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Taylor v. Cardiology Clinic, Inc.,

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

July 19, 2016

BRANDIR. TAYLOR, Plaintiff,
v.
CARDIOLOGY CLINIC, INC., and HEALTHCARE MANAGEMENT SERVICES, INC., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JACKSON L. KISER, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The parties have fully briefed the motion, and I have reviewed counsel's arguments and the relevant filings, including the materials permitted under my Order of July 8, 2016 [ECF No. 72]. For the reasons stated herein, I will grant Defendants' motion.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         On October 3, 2014, Brandi R. Taylor ("Plaintiff) filed the present action against Cardiology Clinic, Inc., ("Cardiology Clinic") and Healthcare Management Services, Inc., ("HMS") (together, "Defendants"). Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII"), she alleges that Defendants unlawfully fired her for being pregnant. (See Compl. ¶¶ 20-24, Oct. 3, 2014 [ECF No. 1].) Defendants move for summary judgment, arguing that they had too few Title VII "employees" to be a Title VII "employer."[2]

         Defendants were formally-independent but closely-related entities. Suman Chauhan ("Dolly") was "the president and owner of [HMS], " "the only officer and sole director of the corporation" as well as the "sole shareholder." (Dep. of Suman Chauhan 24:02-17, 25:09-14, Jan. 14, 2016 [ECF No. 58-11] (hereinafter "Dolly's Jan. Dep.").) Dr. Ajit Chauhan, Dolly's husband, was the sole shareholder, sole director, and sole officer of Cardiology Clinic (id at 24:18-23, 25:01-05, 25:15-18), though Dolly drew a paycheck for "supervising] and managing] the office" as Cardiology Clinic's office manager (id at 24:24-25, 25:19-22).

         Defendants' offices were on the same site in Danville (id at 21:09-23), and Defendants had a "business relationship" (id. at 9:12-13).[3] In short, HMS "leased medical health care workers for a medical practice, ... the Cardiology Clinic." (Id. at 9:15-18, 20:19-21.) HMS "manag[ed] and provid[ed] the staffing, the hiring and the firing and all HR-related issues with those leased employees." (Id. at 21:01-03.) The companies' 2013 quarterly reports to the Virginia Employment Commission ("VEC") reflect this relationship.[4] For that year, only Dolly and Dr. Chauhan are listed on Cardiology Clinic's reports (Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ex. F, at pgs. 2, 5, 8, 11, May 20, 2016 [ECF No. 58-7] (hereinafter "Cardiology Clinic's Quarterly Tax Reports")), while HMS' reports reveal a monthly average of just over thirteen "employees" (as termed by the reports). (See Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ex. E, at pgs. 2, 4, 6, May 20, 2016 [ECF No. 58-6] (hereinafter "HMS' Quarterly Tax Reports").) The biweekly payroll journals refelect similar numbers.[5] (Compare Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ex. B, May 20, 2016 [ECF No. 58-3] (hereinafter "Cardiology Clinic's 2013 Payroll Journals"), with Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ex. C, May 20, 2016 [ECF No. 58-4] (hereinafter "HMS' 2013-14 Payroll Journals") (this average not accounting for adjustments on the exhibit's cover sheet)).

         In January 2014, however, HMS dissolved. (Dolly's Jan. Dep. at 9:23-25, 10:01-02.) Cardiology Clinic absorbed several, but not all, [6] of HMS' employees and added some others. (See id. at 13:19-25, 14:05-07. Compare Cardiology Clinic's Quarterly Tax Reports at pg. 14, with HMS' Quarterly Tax Reports at pg. 10.) Essentially, Cardiology Clinic began to staff itself.[7] Having been a medical assistant at HMS since July 2013, Plaintiff was not among those retained by Cardiology Clinic in January 2014. (See Dep. of Brandi R. Taylor 9:11-17, 38:10-39:05, Feb. 1, 2016 [ECF No. 65-1] (hereinafter "Pl.'s Taylor Dep.").) For reasons explained elsewhere, see supra note 2, Plaintiff claims this to have been a discriminatory firing on account of her pregnancy (see Compl. ¶¶| 20-24).

