone that branch's transition to FSS until it filled the General Manger position as whoever occupied that position would be responsible for implementing the FSS changes. (Id. at ¶ 9.)

         In May of 2015, Otis Elevator hired Randolph Davis (“Davis”) to fill the General Manager position. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Before he officially assumed the position, Davis was told that Hunter would be laid off as part of the FSS changes. (Id.) Shortly after Davis assumed his positon, Hunter informed Davis that she was 10 weeks pregnant. (ECF No. 35 at 1.) Hunter's doctor subsequently placed her on light duty restrictions.[3] (Id.)

         On June 17, 2015, Hunter emailed Davis to inform him that she needed time off due to complications with her pregnancy. (Id. at 1-2.) On June 24, 2015, Davis emailed Melanie Mack (“Mack”) in Human Resources asking for guidance on how to handle Hunter's numerous absences and expressing concern over the veracity of Hunter's excuses for these absences. (See ECF No. 35-2 at 2.) Mack responded stating that Davis should require Hunter to provide a doctor's note following appointments but that he should “[b]e mindful that she is pregnant and this will require many more appointments than would otherwise be required.” (See ECF No. 35-3 at 2.)

         On September 23, 2015, Hunter's doctor placed her on temporary bedrest. (ECF No. 35 at 2.) Hunter returned from bedrest six days later and emailed Davis inquiring about the future of her position after the imposition of FSS. (ECF No. 33 at ¶ 12.) Davis responded to Hunter stating that it was “business as usual until they tell us otherwise.” (ECF No. 32-11 at 2.) Davis also emailed Beth Johnson (“Johnson”) in Human Resources and stated that Hunter was asking for a layoff date. (ECF No. 35 at 2 (citing ECF No. 35-6 at 16 (Johnson Dep.)).) Johnson stated in her deposition that she followed up with the Headquarters who informed her that the FSS plan indicated that Hunter's position would be eliminated in 2015. (ECF No. 35-6 at 30-31.) Accordingly, Johnson told Davis to proceed with Hunter's termination, which they agreed would occur on November 3, 2015. (Id. at 29-31; ECF No. 35-7 at 2 (Email Regarding Restructuring).)

         On October 29, 2015, Hunter informed Davis that her doctor had again placed her on temporary bedrest and she therefore would not be in the office for the remainder of the week. (Id. at ¶ 14.) Thus, on November 4, 2015, Otis Elevator decided to inform Hunter of her lay off by telephone instead of in person. (Id.) Davis and Mack informed Hunter that it had been decided several months earlier that her position would be terminated as a result of the FSS plan to consolidate administrative duties. (Id.) They also informed Hunter that her termination date would be delayed until she was medically cleared to return to work. (Id.) Hunter received full pay and benefits from October 30, 2015 through November 18, 2015 because of her accrued sick days. (Id. at ¶ 15.)

         Otis Elevator states that Hunter's doctor released her to return to work on December 25, 2015, but because of a new parental leave policy that allowed employees to be eligible for four weeks of parental leave, Otis Elevator delayed Hunter's effective date of termination so she could participate in this new policy. (Id. at ¶ 16.) Hunter states that she advised Otis Elevator in January of 2016 that she was able to return to work and that Otis Elevator informed her that she would be terminated on January 22, 2016. (ECF No. 35 at 5.) Accordingly, on January 22, 2016, Otis Elevator's Senior Regional Human Resources Manager mailed Hunter a severance package. (ECF No. 33 at ¶ 17.) Hunter also received an additional two weeks' full pay and retained her medical insurance benefits through February 19, 2016. (Id.)

         Since laying off Hunter, Otis Elevator states that it has not hired any administrative assistants for the West Virginia GBO nor has it posted any job openings for an administrative assistant in that region. (Id. at ¶ 18.) Otis Elevator also states that, since 2016, it has laid off eighteen additional employees, with two of the eighteen deciding to resign or retire, as a result of the FSS restructuring.[4] (Id. at ¶ 19.) Some of these layoffs were delayed due to “start up issues and resistance at the branch level.”[5] (Id.)

         On March 21, 2016, Hunter filed this action in Kanawha County Circuit Court against Otis Elevator alleging sex discrimination in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act (“HRA”), common law wrongful discharge, and violations of the West Virginia Pregnancy Workers' Fairness Act (“PWFA”). (See ECF No. 1-1 at 4-11 (Compl.).) Otis Elevator subsequently removed this action to this Court on April 28, 2016. (See ECF No. 1.) On May 22, 2017, Otis Elevator filed the present motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 32.) Hunter filed a timely response to the motion. (ECF No. 35.) Following Hunter's response, the Court gave the parties time to conduct discovery on an unrelated motion and enlarged the reply deadline. (See ECF No. 38; ECF No. 39.) Pursuant to the enlarged deadline, Otis Elevator filed its reply on December 8, 2017. (ECF No. 47.) The motion is now fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.


         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs motions for summary judgment. That rule provides, in relevant part, that summary judgment should be granted if “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact.” Summary judgment is inappropriate, however, if there exist factual issues that reasonably may be resolved in favor of either party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). “Facts are ‘material' when they might affect the outcome of the case, and a ‘genuine issue' exists when the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” News & Observer Publ. Co. v. Raleigh-Durham Airport Auth., 597 F.3d 570, 576 (4th Cir. 2010). When construing such factual issues, the Court must view the evidence “in the light most favorable to the [party opposing summary judgment].” Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970).

         The moving party may meet its burden of showing that no genuine issue of fact exists by use of “depositions, answers to interrogatories, answers to requests for admission, and various documents submitted under request for production.” Barwick v. Celotex Corp., 736 F.2d 946, 958 (4th Cir. 1984). Once the moving party has met its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If a party ...

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