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Christos v. Halker Consulting, LLC

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 26, 2018

JENNIFER CHRISTOS, Plaintiff,
v.
HALKER CONSULTING, LLC, MATTHEW HALKER, and TRAVIS HUTCHINSON, Defendants.

          ORDER

          PHILIP A. BRIMMER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 26]. The Court has subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         This lawsuit arises out plaintiff Jennifer Christos' termination from Halker Consulting, LLC in May 2015. Plaintiff was hired by Halker Consulting, LLC (the “Company”) on October 28, 2013 as an Electrical Engineer III. Docket No. 26 at 4, ¶ 2. Plaintiff was an at-will employee and had no written employment contract with the Company. Id., ¶¶ 3-4; Docket No. 43 at 2, ¶¶ 3-4. On or about May 5, 2014, plaintiff began reporting to Phil Jimenez as her immediate supervisor. Docket No. 26 at 4, ¶ 5. Around this time, she also assumed the title of project manager. Id. at 4, ¶ 5. In August 2014, plaintiff complained that she was being treated unfairly by Mr. Jimenez. Id. at 5, ¶ 6. She submitted a complaint to Travis Hutchinson, the Company's former Chief Operations Officer. Id.[2] Edward Lowry, the Company's former Human Resources Director, investigated the complaint. Docket No. 43 at 2, ¶ 6.[3] In September 2014, plaintiff was taken off one project and moved to a different project. Docket No. 43 at 5, ¶¶ 43-44; Docket No. 59 at 3, ¶¶ 43-44. The parties dispute whether plaintiff was replaced on the first project by a male colleague with lesser qualifications and whether the new project involved one of the Company's most difficult clients. Docket No. 43 at 5, ¶¶ 43-44; Docket No. 59 at 3, ¶¶ 43-44. Plaintiff did not submit any further complaints about discriminatory treatment after September 2014. Docket No. 26 at 5, ¶ 7. Mr. Jimenez was terminated on December 3, 2014. Id., ¶ 8.

         On January 29, 2015, plaintiff began reporting to a new manager, Tyler Farley. Id. at 5, ¶ 9; Docket No. 43 at 3, ¶ 9. That same month, Dale Sostrom began working for the Company as a project manager. Docket No. 43 at 6, ¶ 52. At some point in early 2015, Lauren Worth, the Company's former Human Resources Manager, learned that plaintiff was pregnant. Docket No. 26 at 5, ¶ 10.[4] Plaintiff's due date was in mid- June. Docket No. 43 at 7, ¶ 59.[5] In February 2015, plaintiff was instructed to begin transitioning her work to other project managers. Docket No. 43 at 7, ¶ 56. The parties dispute whether the decision to have plaintiff transition her work was made in preparation for plaintiff's upcoming maternity leave or as a response to plaintiff's difficulties managing her workload. Id.; Docket No. 59 at 4, ¶ 56.

         In late 2014 or early 2015, the oil and gas industry experienced an economic downturn that forced the Company's management to consider layoffs. Docket No. 26 at 6, ¶¶ 12-15. David Hart, the Company's former Chief Financial Officer, identified targets for the number of employees to be included in the layoffs. Id., ¶ 16. Those targets were conveyed to the department managers, who were responsible for recommending employees for termination. Id., ¶ 17. Ms. Farley, together with subsupervisors Craig Melton, Greg Campbell, and Brianne Stebbins, used a rating matrix to rank the project managers in her department. Id. at 7, ¶¶ 18, 20; Docket No. 27-7 at 6, 106:6-9.[6] Plaintiff and Mike Molter received the two lowest scores on the matrix. Docket No. 26 at 7, ¶ 21. On May 1, 2015, plaintiff was included in a companywide layoff. Id., ¶ 25.

