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Wright v. Mountain View Lawn Care, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 11, 2016

LISA G. WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
MOUNTAIN VIEW LAWN CARE, LLC, et al., Defendants,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Hon. Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge

This employment action is before the court on the motion to dismiss filed by defendant U.S. Lawns, Inc., pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (ECF No. 9). U.S. Lawns argues that the complaint filed by plaintiff Lisa G. Wright fails to allege facts sufficient to establish that it was her employer for purposes of Title VII. Following a hearing on August 17, 2015, the court ordered a period of discovery. The parties filed supplemental briefs and supporting evidence and appeared before the court on March 9, 2016 to present additional argument.

Both parties have presented evidence outside of the pleadings in conjunction with this motion. As such, the court will convert it from a motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment, as required by Rule 12(d). Having carefully considered the evidence and arguments raised by counsel in multiple briefs and at two separate hearings, the court concludes that U.S. Lawns is not Wright's statutory employer under Title VII. Applying the factors outlined by the Fourth Circuit in Butler v. Drive Automotive Industries of America. Inc., 793 F.3d 404 (4th Cir. 2015), the court finds that U.S. Lawns and Mountain View were not Wright's joint employers for purposes of Title VII liability. Nor can U.S. Lawns be held liable under the single, integrated employer theory of liability or an apparent agency theory. U.S. Lawn's motion therefore will be GRANTED and Wright's claims against U.S. Lawns DISMISSED.

I.

Plaintiff Lisa Wright filed her complaint on May 11, 2015, alleging gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation in violation of Tide VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seg., against Mountain View Lawn Care, LLC and U.S. Lawns, Inc. Wright alleges she began work "for U.S. Lawns (plaintiff is not certain of the precise legal name of her employer or the legal relationship, if any, between Mountain View Lawn Care LLC and U.S. Lawns, Inc.)" in March 2014 as a landscapes Compl., ECF No. 1, at 7. She further alleges that:

(6) On information and belief, defendant Mountain View Lawn Care LLC and U.S. Lawns, Inc. are corporate entities doing business in the western district of Virginia and elsewhere. At all times material hereto defendants operated as a "joint employer" under federal law and are and were a "person" within the meaning of Tide VII, Section 701, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(a). On information and belief, at all times material hereto defendant is and was an "employer" within the meaning of Tide VII, Section 701, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b), that is, at all times material hereto defendant is and was a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce which had fifteen (15) or more employees for each working day in each of twenty (20) or more calendar weeks during the years of plaintiffs employment or the preceding calendar year.

Id. at ¶ 6. Wright claims that management told her she was employed by U.S. Lawns, id at ¶ 9, and she attaches as an exhibit to the complaint a letter dated May 30, 2014, written on U.S. Lawns' letterhead, stating Wright "has been employed with U.S. Lawns since 3/25/14, " Id. at ¶ 9, Ex. 1.

U.S. Lawns disputes that it is Wright's employer, however, arguing she was employed by defendant Mountain View Lawn Care, LLC, an independently-owned franchise of U.S. Lawns operating out of Roanoke, Virginia, that does business as U.S. Lawns of Roanoke. U.S. Lawns filed a motion to dismiss Wright's complaint and attached to its brief the Declaration of Pam Dolan, Business Management Director at U.S. Lawns, who attests that Wright "has never been an employee of U.S. Lawns. She worked solely in Roanoke, Virginia for Mountain View and was supervised by Mountain View employees and members." Dolan Dec!., ECF No. 10-1, at ¶ 6. Wright thereafter moved to compel discovery or, in the alternative, to strike Dolan's declaration from the record. See ECF No. 15. Following a hearing held on August 17, 2015, the court entered an order allowing Wright to conduct limited discovery on the issue of the corporate relationship between Mountain View and U.S. Lawns and whether there is any factual basis in this case to support a joint employer or single, integrated employer theory of liability.

Wright and Mountain View subsequently reached a resolution of plaintiff s claims against that defendant.[1] The only issue left to resolve, therefore, is whether U.S. Lawns was Wright's employer within the meaning of Tide VII. To that end, both U.S. Lawns and Wright have submitted supplemental briefs and evidence for the court's consideration and appeared for a supplemental hearing on March 9, 2016.