         On the number of Defendants' employees, Plaintiff testified at her deposition that there were fifteen to sixteen-counting Dolly and Dr. Chauhan-while she was employed. (Dep. of Brandi R. Taylor 58:17-59:04, Feb. 1, 2016 [ECF No. 58-10].) She also testified that Defendants had several employees who do not appear on Defendants' VEC reports or payroll journals. "[I]n cardiolites, " there was an "Amanda" ("Amanda LNU" [Last Name Unknown]) of whose last name Plaintiff was uncertain.[8] (Pl.'s Taylor Dep. at 18:13-14.) "She was there when [Plaintiff] got there and she was there when [Plaintiff] left." (Id. at 18:21-24.) Amanda LNU worked about "three days a week, . . . Monday through Thursday ... or Tuesday through Thursday." (Id. at 19:04-06.) "Laura Fallon" was another. (Id. at 18:14-15.) Plaintiff contends she started and ended while Plaintiff was there (id at 21:01-08), but Plaintiff seemed unfamiliar with other details (see id. at 24:12-13). "Kimberly Crane" worked "for the front office, " "checking in, checking out patients." (Id. at 23:08-16.) Plaintiff testified that she started after Plaintiff and departed before her. (Id. at 23:17-20.) Handwritten in, Crane appears on a schedule for September 23-27, 2013, set to work 9:00 a.m. to 5:35 p.m., a total of 8.58 hours that week. (Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. ex. 7, at pg. 2, June 17, 2016 [ECF No. 65-7] (hereinafter "Schedule of Sept. 23-27, 2013".)[9] "Sharon Scearce" is also handwritten into that schedule, though for no days and no hours. (Id.)[10] "Lori Dixon" appears, scheduled for Monday from 9:54 a.m. to 5:05 p.m. with a total of 7.18 hours in the week of October 21-25, 2013. (Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. ex. 10, at pg. 2, June 17, 2016 [ECF No. 65-10].)[11]

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A "court shall 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Insofar as the facts are genuinely disputed, they are "viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party . . . ." Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007)). "A genuine dispute exists 'if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Wilkins v. Montgomery, 751 F.3d 214, 220 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994)). To that end, the nonmoving party must have in her favor "specific facts"-"more than conclusory allegations, mere speculation, the building of one inference upon another, or the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence." Dash v. Mavweather, 731 F.3d 303, 311 (4th Cir. 2013). All in all, summary judgment is appropriate "[w]here the unresolved issues are primarily legal rather than factual." See Koehn v. Indian Hills Cmty. Coll., 371 F.3d 394, 396 (8th Cir. 2004). A court's task is simply "to determine whether there are issues to be tried." 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2712, at 206 (2007).

         III. DISCUSSION

         "An entity can be held liable in a Title VII action only if it is an 'employer' of the complainant." Butler v. Drive Auto. Indus, of Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 404, 408 (4th Cir. 2015). This requirement begets the "employee-numerosity requirement, " by which Congress intended "[t]o spare very small businesses from Title VII liability . . . ." Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 504-05 (2006). To be a Title VII "employer, " an entity must "ha[ve] fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b) (2016).[12] A plaintiff "bears the burden of proving the number of employees, including the duration of their employment, 'with some element of precision.'" Wilson v. Comtrust LLC, 249 F.Supp.2d 993, 997 (N.D. Ill. 2003) (quoting Norman v. Levy, 767 F.Supp. 1441, 1449 (N.D. Ill. 1991)).

         At oral argument, Plaintiffs counsel conceded that, in this case, the only year in issue is 2013. Accordingly, the question is whether Defendants had requisite Title VII "employees" in that year to be a Title VII "employer." Before getting to the headcount, I consider whether the Chauhans are to be counted.[13]

         A. Except for Dolly as Cardiology Clinic's office manager, the Chauhans were not Defendants' "employees."

         I must first determine whether Dolly-the president, owner, and sole shareholder and director of HMS-and Dr. Chauhan-the sole shareholder, officer, and director of Cardiology Clinic-were "employees" of either entity.

         "[T]he answer to whether a shareholder-director is an employee or an employer cannot be decided in every case by a shorthand formula or magic phrase." Echevarria v. Insight Med., PC, 72 F.Supp.3d 442, 457 n.10 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Rather, "the focus of inquiry should be on 'the common4aw touchstone of control.'" Bragg v. Orthopaedic Assocs. of Va., Ltd., No. CIV A 206CV347, 2007 WL 702786, at *3 (E.D. Va. Mar. 2, 2007) (quoting Clackamas Gastroenterology Assocs. v. Wells ("Clackamas"), 538 U.S. 440, 449 (2003)).[14] With that focus, the Supreme Court has identified six nonexclusive factors, [15]which collapse neatly into the following:

"[A]n employer is the person, or group of persons, who owns and manages the enterprise. The employer can hire and fire employees, can assign tasks to employees and supervise their performance, and can decide how the profits and losses of the business are to be distributed. . . ." When deciding whether shareholder-directors were employees, no one factor ...

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