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Sanchez v. Purina Animal Nutrition, LLC

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 13, 2015

ARMI B. SANCHEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
PURINA ANIMAL NUTRITION, LLC, and LAND O'LAKES, INC., a Minnesota corporation, Defendants.

Elizabeth Farrell Oberlin, Attorney at Law, Portland, Oregon Attorney for Plaintiff

Amy Joseph Pedersen, Ryan S. Gibson, STOEL RIVES LLP, Portland, Oregon Attorneys for Defendant.

OPINION & ORDER

MARCO A. HERNANDEZ, District Judge.

Plaintiff Armi Sanchez brings this employment discrimination action against her former employer Land O'Lakes, Inc.[1] Defendant moves for summary judgment. Because Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of retaliation, or alternatively, cannot establish pretext, Defendant's motion is granted.[2]

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was hired as a Customer Service Representative (CSR) for Defendant in November 2010. She was terminated on October 30, 2012 after having been placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) on August 29, 2012.

Plaintiff was hired by Kay Loehr who supervised Plaintiff during the entire time she worked for Defendant. According to Loehr, Plaintiff had performance problems from the beginning of her employment and despite extra training and instruction, and despite Loehr adjusting Plaintiff's responsibilities until she improved enough to resume her full duties as a CSR, Plaintiff continued to experience problems. Loehr Decl. at ¶¶ 9-33. Loehr explains that Plaintiff struggled to learn about Defendant's products, to process orders correctly, to work efficiently enough to not fall behind, and to communicate effectively with CSRs, other coworkers, and customers. Id. at ¶¶ 9-11. Despite being instructed to ask questions of her immediate co-workers within her own department before seeking assistance from employees in other departments, Plaintiff continued to direct questions to those outside the department first. Id. at ¶¶ 12, 22. Loehr explained that addressing issues within the customer service department first was important to maintain the reputation of the department and instill confidence in the company that customer service would handle orders efficiently and accurately. Id. at ¶ 12.

Loehr cites to several examples of Plaintiff's poor customer service and communication skills. E.g., Id. at ¶¶ 14, 21, 33; Exs. 5, 11, 12, 23, 33, 34 to Loehr Decl. She also cites to several examples of Plaintiff's continuing problems with her job duties of billing and processing of credits. E.g., Id. at ¶¶ 9, 17, 20, 23, 24, 33; Exs. 9, 10, 14, 15, 24, 25, 26, 29, 31, 32 to Loehr Decl.

In March 2011, several months after Plaintiff began working for Defendant, Loehr relieved Plaintiff of the duty of receiving customer orders directly by telephone or email in response to the numerous complaints she received about Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 15. Loehr's intent was to temporarily take away Plaintiff's direct customer interaction until Plaintiff improved and demonstrated she could effectively interact with customers and take their orders. Id . Loehr assigned Plaintiff to focus her time processing billing and credits placed by other CSRs. Id . This required less direct contact with customers, but still required some. Id . The change was intended to be a short-term adjustment, not a permanent reassignment. Id . The goal was to have Plaintiff "back on the phones" and handling "calls with confidence" in a month. Id . Unfortunately, Plaintiff never returned to taking customer orders on the phone during her employment. Id. at ¶¶ 17, 19.

In early 2012, Loehr completed Plaintiff's 2011 performance review and met with Plaintiff on March 29, 2012 to discuss it. Id. at ¶ 28; Exs. 17, 18 to Loehr Decl. Loehr gave Plaintiff an overall rating of "2.2-Low 2-Needs Some Improvement." Id. at ¶¶ 25, 26, 28; Ex. 17 to Loehr Decl. at 13. This was based on a 2.2 rating in two of five competencies: communication and initiative. Id. at ¶ 25; Ex. 17 to Loehr Decl. at 8, 11. Although Loehr assessed Plaintiff at a 2.5, meaning "Fully Contributing, " in the competency of "customer focus, " Loehr stated in the written performance review that while Plaintiff was a "great customer advocate, " Loehr had "learned that it is not best to put her on the front lines on the phones[.]" Ex. 17 to Loehr Decl. at 9. Instead, keeping Plaintiff "focused in other areas of billing" helped Plaintiff be more successful. Id.

Loehr reported to Jackie Jarosz, Defendant's Director of Customer Service. Loehr Decl. at ¶ 2. Jarosz required her area customer service managers, including Loehr, to attend an all-day "calibration" meeting before finalizing annual performance reviews and presenting them to the CSRs. Id. at ¶ 27. The purpose of this meeting is to try and calibrate, or standardize, performance measurements across all the CSRs company-wide. Id . Human resources representative Lisa Kuemper also attends these meetings. Id . Before the meeting, each manager summarizes his or her CSRs' performance in a standard spreadsheet which other managers review during the meeting. Id .; Ex. 18 to Loehr Decl. The meeting for the 2011 performance reviews occurred on February 17, 2012. Id. at ¶ 27. Jarosz and the other managers "generally agreed" that Plaintiff was not performing satisfactorily as a CSR and that Loehr's proposed overall score of 2.2 was appropriate. Id.

During the meeting Loehr had with Plaintiff on March 29, 2012 to deliver her 2011 performance review, Loehr read through the entire review in detail. Id. at ¶ 28. She specifically told Plaintiff that the 2.2 score meant she was not performing satisfactorily and she needed to improve her performance to remain employed with Defendant. Id.

Kuemper and Loehr spoke by phone on April 19, 2012 to discuss the two CSRs in Loehr's group who had received low 2.2 scores on their 2011 performance reviews. Id. at ¶ 29. Loehr expressed her concern that Plaintiff was not going to be able to improve and that a PIP or eventual termination may be necessary. Id . In response, Kuemper emailed Loehr the templates and examples for a PIP and encouraged her to draft one for Plaintiff. Id .; Ex. 21 to Loehr Decl. Plaintiff also spoke to Jarosz who recommended that Loehr place Plaintiff on a PIP soon. Id. at ¶ 30; Ex. 22 to Loehr Decl.