Wright asserts that because she has alleged Mountain View and U.S. Lawns were her joint employers, she has met the requirements of Tide VII. Wright points to information provided in discovery that shows U.S. Lawns and Mountain View maintain a franchisor / franchisee relationship. According to Wright, the franchise agreement reveals that U.S. Lawns provides "extensive support" to Mountain View, PL's Suppl. Br., ECF No. 37, at 14, and exerts sufficient control over the franchisee such that it should be considered a joint employer under the test outlined in Buder v. Drive Automotive Industries of America. Inc., 793 F.3d 404 (4th Cir. 2015). In the alternative, Wright argues that U.S. Lawns and Mountain View should be considered a single, integrated employer for jurisdictional purposes, or that U.S. Lawns should be held liable under an apparent agency theory.

U.S. Lawns counters that it is simply a franchisor that allows franchisees to conduct business using its brand name, so long as certain standards are met, and makes available training and other resources, but has no role in recruiting, hiring, firing, or supervising Mountain View employees like Wright. Thus, it lacks the control necessary to be considered a joint employer under Butler. Even if it were a joint employer, however, U.S. Lawns argues that Wright still cannot meet the 15 employee threshold requirement under Tide VII, as only those directly employed by Mountain View and jointly employed by Mountain View and U.S. Lawns can be aggregated to meet this numerosity requirement. Because Mountain View employed only 6 to 7 employees during the relevant period and none of U.S. Lawns' approximately 56 employees were jointly employed by Mountain View, Wright's claim still fails according to U.S. Lawns. U.S. Lawns further maintains that it and its franchisee Mountain View do not constitute a single, integrated enterprise for purposes of the Tide VII statutory scheme and, therefore, Wright's claims against it should be dismissed.

II.

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a dismissal when a plaintiff fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." To survive-a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient "facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Ad. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544. 570 (2007). The complaint's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 555.

If matters outside of the pleadings are presented in connection with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion and are not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court must "grant summary judgment 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." See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett. 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Glynn v. EDO Corp., 710 F.3d 209, 213 (4th Cir. 2013). In making this determination, the court should consider "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with . . . [any] affidavits" filed by the parties. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Whether a fact is material depends on the relevant substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id. (citation omitted). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).

In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court views the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Glynn. 710 F.3d at 213 (citing Bonds v. Leavitt. 629 F.3d 369, 380 (4th Cir. 2011)). Indeed, "[i]t is an 'axiom that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.'" McAirlaids. Inc. v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 756 F.3d 307, 310 (4th Cir. 2014) (internal alteration omitted) (citing Tolan v. Cotton. 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863 (2014) (per curiam)). However, the non-moving party "must set forth specific facts that go beyond the 'mere existence of a scintilla of evidence.'" Glynn. 710 F.3d at 213 (quoting Anderson. 477 U.S. at 252). The non-moving party must show that "there is sufficient evidence favoring the non[-]moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Res. Bankshares Corp. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 407 F.3d 631, 635 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson. 477 U.S. at 249). "In other words, to grant summary judgment the Court must determine that no reasonable jury could find for the non[-]moving party on the evidence before it." Moss v. Parks Corp., 985 F.2d 736, 738 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing Perini Corp. v. Perini Const., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990)).

III.

U.S. Lawns can be held liable in this Title VII action only if it is Wright's statutory employer. Title VII defines "employer" as "a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year, and any agent of such a person. . . ." 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e. Wright alleges that U.S. Lawns and Mountain View were her "joint employers" and collectively meet the numerosity requirement of § 2000e. The Fourth Circuit recently determined that multiple entities may simultaneously be considered employers for purposes of Title VII.[2] In Butler v. Drive Automotive Industries of America, Inc., 793 F.3d 404 (4th Cir. 2015), the court expressly adopted the joint employment doctrine and made it the law of this Circuit.

"The basis for the finding that two companies are 'joint employers' is that 'one employer while contracting in good faith with an otherwise independent company, has retained for itself sufficient control of the terms and conditions of employment of the employees who are employed by the other employer."' Torres-Negron v. Merck & Co.,488 F.3d 34, 40 n.6 (1st Cir. 2007) (quoting ...

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