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Graham v. Hendrix-ISA, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 13, 2017



          JOSEPH F. LEESON, JR. United States District Judge.

         Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment - Granted in Part and Denied in Part

         I. Introduction

         Rebekah Graham claims that her former employer, Hendrix-ISA LLC, demoted her because of her gender and a recent pregnancy in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

         Hendrix-ISA has moved for summary judgment. It contends that Graham's pregnancy was too temporally remote from the decisions it made about her employment for her to make out a prima facie claim of pregnancy discrimination and that Graham has not presented any evidence to support an inference of gender-based discrimination. Hendrix-ISA also contends that even if Graham can make out a prima facie claim of pregnancy - or gender - based discrimination, she has failed to present sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the legitimate reasons that it has offered for its employment decisions were just a pretext to discriminate against her.

         Hendrix-ISA is correct with respect to Graham's claim of gender-based discrimination, but Graham has presented sufficient evidence for a jury to find in her favor on her claim of pregnancy-based discrimination.

         II. Background

         Hendrix-ISA is in the business of supplying “layer chickens” to egg producers in the United States. The company was formed in January 2015 from assets acquired from three existing companies: Penn Embryo, Inc. and Pennovo, Inc., both located in Pennsylvania, and Midwest Farms, LLC, located in Virginia. At the time of the acquisition, Graham was working for Penn Embryo, having been hired in 2007 as the company's office manager. By the time of the acquisition, she was serving as both the office manager and the company's human resources administrator.

         After the acquisition was complete, Hendrix-ISA extended Graham a formal offer of employment with the newly created company. Her offer letter, dated January 16, 2015, informed her that “[a]t this time, your job title, responsibilities and rate of pay . . . will remain consistent with your current responsibilities” but cautioned that “[j]ob titles and responsibilities, along with wages and hours worked[, ] will be reviewed and are subject to change in accordance with federal and state law.” Graham Dep. Ex. P-3, ECF No. 33-7. Graham accepted.

         A few weeks later, on February 16, 2015, Graham started her maternity leave. She delivered her baby two days later. Her maternity leave lasted for approximately three months, and she returned to the office on May 13.

         Prior to her maternity leave, Graham's responsibilities included tracking the hours that employees worked, assisting with the company's payroll, keeping employee records up to date, tracking employees' vacation time, and assisting with the administration of employees' retirement plans and insurance benefits. She was also responsible for fielding human resources questions at her site, and, according to Graham, she was told by the head of Hendrix-ISA that she was “going to be the human resources liaison for the company in all locations.” Graham Dep. 90:11-13, ECF No. 33-6. She also claims that during those first few weeks with Hendrix-ISA, the head of the company described Graham, Graham's counterpart in Virginia (the office manager at the legacy Midwest Farms site), and himself as “the dream team.” Id. at 92:11-14.

         But according to Graham, all was not well. She testified that before she started her maternity leave, either the head of the company or its director of operations-she couldn't recall which-told her that she “was going on maternity leave at the wrong time.” Id. at 98:7-14. When she returned, her duties had been narrowed to only assisting with the administration of the company's health insurance plans. In her view, she had been “stripped . . . of [the] responsibilities” she had before her maternity leave. Id. at 51:3-4. The company's explanation, according to its director of finance, was that it needed Graham to focus her attention on the company's health insurance plans because those plans were set to expire, and the company needed to select a new provider and enroll all of its employees to avoid any lapses in coverage. O'Aku Dep. 198:17-199:20, ECF Nos. 33-11 to -12. In his view, this was a full-time task, and a “very, very important” one at that. Id. at 199:30-200:8.

         Meanwhile, the other duties that Graham had been performing prior to her maternity leave had been assigned to another employee, Cathlyn Weidman. Id. at 106:22-107:9. Weidman had been an employee of both Penn Embryo and Pennovo prior to the Hendrix-ISA acquisition, and, like Graham, she was offered a position with Hendrix-ISA after the acquisition. Weidman was originally hired by Penn Embryo in 2010 as an office assistant, around the same time that Graham took on the role of Penn Embryo's human resources administrator. According to Graham, Weidman was hired as her “extra set of hands” to help Graham manage the additional duties she would be assuming as human resources administrator. Graham Dep. 14:1-8. Later, in 2012, when Penn Embryo's owner founded Pennovo, Weidman was tapped to be Pennovo's office manager. Weidman served in both of those capacities-office assistant at Penn Embryo, and office manager at Pennovo-until the time of the Hendrix-ISA acquisition.