Loehr did not place Plaintiff on the PIP until August 2012. Id. at ¶¶ 31, 35, 36. Loehr explains that she wanted to give Plaintiff additional time to improve. Id. at ¶ 31. Primarily, however, she waited because the group was short-staffed and busy in the spring and early summer of 2012. Id. at ¶ 31. Her lead CSR, Karrie Page, was on maternity leave. Id . Other CSRs were out on shorter absences. Id . Quality temporary replacements were hard to find. Id . Loehr states that the previous two times she had placed an employee on a PIP, the employee quit immediately. Id . Even though Plaintiff's productivity was low, Loehr was worried that if Plaintiff responded to being placed on a PIP by quitting, the team would be even more understaffed. Id . Thus, despite Plaintiff's failure to have significant improvement in her performance, id. at ¶¶ 32, 33, Loehr waited until the end of August to issue the PIP to Plaintiff.

Loehr spoke with Kuemper about Plaintiff again in August 2012 and on August 22, 2012, Kuemper sent Loehr revised templates and recommendations regarding drafting the PIP. Id. at ¶ 35; Ex. 35 to Loehr Decl. Loehr completed her first draft of the PIP on August 23, 2012 and emailed it to Kuemper and Jarosz that day. Id .; Ex. 36 to Loehr Decl. Kuemper responded the next day, requesting some revisions. Id .; Ex. 37 to Loehr Decl. Loehr sent a revised draft to Kuemper later that day, August 24, 2012. Id .; Ex. 38 to Loehr Decl. Kuemper responded the following week, requesting that the PIP be reformatted according to the templates. Id .; Ex. 39 to Loehr Decl.

Loehr met with Plaintiff to present her with the PIP on August 29, 2012. Id. at ¶ 36. Loehr read through the PIP with Plaintiff "word-for-word" and reviewed examples of her unsatisfactory performance and communication. Id . Plaintiff was required to take online communication classes and write summaries and to discuss with Loehr how these classes could help her in her day-to-day work. Id . Loehr explained to Plaintiff that Plaintiff's communication and performance had to improve or she would be terminated. About two weeks later, Loehr briefly checked in with Plaintiff to make sure that she was clear on the PIP requirements. Id . Plaintiff had no questions. Id.

Loehr had three meetings with Plaintiff over the next several weeks to review Plaintiff's progress on the PIP. Id. at ¶¶ 37-39 (noting meetings on September 18, 2012, October 2, 2012, October 9, 2012). Although Plaintiff completed the online classes and written summaries, Loehr concluded that Plaintiff's day-to-day work was not improving. Id. at ¶ 40. Her communications to co-workers continued to be confusing and she continued to make too many "basic mistakes" processing orders and credits. Id .; see also Ex. 46 to Loehr Decl. (Oct. 10, 2012 email from Loehr to Kuemper regarding continuing problems with Plaintiff)

Loehr worked with Jarosz and Kuemper to update Plaintiff's PIP with additional examples of how Plaintiff had failed to improve her performance since being placed on the PIP. Id. at ¶ 41; Exs. 47, 48 to Loehr Decl. Subsequent emails to Kuemper from Loehr noted continued problems with Plaintiff's performance. Id .; Exs. 49, 50 to Loehr Decl.

Jarosz and Kuemper agreed with Loehr's assessment that Plaintiff was continuing to perform poorly and that she was not meeting the requirements of the PIP. Id. at ¶ 42. On October 26, 2012, Kuemper told Loehr that Plaintiff's termination was approved. Id .; Ex. 51 to Loehr Decl. Loehr terminated Plaintiff on October 30, 2012. Id . Loehr did not hire a replacement for Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 43. The credit and billing processing functions Plaintiff primarily performed were absorbed by CSRs in another part of the company. Id.

On August 21, 2012, several days before Loehr formally placed Plaintiff on the PIP, Plaintiff complained about Jennifer Chiddix, a co-worker.[3] Id. at ¶ 46; Pl.'s Ex. 8. Chiddix complained to Loehr about Plaintiff that same day. Id .; Ex. 52 to Loehr Decl. According to Loehr, Chiddix and Plaintiff had argued about a credit that Plaintiff processed incorrectly. Id . Plaintiff complained that Chiddix was rude and snapped at others. Pl.'s Ex. 8. Chiddix complained that Plaintiff was rude and defensive. Ex. 52 to Loehr Decl. Loehr immediately met with both employees. Id . While she believed both employees were to blame for "how the blowup developed, " she also felt that Plaintiff was "more at fault" because Chiddix was correct that Plaintiff had made another mistake in processing a credit. Id . The meeting ended with both employees stating that they would try to work through their issues and avoid similar arguments in the future. Id.

On the same day, August 21, 2012, another CSR reported to Loehr that CSR Olivia Bowman had "gone too far" in "bantering" with a co-worker from the warehouse, Tareak Dahini, by jokingly calling him a "mixed breed." Id. at ¶ 47. Loehr learned that it was a joke and that Dahini had laughed. Id . Nonetheless, she found it inappropriate. Id . She talked to Bowman immediately. Id . Bowman told Loehr that she herself knew it was inappropriate and had already apologized. Id . She reported to Loehr that Dahini was not offended and took it as a joke. Id . Loehr cautioned Bowman not to use language like that, even as a joke. Id . Loehr then reported the incident to Dahini's supervisor and spoke to Dahini about it herself. Id . Dahini confirmed to Loehr that he understood the comment as a joke and was not offended. Id . She told him that it was ...


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