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Cea v. Cobb-Vantress, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

August 13, 2019




         Defendant Cobb-Vantress, Inc. filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. 34) as to two claims in Plaintiff Martha Cea's Second Amended Complaint. The Court notified the parties in a text-only Order issued on July 22, 2019 (Doc. 42) that the motion would be converted to one for summary judgment under Rule 56. Further, the Court advised the parties in that same text-only Order that they were welcome to submit any supplementary briefing, documents, or other materials in support of or in opposition to the motion for summary judgment by no later than August 2, 2019. The parties submitted their supplementary briefs and materials by the deadline. Then, on August 5, Defendant requested leave to file a document that Cea referred to in her supplementary brief but did not attach. The Court granted Defendant leave to file the document, and at that point, the motion became fully ripe. After considering all the arguments and evidence submitted by the parties, the motion is GRANTED for the reasons set forth below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant's motion for summary judgment requests dismissal of two claims that appear in the Second Amended Complaint: a claim for overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") and the Arkansas Minimum Wage Act ("AMWA") and a claim for disability discrimination and retaliation under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act ("ACRA"). With respect to the overtime claim, Cea agrees it is subject to dismissal and explains that its inclusion in the Second Amended Complaint, see Doc. 32 at ¶¶30, 52, was the result of a "scrivener's error." (Doc. 36 at 1). The Court issued a prior Order that detailed the reasons why Cea's overtime claims under both statutes were subject to dismissal. See Doc. 28. Accordingly, since the claims for overtime compensation under the FLSA and/or AMWA were included in the motion for summary judgment, and Cea offered no further argument or evidence as to why they should be preserved, they are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE under Rule 56.[1]

         The second issue addressed in Defendant's summary judgment motion is Cea's claim of disability discrimination and retaliation, made pursuant to the ACRA. Defendant offers an affirmative defense that this claim was untimely filed and should be dismissed with prejudice. The Court notes that Cea filed her original complaint (Doc. 3) in the Circuit Court of Benton County, Arkansas, on November 26, 2018. The case was removed to this Court on February 7, 2019 (Doc. 1). Thereafter, Cea filed her first amended complaint (Doc. 14) on March 19, 2019. Neither the original complaint nor the first amended complaint asserted any disability-related claims. The first time such a claim was raised was in Cea's Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 32), filed on June 18, 2019. Count V of that most recent pleading contends that "Defendants violated the ACRA by discriminating against Plaintiff on the basis of her disability" by ignoring certain temporary restrictions on her ability to lift and bend, which her doctor imposed following a surgical procedure, and by increasing her workload. Id. at ¶¶ 10-16, 62. Cea further contends that she "suffered retaliation after she complained about the violations of her doctor's work restrictions" and was terminated "after she complained of the increased workload." Id. at ¶ 63.

         Defendant does not confront the substance of Cea's disability-related claim or otherwise argue that it should be dismissed on the merits.[2] Instead, Defendant confines its argument to the statute of limitations relevant to the disability claim. Defendant maintains that the claim carries with it a statute of limitations of either one year after the alleged employment discrimination occurred or within ninety days of Cea's receipt of a right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") concerning the claim, whichever date is later. The latest date that Cea allegedly suffered discrimination was June 21, 2017, her termination date. And the earliest date the disability-related claim was pleaded in this case was June 18, 2019, nearly two years later.[3] As for the right-to-sue letter, Defendant argues that Cea never made a disability claim before the EEOC, so she never exhausted the claim administratively, and the ninety-day limitations period measured from the date of the right-to-sue letter does not apply.

