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Miller v. Purdue

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Pendleton Division

October 29, 2018

TAUNYA MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
SONNY PERDUE, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pro se plaintiff Taunya Miller brings this action against defendant Sonny Perdue, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging that defendant violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1691-1691f, by improperly denying plaintiff's farm Microloan applications on the basis of sex/gender and age. Plaintiff has moved for partial summary judgment (Docket No. 34), and defendant has moved for summary judgment (Docket No. 45). The Court heard oral argument on July 20, 2018. (Docket Nos. 60, 64). At the hearing, the Court denied plaintiff's Motion. Subsequently, the Court ordered, and the parties submitted, supplemental briefing. (Docket Nos. 63, 65). For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Kent Pirkle Farms was an heirloom tomato farm in Bangs, Texas. Pl. PMSJ, Ex. 31 (Docket No. 34). In July 2014, plaintiff was interested in purchasing the farm and contacted the Stephenville, Texas office of the Farm Service Agency (“FSA”), an agency within the Department of Agriculture, to discuss loan options. Id., Ex. 3; Def. MSJ, Ex. 14, at 2 (Docket No. 45-14). That month, FSA Program Technician Jane Pierce emailed plaintiff a farm ownership loan application. Plaintiff was referred to Farm Loan Manager Cynthia Kinser for further assistance. Pl. Ex. 4 (Docket No. 12).

         Plaintiff submitted three loan applications: two Microloan applications, each for $35, 000, and one Farm Ownership loan application for $176, 000. Pl. PMSJ, Ex. 3 (Docket No. 34). The FSA received the two Microloan applications on August 29, 2014, and September 3, 2014, and the Farm Ownership Loan application on September 3, 2014. Id., Ex. 2, at 4; Ex. 3, at 4; Ex. 4, at 3 (Docket Nos. 34-2 - 34-4). On September 2, 2014, plaintiff signed a contract to purchase Pirkle Farms for $200, 000, which contract referenced third-party financing of $176, 000. Pl. Ex. 24 (Docket No. 12); Def. MSJ, Ex. 5, at 1 (Docket No. 45-5).

         On September 2, 2014, the FSA sent plaintiff a Notice of Incomplete Application regarding the Microloans, requiring plaintiff to provide additional information by September 22, 2014. Def. MSJ, Exs. 6 & 7 (Docket Nos. 45-6 & 45-7). On September 9, 2014, the FSA sent plaintiff a Notice of Incomplete Application regarding the Farm Ownership Loan application, requiring additional information by September 29, 2014. Id.

         Plaintiff requested that she meet with Kinser, and the two met, along with plaintiff's husband, Ernest Miller, on September 12, 2014, at the Stephenville FSA Office to discuss her applications. They discussed the FSA's statutory and regulatory requirements, as well as plaintiff's credit issues, farm experience, operating plans. Kinser Decl. ¶ 11 (Docket No. 47).

         At some point in September, 2014, the FSA obtained a joint credit report regarding plaintiff's and her husband's credit and financial histories, while both the Ownership Loan and Microloan applications were pending. See Def. MSJ, Ex. 19 & 20 (Docket Nos. 45-19, 45-20).

         On September 29, 2014, the FSA sent plaintiff a Second Notice of Incomplete Application regarding the Farm Ownership Loan application, requiring additional information by October 9, 2014, or else that application would be withdrawn. Def. MSJ, Ex. 8 (Docket No. 45-8). On October 14, 2014, the FSA sent plaintiff a Notice of Application Withdrawal regarding the Ownership Loan application, due to plaintiff's failure to provide additional information. Id., Ex. 9 (Docket No. 45-9). On November 10, 2014, the FSA mailed plaintiff a letter denying the Microloan applications, due to plaintiff's failure to meet program eligibility and feasibility requirements. The letter explained plaintiff's reconsideration and appeal options, which had to be pursued within 30 days. Id., Ex. 10 (Docket No. 45-10). That day, plaintiff emailed Kinser to say that she had not received the mailed letter regarding the deficiencies in the Microloan applications, and would be resubmitting the applications. Id., Ex. 11 (Docket No. 45-11). Plaintiff received the Microloan denial letter December 3, 2014, within the time for filling of an appeal.

         Plaintiff did not pursue the appeal or reconsideration options described in the November 10 Denial Letter regarding the Microloan applications. Kinser Decl. ¶ 16 (Docket No. 47).

         A few days after plaintiff received the Microloan denial letter from FSA, in December 2014, Pirkle Farms was sold to another buyer. Id., Ex. 12 (Docket No. 45-12).

         On March 18, 2014, plaintiff filed a program discrimination complaint against the FSA with the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (“OASCR”), alleging sex and age discrimination in the denial of her Microloan applications. Id., Ex. 13 (Docket No. 45-13). On August 19, 2016, OASCR completed its investigation and produced a Record of Investigation. Id., Ex. 16 (Docket No. 45-16). The Early Resolution and Conciliation Division attempted mediation between the parties in September 2016 and February 2017, but they were unable to resolve the matter. Butler Decl. ¶ 4 (Docket No. 46). The matter was referred back to OASCR for a Final Agency Determination. Id. In the interim, plaintiff filed this action, and so OASCR did not make a final decision on plaintiff's complaint. Id. ¶ 5.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff commenced this action on April 28, 2017. Compl. (Docket No. 1). On May 1, 2017, she filed an Amended Complaint, correcting the spelling of defendant's name, Am. Compl. (Docket No. 7); two weeks later, she also submitted voluminous documents titled “Exhibits” (Docket No. 12). Plaintiff brings two causes of action:

(1) For violations of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (the “ECOA”), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1691-1691f, for defendant's alleged improper denial of plaintiff's farm loan applications on the basis of sex and age; and
(2) Under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq.

         On January 5, 2018, plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on discrimination claims, and on certain of defendant's affirmative defenses. (Docket No. 34). On February 28, 2018, the Court issued an Opinion and Order, holding that plaintiff was not entitled to a jury trial on her ECOA action as against the federal government (Docket No. 44), which question had arisen at an earlier status conference (Docket No. 43). On April 16, 2018, defendant moved for summary judgment. (Docket No. 45).

         The Court heard oral argument on the Motions on July 20, 2018, and at that hearing, the Court denied plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, for the reasons stated on the record, and as stated below. (Docket Nos. 60, 64). The Court also ordered, and the parties submitted, supplemental briefing on certain questions of fact and law. (Docket Nos. 63, 65).[1]

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden is on the moving party to point out the absence of any genuine issue of material fact; once the initial burden is satisfied, the burden shifts to the opponent to demonstrate through the production of probative evidence that there remains an issue of fact to be tried. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In opposing summary judgment, a party may not rely on mere allegations or denials in pleadings, but must set forth specific facts supported by competent evidence. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Far Out Prods., Inc. v. Oskar, 247 F.3d 986, 997 (9th Cir. 2001). On a motion for summary judgment, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Robi v. Reed, 173 F.3d 736, 739 (9th Cir. 1999). “A fact issue is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable [fact finder] could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Villiarimo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc., 281 F.3d 1054, 1061 (9th Cir. 2002) (quotation omitted). “The non-moving party has failed to meet its burden if the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” Intel Corp. v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 952 F.2d 1551, 1558 (9th Cir. 1991) (quotation omitted). The substantive law governing a claim ...


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