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Quinonez-Castellanos v. Performance Contractors Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

December 20, 2017

ELVIRA QUINONEZ-CASTELLANOS, Plaintiff,
v.
PERFORMANCE CONTRACTORS, INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          LEONARD T. STRAND, CHIEF JUDGE

         TABLE OF CONTENTS

         I. INTRODUCTION ................................................................................... 2

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY ........................................................................ 2

         III. RELEVANT FACTS ................................................................................ 3

         IV. ANALYSIS ............................................................................................ 9

         A. Summary Judgment Standards .............................................................. 9

         B. Plaintiff's Sex Discrimination Claims .................................................... 10

         1. Legal Standards ...................................................................... 10

         2. Prima Facie Case .................................................................... 12

         a. Employer's Legitimate Job Expectations ............................... 12

         b. Facts Giving Rise to an Inference of Sex Discrimination .......... 12

         3. Legitimate, Non-Discriminatory Reason ........................................ 15

         4. Pretext .................................................................................. 16

         C. Plaintiff's Retaliation Claims ............................................................... 18

         1. Legal Standards ...................................................................... 18

         2. Prima Facie Case .................................................................... 19

         3. Legitimate, Non-Retaliatory Reason ............................................. 22

         4. Pretext .................................................................................. 22

         D. Individual Liability As To Defendants Wood and Ehlenbach ........................ 26

         V. CONCLUSION ...................................................................................... 28

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This case is before me on a motion (Doc. No. 47) for summary judgment by defendants Performance Contractors, Inc. (PCI), Kendel Wood (Wood), Andrew Morel (Morel) and James Ehlenbach (Ehlenbach). Plaintiff Elvira Quinonez-Castellanos (Quinonez) has filed a resistance (Doc. No. 50) and defendants have filed a reply (Doc. No. 63). The parties have also completed supplemental briefing (Doc. Nos. 71 through 76). I find oral argument is unnecessary. See N.D. Ia. L. R. 7(c).

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Quinonez commenced this action on June 2, 2016, by filing a petition (Doc. No. 3) in the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County. Defendants removed the case to this court on July 5, 2016. See Doc. No. 2. Quinonez filed an amended complaint (Doc. No. 12) on August 9, 2016, that asserts the following counts:

I. Retaliation in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), Iowa Code Chapter 216, against all defendants
II. Sex discrimination in violation of the ICRA, against all defendants
III. Retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., against PCI IV. Sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, against PCI

Doc. No. 12.[1] Defendants filed their motion (Doc. No. 47) for summary judgment on July 24, 2017. Briefing and supplemental briefing concluded on October 11, 2017. A jury trial is scheduled to begin April 9, 2018. See Doc. No. 78.

         III. RELEVANT FACTS

         The following facts are undisputed except where noted otherwise: PCI was hired by CF Industries (CF) as the general contractor to build and expand CF's fertilizer plant in Sioux City, Iowa. The project started in approximately December 2013. Quinonez was hired by PCI on May 12, 2015. She had no prior construction experience and was assigned to work as a helper on the pipefitting crew. Prior to starting her employment, Quinonez acknowledged and signed PCI's discrimination, harassment and retaliation policy. She then attended orientation training, during which time she was instructed on how to make complaints about discrimination or harassment. Pursuant to PCI's policy, an employee who has a complaint must report it to his or her supervisor or to the Human Resources (HR) department. Morel was the local field HR manager assigned to the Sioux City location. Upon receipt of a complaint of harassment or discrimination, the HR manager is required to investigate the complaint.

         Quinonez was the only woman in her work group as of July 2015. She was a good worker and model employee, picking up tasks quickly and learning the various requirements of her job. In approximately August 2015, Quinonez began dating Julio Rivera, a welder who also worked for PCI on the CF project. She became pregnant with Rivera's child shortly thereafter. Rumors were circulating about her at work including: (1) she was sleeping with the majority of Jimbo Wilson's crew; (2) she was a bitch; (3) she was pregnant; (4) she did not know who the father of her unborn baby was; and (5) she was a whore.[2]

         Prior to October 23, 2015, Quinonez did not go to HR to report any of the alleged rumors or harassment. She contends she did report it to John Boles (Boles), her supervisor and foreman for PCI, but that he did not do anything about them. Quinonez alleges that before joining Boles' crew, she was told by another foreman not to pay attention to what other people were saying and to continue doing a great job.

