United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
pending before the Court are Defendant Northport Health
Services of Arkansas, LLC's ("Northport")
Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 14), which the Court construes as a
motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 12(c); Plaintiff Jennifer Coulter's
Response in Opposition (Doc. 17); and Northport's Reply
(Doc. 18). On August 21, 2019, the Court held a hearing on
the Motion, and the parties were afforded an opportunity to
present oral argument. At the close of the hearing, the Court
GRANTED the Motion from the bench. The
following Memorandum Opinion and Order sets forth in greater
detail the reasons for the Court's decision. To the
extent this Order differs from what was stated from the
bench, this Order will control.
case was originally filed in the Circuit Court of Washington
County, Arkansas. Northport removed the case to this Court on
April 17, 2019. Plaintiff Coulter alleges employment
discrimination on the basis of gender pursuant to the
Arkansas Civil Rights Act ("ACRA"), which courts
have determined should be interpreted consistently with Title
VII of the Civil Rights Act. See Crone v. United Parcel
Serv., Inc., 301 F.3d 942, 945 (8th Cir. 2002)
("The Arkansas Supreme Court looks to decisions
interpreting the federal civil rights laws in analyzing
gender discrimination claims under the Arkansas Civil Rights
Act."); Henderson v. Simmons Foods, Inc., 217
F.3d 612, 615 (8th Cir. 2000) ("Claims premised under
the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993 are analyzed in the
same manner as Title VII claims.").
basis for the Court's federal subject matter jurisdiction
is complete diversity of citizenship, as Coulter is an
Arkansas citizen, Northport is a limited liability company
composed of members that are citizens of states other than
Arkansas, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. 28
U.S.C. § 1332. The Complaint (Doc. 3) recounts how
Coulter was hired by Northport to serve as Regional
Admissions Coordinator for the Arkansas Region in mid-October
of 2017, and she began working for Northport on October 30,
2017. Northport is a company that operates long-term care
facilities in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Missouri. In
Arkansas alone, Northport operates several long-term care
facilities in and around Northwest Arkansas and the River
Valley, and Coulter, as part of her job duties, was obligated
to travel not only to facilities in Northwest Arkansas, where
she resided, but also to other facilities farther away,
including those in Fort Smith and Paris, Arkansas. She did so
much driving as part of her job that she claims she put 25,
000-28, 000 miles on her company vehicle during the ten
months she worked for Northport.
Complaint maintains that Coulter and her employer had no
issues during the first nine months of her job. Coulter did
well, and she was never disciplined. However, around August
1, 2018, Coulter was informed that her job responsibilities
were changing, and she was instructed to start her day in the
Paris facility by 8:00 am and work there until 5:00 p.m.,
three days a week. On Monday, August 6, she complained to her
supervisor, Regional Director of Operations Jeremy Green,
"that she was experiencing stress related to the new
requirement for her to be in Paris three days a week."
Id. at ¶ 21. She now had to leave her home by
6:00 a.m. each day she worked in Paris and did not return
home until around 7:00 p.m. She explained to Green that she
was a single mother trying to work out the logistics of
having a job that now involved more extensive and
time-consuming travel and a thirteen-hour work day, and
balancing those commitments with before-school and
after-school childcare, feeding her children dinner, and
attending extra-curricular evening activities. She told him
working out all this "was going to be challenging."
Id. Green told her, "Don't panic or stress
about it, we will work it out, I can be there a few days a
week also." Id.
same conversation with Green, Coulter mentioned to him
"that her eight-year-old had Back to School Open House
from 4-5 pm on Thursday (8/9/18) evening and asked if she
could attend." Id. at ¶ 22. Green told her
to spend the afternoon marketing in the Fort Smith area so
she would be closer to home and could attend the open house.
August 8, Coulter worked in Paris from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Then, on Thursday, August 9, the day of the school open
house, she spent the day in the Paris facility from 8:00 a.m.
to 2:30 p.m. The COO of the company, Robert Sprague, was at
the Paris facility that day. Coulter mentioned to him that
she would be "out on the field" marketing that
afternoon, and then would attend an open house at her
child's school. Sprague remarked, "I didn't know
you had children," and asked, "How old are
they?" Id. at ¶ 24.
following day, August 10, Coulter spent the day in Paris.
Sprague was there again, and he did not tell her that her job
performance was deficient. Several days later, on August 14,
Coulter again worked in Paris. When she got home at 7:00 p.m.
that evening, Green called her and told her to report to the
facility in Springdale the next day. When she showed up in
Springdale, she was terminated. She claims that Green opened
the discussion of her termination with the following
statement: "Because of your children and family
situation, we don't feel this is a good fit."
Id. at ¶ 28. Coulter's replacement was a
woman with no school-aged children. Id. at ¶
to Coulter, these facts state a plausible claim that she was
the victim of sex discrimination stemming from "the
perceived and real responsibilities of a single mother."
Id. at ¶ 32. She contends that Northport
violated her civil rights under the ACRA by discriminating
against her "based on gender and her responsibilities as
a single mother of school-aged children." Id.
at ¶ 33.
argues in its motion that Coulter's gender discrimination
claim should be dismissed. She stated in her Complaint that
her supervisor told her the reason why she was being
terminated was because her "children and family
situation" was "not a good fit" for the
demands of the job. Northport maintains that the facts
surrounding her employment and termination do not indicate
that she suffered gender discrimination in the workplace or
that gender-based animus motivated her firing. The law is
clear that firing someone due to their familial status or
caregiving responsibilities does not violate Title VII (or
the ACRA). See Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp.,
400 U.S. 542, 544 (1971).
the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework,
prima facie case of gender discrimination requires proof
that: (1) the plaintiff was a member of a protected class;
(2) she was qualified for her job; (3) she suffered an
adverse employment action; and (4) facts exist that give rise
to an inference of unlawful gender discrimination. Wells
v. SCI Mgmt, L.P., 469 F.3d 697, 700 (8th Cir.
2006). Here, Northport focuses on the first and fourth prongs
of the prima facie test, arguing that familial status is not
a protected class and that Coulter has failed to state facts
that would plausibly show she was terminated because of her
gender and not for any other legal reason.
responds that her Complaint is one for gender discrimination
based on sex stereotyping. Specifically, she argues that
Northport fired her because she is a single mother, and
Northport's all-male management team believed that female
workers like herself cannot simultaneously work a job and
care for their children. The Court pressed Coulter's
counsel at the hearing as to whether Northport's
assumptions about work and caregiving obligations were
specific to mothers-and, therefore, gender based-or else were
directed more generally to parents or caregivers. Counsel
responded by suggesting that Northport's use of the
phrase "family situation"-though seemingly
gender-neutral- was really "coded or veiled language for
'because you're a single mother.'" When the
Court again pressed counsel on this same point-that the facts
in the Complaint did not indicate bias or stereotyping based
on motherhood-counsel responded that "there will need to
be additional evidence to survive the summary judgment motion
later. .. but at this point there is enough to go forward
.... [and] I think that there can be an inference of
discrimination drawn from her employer specifically
identifying her as a female with caregiving