         Upon consideration of Defendant's statute of limitations argument, the Court found that it was capable of final resolution under Rule 56 without the need for further discovery. Cea's initial response to the motion assured the Court that she received a right-to-sue letter concerning her disability claim and filed her lawsuit within ninety days of receiving the letter. (Doc. 36 at 4). However, Cea failed to reveal when she received the right-to-sue letter, and she neglected to attach the letter to her response. Accordingly, the Court entered a text-only Order (Doc. 41) on July 16, 2019, directing Cea to file "the right-to-sue letter she received from the EEOC with respect to her disability claims by no later than July 23, 2019," in the hope of resolving the statute of limitations issue immediately. On July 22, Cea filed a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, dated August 28, 2018. See Doc. 38-1.

         The day Cea filed the right-to-sue letter, Defendant filed a motion (Doc. 39) requesting leave to provide further documentation to the Court. Specifically, Defendant argued that although Cea produced a right-to-sue letter, this letter did not pertain to any EEOC investigation of disability discrimination or retaliation claims. Instead, Cea's complaint before the EEOC only concerned claims for race/color/national origin discrimination. To prove this point, Defendant submitted "EEOC Form 5" to the Court, which details the specific charge of discrimination that Cea asked the EEOC to investigate. Cea signed Form 5 (Doc. 43 at 5) on October 4, 2017, and only checked the boxes for "race," "color," and "retaliation" discrimination.[4] The "disabilty" box was left unchecked. Further, in the narrative section of Form 5, Cea never mentioned that she suffered from a disability or was discriminated against due to a disability. The narrative portion stated in full:

I was hired on or about January 8, 1998 in Processing. My job was to vaccinate and grade thousands of baby chicks on a conveyor belt. I also sent orders to Tyson Foods. I was required to stay after my shift ended to clean the factory. From around March 2017 until June 2017, 1 was required to cover three stations which was not physically possible. On June 21, 2017, 1 complained and then I was written up and discharged.
I was told I was terminated for allegedly disrespecting the lead.
I believe that I was discharged because of my national origin, El Salvador, in violation of Title VII of the civil rights Act of 1964, as amended. I also believe that Hispanic employees as a class are denied promotions and disciplined more harshly than non-Hispanic employees, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.


         Despite what she wrote on Form 5, Cea persists in arguing that "the EEOC's investigation could have reasonably encompassed disability discrimination." (Doc. 45 at 4 (emphasis added)). Cea points out that the facts surrounding her disability claim took place at around the same time as the race/national origin discrimination claims she explicitly cited on Form 5. She also quotes from Form 5 to make the observation that she told the EEOC it was not "physically possible" for her to cover three work stations at once, and this fact put the EEOC on notice, essentially, that she was asserting a disability claim. Finally, she reminds the Court that the Defendant bears the burden of proof on summary judgment and notes that Defendant "has failed to produce any evidence that Cea did not provide facts to the EEOC related to disability discrimination." Id. In fact, Cea suggests that since this other evidence may exist, the Court should not be in a hurry to decide the statute of limitations issue just yet, but should instead give Cea the benefit of the doubt that "'supporting documentation' beyond the 'four corners' of the Charge, including the Intake Questionnaire and attached statement" exist and could establish that the EEOC did, in fact, consider her disability claim when investigating her other complaints. Id. at 5 (citation omitted).

         Of course, the content of the documents supporting the EEOC charge-including the Intake Questionnaire-should have been known to Cea at the time she filed this case, so the Court was initially confused as to why she did not simply attach these documents instead of resorting to innuendo. Fortunately, Defendant filed Cea's EEOC Intake Questionnaire on the docket (Doc. 48). The Questionnaire explicitly lists only claims for race and national origin discrimination, and not disability discrimination. (Doc. 48 at 2). One question in particular on the Questionnaire is: "Do you have a Disabilty?" And Cea responded by checking "No." Id. Finally, Cea's narrative description on the Questionnaire never mentions any facts concerning her alleged disability that now appear in Count V of the Second Amended Complaint. The Questionnaire never mentions Cea's surgery, sick leave, doctor's note, or doctor-imposed lifting and bending restrictions. Id. at 6. Although the Questionnaire does state that on June 21, 2017, Cea's supervisor ordered her to do the "impossible task" of ...

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