         The parties dispute whether Quinonez began experiencing disciplinary issues around the time she found out she was pregnant in October 2015. She admits that she received a verbal warning for attendance on October 6, 2015, but had no prior warnings. She also contends that she had approval from her foreman to miss work that day. There is also a disputed issue involving a rain delay on October 14, 2015. Defendants contend Quinonez received a verbal warning after disobeying a superintendent's order to return to work after a rain delay. Quinonez asserts there was miscommunication regarding when employees should have taken their break that day and that she was not disciplined in any way over this incident. The parties also dispute whether Quinonez received a verbal warning a week later for starting an altercation with an employee over money he allegedly owed her. Quinonez admits having a conversation with this co-worker over money, but denies that she was disciplined in any way over it. The superintendent told her that if there was an issue between her and the employee they needed to deal with it away from work or Quinonez could be disciplined. She states she had no further conversation with this employee at work.

         PCI had a written policy requiring employees to wear color-coded hard hats in order to identify the position each employee held. The policy regarding hard hats was reviewed with all employees during orientation. The parties dispute the extent that this policy was enforced and whether it was critical to safety. Quinonez claims that workers regularly affixed stickers and decals of different sizes to various parts of their hard hats, including flags, symbols of wrenches, skulls, books, babies, animals, suns and earths, and that they were not disciplined or asked to remove them. Defendants contend the color-coding policy was an important aspect of PCI's safety protocol. Quinonez disagrees based on the alleged lack of enforcement.

         In any event, pipefitters wore green hard hats and their assigned color strip was white. Quinonez disputes that these hard hats were pre-striped with white tape. She also contends no one told her to put a stripe on her hard hat and other workers did not have stripes on their hard hats. She knew that different crafts were assigned different colors of hard hats with different strips of colored tape on the side. However, she did not understand PCI's policy as it applied to other markings on hard hats.

         On October 22, 2015, Quinonez came to work with a strip of red tape and a strip of white tape around the rim of her green hard hat. Boles told Quinonez that she could not have tape on her hard hat. The parties dispute what Boles said. Defendants contend he told her she could not wear any red tape on her hard hat because it indicated that she was a skilled-craft worker, such as a rigger, rather than a pipefitter helper. Quinonez contends Boles told her that she could not have tape around the rim of the hard hat. She also disputes that riggers had red tape around their hard hats. Instead, she contends that they had a rectangular strip of red tape about halfway up on each side. The parties agree that Quinonez told Boles that she was wearing the tape to represent her Mexican heritage and that Boles told her she could instead use a small sticker of the Mexican flag. Quinonez adds that Boles told her she could not have tape surrounding her hard hat, but he did not say that she could not have tape anywhere on her hard hat. Quinonez removed the tape from her hard hat.

         The next day, Quinonez returned to work with tape on her hard hat, albeit in a different location. Quinonez states she had a small decoration of red and white tape on the top back of her hard hat in a “V” shape. Defendants contend Quinonez came to work with even more tape on her hard hat.[3] They agree that Quinonez spoke with Boles, and his supervisor, Wood, shortly after clocking in.

         The parties dispute what was said during that meeting. They agree that Boles told Wood about the tape on Quinonez's hard hat the day before, but disagree as to whether Boles issued her a warning for the incident. Defendants contend that Quinonez refused to remove the new tape decoration from her hard hat as requested by Wood. Quinonez states that she did not refuse, but asked for further explanation regarding the expectations for tape on hard hats, as she did not know red tape was not allowed anywhere on her hard hat.

         The parties agree that at that time, Wood suspended Quinonez for three days for putting unapproved colored tape on her hard hat and told her that she needed to leave the jobsite to comply with the suspension. They dispute whether Quinonez refused to leave the jobsite and comply with the suspension. It is undisputed that Quinonez refused to sign the disciplinary form issued to her. Quinonez contends she asked to speak to the superintendent or someone in HR. Defendants acknowledge there was nothing inappropriate about ...


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