         Plaintiff filed her complaint on July 19, 2016. Docket No. 1. Plaintiff asserts three claims against the Company: (1) sex and pregnancy discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978; (2) retaliation under Title VII; and (3) interference with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. Id. at 6-9. Plaintiff also asserts a claim against Mr. Hutchinson and Matthew Halker, the owner of the Company, for intentional interference with contract under Colorado law. Id. at 9; see also Docket No. 27-5 at 4, 302:25-303:8 (stating that Mr. Halker was “the owner of the company”). On April 17, 2017, defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims. Docket No. 26.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 when the “movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-50 (1986). A disputed fact is “material” if under the relevant substantive law it is essential to proper disposition of the claim. Wright v. Abbott Labs., Inc., 259 F.3d 1226, 1231-32 (10th Cir. 2001). Only disputes over material facts can create a genuine issue for trial and preclude summary judgment. Faustin v. City & Cty. of Denver, 423 F.3d 1192, 1198 (10th Cir. 2005). An issue is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Allen v. Muskogee, 119 F.3d 837, 839 (10th Cir. 1997).

         Where “the moving party does not bear the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial, it may satisfy its burden at the summary judgment stage by identifying a lack of evidence for the nonmovant on an essential element of the nonmovant's claim.” Bausman v. Interstate Brands Corp., 252 F.3d 1111, 1115 (10th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 671 (10th Cir. 1998)). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works of Colo., Inc. v. City & Cty. of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but instead must designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). “To avoid summary judgment, the nonmovant must establish, at a minimum, an inference of the presence of each element essential to the case.” Bausman, 252 F.3d at 1115. When considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Title VII Discrimination

         Plaintiff asserts a claim against the Company for sex and pregnancy discrimination under Title VII. Title VII makes it unlawful “for an employer . . . to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, “Title VII's prohibition against sex discrimination applies to discrimination based on pregnancy.” Young v. United Parcel Serv. Inc., 135 S.Ct. 1338, 1343 (2015).

         Plaintiff does not provide any direct evidence that she was discriminated against on account of her sex. Accordingly, she must rely on the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 793 (1973), to prove discriminatory animus. See Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1192 (10th Cir. 2012) (a plaintiff can prove discrimination “by relying on the three-part McDonnell Douglas framework”) (internal quotation marks omitted). Under that framework, plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Id. This requires plaintiff to show three elements: (1) that she belonged to a protected class; (2) that she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. Luster v. Vilsack, 667 F.3d 1089, 1095 (10th Cir. 2011).[7] If plaintiff succeeds in establishing a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to state a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action. Sandoval v. City of Boulder, Colo., 388 F.3d 1312, 1321 (10th Cir. 2004). If defendant produces a legitimate reason, then the court must grant defendant summary judgment unless plaintiff can show a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the stated reason for the adverse action is pretextual. Id.

         “Pretext can be shown by such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence and hence infer that the employer did not act for the asserted non-discriminatory reasons.” Lobato v. N.M. Environmental Dep't, 733 F.3d 1283, 1289 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). In determining whether evidence of pretext exists, the court must “examine the facts as they appear to the person making the decision, not the plaintiff's subjective evaluation of the situation.” Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The pertinent inquiry is whether the employer “honestly believed [the reasons for its decision] and acted in good faith upon those beliefs.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Company concedes, for purposes of summary judgment, that plaintiff has established a prima facie case of discrimination. Docket No. 26 at 9. However, the Company asserts that it is entitled to summary judgment because it had two legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to terminate plaintiff's employment: (1) the Company had to make personnel cuts in order to survive an economic downturn; and (2) plaintiff received the second lowest weighted score on the rating matrix used to determine which project managers would be included in the layoff. Id. at 9-10. Plaintiff does not dispute that defendants' stated reasons for the termination satisfy defendants' burden of showing legitimate and non-discriminatory grounds. See Docket No. 59 at 5; seealso Zamora v. Elite Logistics, Inc., 478 F.3d 1160, 1165 (10th Cir. 2007) (noting employer's “exceedingly light” burden to provide legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for ...


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