         On May 18-five days after Graham returned from her maternity leave-the head of Hendrix-ISA sent a letter to the members of the administrative team at both the Pennsylvania and Virginia locations, explaining that the company was planning a reorganization to further integrate the operations of the three legacy companies that Hendrix-ISA had acquired:

[P]art of our success strategy is building a new management team which is now in place; second is integrating the companies we acquired into the one company we have now become; this involves reorganization or restructuring. . . . This is not an easy undertaking; the restructuring process will require difficult decisions that will impact some of our team members. Changes will include out-sourcing as well as some position eliminations and changes to individual roles and responsibilities. . . . We have great team members and we value each and every one of them and truly wish we could keep all of our talents, but business realities require hard choices.

         Graham Dep. Ex. P-15, ECF No. 33-7. A little over a month later, on June 30, Graham received an email from the company's director of operations, informing her that the company had posted a set of restructured positions to an online employment site and advising her to apply to the positions that interested her. On July 10, the company's director of finance formally announced to the company that the finance departments at both the Pennsylvania and Virginia sites had been restructured, and that, going forward, they would consist of three positions at each site: an office manager/executive assistant, an office assistant/receptionist, and an accounts payable/receivable clerk. Ultimately, the head of Hendrix-ISA's parent company nixed Hendrix-ISA's plan to have three finance employees at each site, so the office assistant/receptionist position was merged with the accounts payable/receivable clerk position (creating what Hendrix-ISA refers to as the “office assistant/AP/AR position”).

         Graham and Weidman were both considered for both positions at the Pennsylvania site. In the end, the company offered Weidman the office manager/executive assistant position and offered Graham the office assistant/AP/AR position. According to the company, it chose Weidman for the office manager position because the company's directors of finance and operations believed that she was most qualified. The director of operations claims that he placed particular weight on the fact that Weidman had been serving as the office manager for Pennovo prior to the Hendrix-ISA acquisition because Pennovo, which was in the business of operating a chicken hatchery, was closer to the market segment that Hendrix-ISA planned to target than Penn Embryo, where Graham served as the office manager, which was involved in the egg vaccination business. He also pointed to the fact that Weidman had approximately a decade of experience supervising other employees in her role as the manager of a travel plaza. As for the director of finance, he claims that he chose Weidman because he had worked with her “consistently” during his time with the company and felt that her “skill set [was] consistent with what [he had] in mind for that position.” O'Aku Dep. 117:23-118:6.

         Graham ultimately turned down the office assistant position that she was offered. The position would have paid $38, 000 per year-a substantial departure from her existing salary of approximately $54, 000 per year, and not enough, in Graham's view, for her to support her family. As a result of that decision, her employment with Hendrix-ISA ended. By contrast, the office manager position offered to Weidman paid approximately $50, 000-approximately the amount that Graham had been earning.[1]

         Graham claims that Hendrix-ISA's explanation for its decision to, in effect, swap her and Weidman's roles was attributable to discrimination against her as a result of her pregnancy and on the basis of her gender, in violation of Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.[2] In her view, the selection of Weidman-her former assistant-over her for the office manager position simply made official the de facto demotion she had received when she returned from maternity leave.

         Hendrix-ISA contends that Graham cannot make out a prima facie claim of discrimination under either theory. With respect to her claim of pregnancy discrimination, Hendrix-ISA argues that Graham was no longer “affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, ” see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(k), when it decided, nearly six months after she gave birth to her child, to offer her the office assistant position instead of the office manager position. With respect to her claim of gender discrimination, Hendrix-ISA argues that Graham has not produced sufficient evidence to give rise to an inference of any gender-based discrimination.

         Hendrix-ISA also argues that if even Graham can make out a prima facie claim under one of her two theories, she has not presented sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the reasons it has articulated for bestowing the officer manager position on Weidman instead of her were merely a pretext to cover discriminatory animus.

         In addition to these merits-based disputes, the parties also disagree over whether Graham may be able to impose liability on any of Hendrix-ISA's parent companies, which Graham has ...

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