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Hoffman v. Americold Logistics, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

March 26, 2014

JOSHUA HOFFMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
AMERICOLD LOGISTICS, LLC, Defendant.

ORDER

LINDA R. READE, Chief District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

The matter before the court is Defendant Americold Logistics, LLC's ("Americold") Motion for Summary Judgment ("Motion") (docket no. 17).

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On July 8, 2013, Plaintiff Joshua Hoffman filed a one-count Petition ("Complaint") (docket no. 4) in the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Case No. LACV 078936. In the Complaint, Hoffman alleges that Americold wrongfully discharged him in violation of Iowa public policy after he filed a workers' compensation claim. On August 6, 2013, Americold removed the action to this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. Notice of Removal (docket no. 2). On February 7, 2014, Americold filed the Motion. On March 3, 2014, Hoffman filed a Resistance (docket no. 20). Americold did not file a Reply and the time to do so has now passed. See LR 7(g). Americold requests oral argument on the Motion, but the court finds that oral argument is unnecessary. The Motion is fully submitted and ready for decision.

III. SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

Hoffman is a resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is in Linn County. Americold is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Atlanta, Georgia. The amount in controversy, including damages for back pay, lost benefits, front pay, pain and suffering, punitive damages and attorneys' fees, exceeds $75, 000. See Kopp v. Kopp, 280 F.3d 883, 884-85 (8th Cir. 2002) (stating that the amount in controversy is met "when a fact finder could legally conclude, from the pleadings and proof adduced to the court before trial, that the damages that the plaintiff suffered are greater than $75, 000"). Therefore, the court is satisfied that it has subject matter jurisdiction over this dispute. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 1332 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000... and is between... citizens of different States....").

IV. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate "if 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). "A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that it could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party; a fact is material if its resolution affects the outcome of the case." Amini v. City of Minneapolis, 643 F.3d 1068, 1074 (8th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 252 (1986)), cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1144 (2012). "[U]nsupported, self-serving allegations and denials are insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact." Anuforo v. Comm'r, 614 F.3d 799, 807 (8th Cir. 2010). "To survive a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must substantiate [its] allegations with sufficient probative evidence [that] would permit a finding in [its] favor based on more than mere speculation, conjecture, or fantasy." Barber v. C1 Truck Driver Training, LLC, 656 F.3d 782, 801 (8th Cir. 2011) (second alteration in original) (quoting Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 733-34 (8th Cir. 2003)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

If there is a genuine dispute about a material fact, the court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and afford it all reasonable inferences. See Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009). However, "[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 586 (quoting Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

V. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Hoffman and affording him all reasonable inferences, the facts are these:

A. Parties

Hoffman began working for Americold in Cedar Rapids as a forklift operator on June 18, 2012. Prior to working for Americold, Hoffman worked as a forklift operator for other companies.

Americold provides temperature-controlled warehousing and logistics to the food industry in the United States and internationally. Americold operates a facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that is attached to a food production plant operated by H.J. Heinz Co. ("Heinz"). Americold stores and ships refrigerated products, including boxes of bulk soup, which come into Americold's facility via conveyor from Heinz.

B. Forklift Operation

After pallets of soup travel via conveyor from Heinz's part of the building to Americold's part of the building, forklift operators receive and check in the pallets. After receiving pallets from Heinz off the production line, forklift operators also pick product, stage product, load trucks and invert product, among other tasks. The forklifts are powered by large batteries, which must be charged on a regular basis.

C. Work Rules Policy

Pursuant to Americold's work rules policy, employees may receive one or more points, at their supervisor's discretion, for incidents or policy infractions that result in verbal or written counseling. Under the policy, employees who receive three points are subject to a suspension and employees who receive four points are subject to termination.

D. First Counseling

On October 17, 2012, Americold issued Hoffman a counseling ("First Counseling") because he did not receive and check in a pallet arriving on conveyor from Heinz while working production on September 9, 2012. The First Counseling notified Hoffman that he received one point under Americold's work rules policy and that four points would result in termination.

E. The Accident

On November 7, 2012, at approximately 7:30 p.m., Hoffman endeavored to change his forklift battery. Hoffman was trained from his first day of work not to disconnect a battery by pulling on the cables instead of the plug connections and Hoffman knew that pulling on the cables instead of the plug connections was against safety rules. While he was changing the battery, he saw a blue electrical flash and "giant spark[]s" flew into his eyes. Hoffman Accident Narrative, Americold Appendix ("Americold App'x") (docket nos. 17-3 through 17-6) at 87. Immediately after the accident, Hoffman went to his supervisor, Scott Boyer, for assistance. Boyer took Hoffman to the eye wash station and had Hoffman flush his eyes with water, and then Boyer took Hoffman to the break room. After a period of time, Hoffman's eyes were still burning and he wanted to get medical attention.

Boyer took Hoffman to Mercy Medical Center ("Mercy") where he was diagnosed with welder's burn, treated for a bruised cornea and released with a doctor's note advising him not to work for the rest of the day.

F. Accident Reports

1. Boyer's account

After taking Hoffman to Mercy and bringing him back to Americold, Boyer filled out a form entitled, "Supervisor's Report of an Accident." Supervisor's Report of an Accident ("Report"), Americold App'x at 86. In the Report, Boyer stated that an "[a]ssociate unplugged the battery by the wires not the connector." Id.

Boyer also wrote an Accident Narrative on November 7, 2012, which stated:

On the night of 11/7/2012 at roughly 7:30 pm, ... Hoffman approached me and explained that his eyes were burning [due] to disconnecting a battery from the charger. He explained that while disconnecting the battery he may have not been firmly grasping the connectors and may have pulled on the cables. I immediately took him to the eye wash station and had him flush his eyes with water and proceeded to take him to the break-room to rest. After a period of time he wanted to seek medical attention as his eyes were still burning. I took him to Mercy Medical Center where he was treated and released with a doctor[']s note for no work the rest of the night.
Upon return to the facility I was worried how [Hoffman] would get home, but his girlfriend was already waiting for him.
I did examine the battery and found that a wire had been pulled from the connector and had signs of charging. At this time we have removed it from operation.

Accident Narrative, Americold App'x at 88-89. In his deposition, Hoffman repeatedly denied that he told Boyer that he may have pulled the cables rather than the plug connector. Hoffman Deposition, Americold App'x at 15-18. However, Hoffman did give the following answers at his deposition:

Q: Is it possible that you pulled on the wire instead of ...

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