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Stephenson v. Potterfield Group, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division

September 19, 2016



          NANETTE K. LAUGHREY United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 41]. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         Defendant Larry Potterfield is the Chief Executive Officer of Midway Arms, Inc. and the President of Potterfield Group, LLC. [Doc. 42, p. 1 n.l]. Plaintiff Dennis Stephenson worked for Defendants "in various roles" from 2002 through 2015. Plaintiff was first hired at Battenfeld as an hourly Assembly Warehouse Specialist in 2001 and eventually became Vice President of Operations there. Id. Plaintiffs last held position was "Director of Facilities" at Potterfield Group. [Doc. 46, p. 1]. As Director of Facilities, Plaintiff was responsible for "overseeing the expansion" of a company project called the "Midway campus, " "including repairs and renovations, " "managing the farms purchased by Potterfield Group or other entities, which included working with the Farm Services Agency and working with utilities to remove power poles from the farm properties, " "work[ing] with local governments on planning and zoning matters involving the Midway campus and other properties, " and doing "personal work for the Potterfield family." [Doc. 42, pp. 4-5]. Mr. Potterfield was Plaintiffs direct supervisor from December 2009 until August 2015.

         A. 2013 FMLA Leave

         In June 2013, Plaintiff informed Larry Potterfield and other Potterfield Group employees that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and would require treatment. Plaintiff requested and was approved for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 L.S.C. § 2601, and took leave from July 29-August 19 to undergo and recover from surgery. [Doc. 42, p. 7]. Shortly after Plaintiff returned to work in August, 2013, Plaintiff was also diagnosed with Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia. Plaintiff informed Mr. Potterfield and other employees of his diagnosis, but told them that he did not need immediate treatment for that condition.

         After Plaintiff returned from his FMLA leave, Defendant added additional daily reporting requirements and additional duties, requiring Plaintiff to spend "an additional 5-10 hours per week" completing assigned projects. [Doc. 46-1]. Mr. Potterfield's tone "became increasingly negative" towards Plaintiff and he was no longer invited to participate in Potterfield social gatherings like he was prior to leave. Id. Mr. Potterfield disputes this allegation. Additionally, while working as Director of Facilities for Potterfield Group, Plaintiff had "received a raise each year since 2009."' Mr. Potterfield states he set a maximum salary for the position in late 2013 and that was the reason no raise was given. Finally, Plaintiff received an additional sum of money for his work at Potterfield Group in 2011, 2012, and 2013 for work performed in the previous year. [Doc. 46, pp. vi-vii]. Plaintiff did not receive any bonus or "personal thank you Plaintiff alleges this is the first time that he had not received an annual raise from Potterfield Group since 2009 and the first time ever "in his 12-year tenure with the company." [Doc. 46, p. xvi], check" in 2014 or 2015.

         B. 2015 FMLA Leave

         In June 2015, Plaintiff informed Mr. Potterfield that, as a result of his Leukemia, he needed to begin chemotherapy treatment "starting early in July of 2015, and continuing for intervals thereafter." Id. at 8. Plaintiff requested and was approved for FMLA leave to receive these treatments; he took leave from July 1-July 7 and again from July 29-August 3.

         In July 2015, while Plaintiff was on leave, Mr. Potterfield and his wife, Brenda, were on vacation. Ms. Potterfield received a phone call from their daughter, Sara Potterfield-who serves as Vice President of Public Relations at Potterfield Group-relaying a report from another employee that "Plaintiff had engaged in inappropriate and unprofessional conduct." Id. at 9. On July 28, 2015, Ms. Potterfield met with Mackenzi Wells-an Administrative Assistant at Potterfield Group-and Ms. Wells "told her that Plaintiff engaged in inappropriate conduct, " including "the kiss face" (alleging Plaintiff made "kissing face" gestures to her) and "the grabbing the hips and biting the lip thing in the hallway" (relating to what Ms. Wells deemed to be inappropriate touching by Plaintiff). [Doc. 46-6]. Ms. Wells further noted that Plaintiff "makes inappropriate jokes" and said disrespectful things about the Potterfields. Id. Ms. Potterfield also spoke with Tiffany Martin-a Midway Arms Financial Services Accountant- who described an incident in which Plaintiff "twirled her around in her chair and put his hands on both armrests, 'invading [her] personal space.'" [Doc. 42, p. 10].

         During and following Ms. Potterfield's interviews with Potterfield Group employees, Mr. Potterfield "became concerned about Plaintiffs conduct directed at female employees, and questioned Plaintiffs loyalty to the Potterfield Group and the Potterfield family." Id. at 11. Mr. Potterfield asked Stan Frink, Vice President of Human Resources at Midway Arms (the entity that handles FMLA applications for Potterfield Group), to investigate further. During Mr. Frink's investigation, he spoke to, amongst others, Ms. Martin, who told him that Plaintiff made "inappropriate physical gestures that made her uncomfortable, " which included but were not limited to his making "kissing faces" to her when he walked past her work area. Id. Mr. Frink also interviewed another employee, Bridget Biesemeyer, who told him that Plaintiff was uncomfortable with the way Plaintiff "invaded her personal space." Id. at 12.

         Mr. Frink and another Midway Arms Human Resources employee, Lisa Pilkington, interviewed several more female employees. Mr. Frink reported his findings to Mr. Potterfield on July 31, 2015, at which time Mr. Potterfield "had decided to eliminate Plaintiffs position as Director of Facilities." Id. at 13. Upon returning to work on August 3, 2015 after receiving his second round of chemotherapy treatment, "Larry Potterfield told Plaintiff that his position was being eliminated and that if he resigned and signed a severance agreement, he could stay in the office for 30 days and receive full compensation until the end of October, " Id. Plaintiff refused to resign. [Doc. 46, p. 18]. On August 4, 2015, Mr. Frink, on Mr. Potterfield's direction, informed Plaintiff that his position had been terminated and escorted Plaintiff from the building. Id.

         Plaintiff filed suit on August 18, 2015, two weeks after Mr. Potterfield terminated his employment-or decided to "eliminate the position" [Doc. 50, p. 32]-alleging violations of the FMLA on two separate occasions: first, when the "terms and conditions" of Plaintiffs employment changed following his FMLA leave in 2013; and second, when his employment was terminated following his FMLA leave in 2015. [Doc. 42, pp. 10-11]. Defendants contend that the terms and conditions of his employment did not change, and that his termination was in response to Plaintiffs decreasing responsibilities, "Plaintiffs conduct directed at female employees, " and questions regarding "Plaintiffs loyalty to the Potterfield Group and the Potterfield family, " Id. at 11. Defendants have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, [Doc. 41].

         II. ...

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