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Ruffner v. Ken Blanchard Co., Inc.

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

November 30, 2017



          Donald W. Molloy, District Judge United States District Court.

         In June 2016, Plaintiff Laurie Ruffner ("Ruffher") sued her former employer, Ken Blanchard Companies, Inc. ("Blanchard"), in the Montana Twenty-First Judicial District Court, Ravalli County, alleging wrongful discharge from employment (Count I) and interception of wire and electronic communications (Count II). (State Compl., Doc. 3.) In August 2016, Blanchard removed the action to this Court, (Doc. 1), and Ruffner subsequently amended her complaint to proceed solely on a claim for wrongful discharge under the Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act, MCA §§ 39-2-301, et seq. (See Amend. Compl., Doc. 28). Blanchard seeks summary judgment. (Doc. 25.) After considering the parties' briefing and oral argument, the motion is granted.


         The facts as outlined below are undisputed, (see Fact Statements, Docs. 27, 38), or viewed in the light most favorable to Ruffner, Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam).

         Blanchard is a management training and consulting firm. Ruffner was employed at Blanchard from approximately June 16, 1996 until April 18, 2016. Her last position was Director of Client Solutions. In that position, Ruffner's job responsibilities included sales for Blanchard's products and services and related customer service and account management duties. During her twenty years, Ruffner was an exemplary employee who routinely received positive feedback on her performance. However, Ruffner did not meet her annual budget sales revenue goal for 2012, 2013, and 2014. In April 2015, she was not on track to meet her 2015 goal. At that time, Gina Crosby, Ruffner's direct manager, instructed her to develop a 90-day account development plan in order to achieve or exceed her annual revenue goal. Ruffner was not the only employee to miss her sales goals nor the only employee required to prepare a 90-day plan.

         Although the parties dispute whether Ruffner ultimately met her 2015 goal, on January 27, 2016, Crosby and Felicia Davey, Senior Human Resources Director, presented Ruffner with a performance improvement plan ("PIP") that addressed her failure to meet revenue goals in previous years and identified other areas in which Crosby believed Ruffher needed to improve. Ruffher was the only employee to receive a PIP, despite the fact that four of seven other employees in Ruffher's position failed to make their annual revenue goals for 2015. Because of Ruffner's tenure with the company and Blanchard's concerns, Blanchard gave her the option of severance pay if Ruffher did not want to meet the requirements of the PIP. At the end of the January 27 meeting, Davey told Ruffner to take the next couple days off to consider her options, which Ruffner did. Due to the timing of this conversation, Ruffner did not attend the All Sales Meeting, which began the following Monday. At that meeting, employees gossiped about the status of Ruffner's employment.

         On January 29, 2016, Ruffner communicated to Mark Manning, Senior Vice President of Sales, North America, and Davey that she disagreed with the PIP and, at the same time, made a counteroffer as to severance. On February 4, 2016, Manning sent Ruffner an email supporting the PIP and indicating her severance request was too high. Ruffner responded that she did not oppose a PIP, but believed "the one presented was set up for failure" and she was "not opposed to a plan that is reasonable, allows [her] to serve [her] clients and is obtainable." (Doc. 38, ¶ 20.) Blanchard allowed Ruffher to remain on administrative leave through March 11, 2016, while she reviewed a subsequent severance offer. On March 8, 2016, Blanchard received a letter from Ruffner's attorney with another counteroffer to Blanchard's proposed severance agreement, and on March 9, 2016, Ruffher asked for additional time off through March 16, which was approved.

         On March 10, 2016, Blanchard sent a letter to Ruffner's attorney indicating she should plan to return to work on March 16. On March 16, Ruffner's attorney sent Blanchard a letter stating Ruffher would not return to work unless several conditions were met. Those conditions were that: (1) the PIP be removed, (2) her accounts returned to her in the same form they existed prior to her leave, (3) her 2016 quota adjusted from $1.6 million to $1.4 million, (4) management correct an issue related to employees stating Ruffher had been terminated, (5) she be trained in certain processes and procedures for newly launched system, (6) Blanchard not adjust, change, alter, or remove any of her sales territory in any way, and (7) Blanchard pay for all client-related travel expenses. On March 18, Blanchard responded, stating that Ruffher could return to work on March 21 and that it was willing to meet most of her conditions, except a PIP would remain in place and it could not guarantee her client list indefinitely. On March 21, Ruffner's attorney rejected Blanchard's offer, demanding the PIP be removed and seeking other clarification. Blanchard responded on March 24 with further clarification and indicated that Ruffner would need to return to work after March 31. On March 30, Ruffher's attorney once again rejected Blanchard's offer, writing, "Ms. Ruffner will return to work on the condition there is no PIP." (Doc. 38 at ¶ 33.)

         While Ruffner was on leave, service to her client accounts was disrupted and other Blanchard employees were burdened with handling her accounts in addition to their own work. On April 8, 2016, Blanchard sent another letter to Ruffner, explaining:

I understand you have stated that you will not return to work under any type of PIP. As an extraordinarily unusual accommodation to you, we will hold in abeyance the PIP that was previously provided to you, with the understanding a PIP will be put in place no later than May 1, 2016. Please know that we intend to work with you in good faith, with the assistance of an internal Executive Coach, to make some adjustments to the PIP, including the revisions we have already told you we would do, so that you feel better about it.

(Doc. 38-15.) The letter also states, "If you do not return to work on Monday, April 18, 2016, we will consider you to have voluntarily resigned your position." (Id.) Ruffner did not return to work by April 18, effectively ending her employment. In 2015, Ruffner's salary with Blanchard was $134, 510.00.

         Since her employment ended, Ruffner applied for and accepted only one position, a part-time executive director position with the Bitterroot Performing Arts Council, earning $26, 000 per year, which she started June 13, 2016. Ruffner did not look for any jobs comparable to the position she held at Blanchard.

         Summary Conclusion

         Although the amended complaint adequately pled constructive discharge as to put Blanchard on notice, Ruffner's claim fails on the merits of the undisputed facts. Additionally, Blanchard has shown that it had good cause to terminate her employment as a matter of law and Ruffher does not present a pretext argument. Consequently, summary ...

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