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Roedocker v. Farstad Oil, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

January 19, 2018

FARSTAD OIL, INC., Defendant.



         Plaintiff Richard Roedocker brings this wrongful discharge action against Defendant Farstad Oil, Inc. (“Farstad”).

         Now pending is Farstad's Motion for Summary Judgment (the “Motion”). (Doc. 39.) Having reviewed the parties' briefs and attendant exhibits, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that Farstad's Motion be denied.

         I. Pertinent Facts

         Farstad sells and distributes refined petroleum products on a wholesale basis. (Doc. 45 at ¶ 1.) Farstad is headquartered in Minot, ND, and has a branch in Billings, MT. (Id. at ¶ 2.) Farstad and its associated retail business, Superpumper, comprise SPF Energy (“SPF”); SPF was purchased by Parkland Fuel Corp. (“Parkland”) in January of 2014. (Id. at ¶¶ 3-4.) Merv Carter became the Director of Sales and Operations for Farstad following Parkland's acquisition of SPF. (Id. at ¶ 5.)

         Roedocker began working for Farstad in 1991. (Id. at ¶ 87.) At the time Parkland acquired Farstad, Roedocker was Branch Manager of the Billings branch, and he reported directly to Carter following the acquisition. (Id. at ¶¶ 14, 15.)

         During his first meeting with Carter in January, 2014, Roedocker discussed his concern with Farstad's practice of “commingling” petroleum product, which is the practice of substituting unbranded product for branded product (Id. at ¶ 18.) That is, supplying branded stations, such as Exxon, Conoco, or Cenex, with a different brand of fuel. (Id. at ¶¶ 166-167.) According to Roedecker, Farstad's commingling practice constituted deceptive mislabeling of fuel products, and resulted in providing customers with a less desirable fuel product than they contracted for. (Id. at ¶ 28.) Roedocker also discussed the issue of commingling with Carter in at least two subsequent telephone calls over the next sixteen months. (Id. at ¶ 20.) Roedocker maintains that Carter dismissed his concerns, citing the need for corporate profits. (Id. at ¶ 21.)

         Carter became critical of Roedocker's “communication” skills following the Parkland acquisition. According to Farstad, Roedocker's communication deficiencies included failing to report workplace events that Roedocker was required to report, failing to explain adequately details of contracts he arranged so that others within the company could understand them, and communicating with coworkers “loudly, aggressively, and bluntly.” (Id. at ¶¶ 38-71.) This communication issue is a source of considerable dispute between the parties. Farstad maintains that Carter's complaints about Roedocker's communication described legitimate deficiencies he sought to correct in an employee. Roedocker generally denies that he had communication problems, and specifically denies several of the events Farstad cites as examples of Roedocker's poor communication. (See, e.g., Id. at ¶ 50.) Rather, Roedocker interprets the complaints about his communication as an effort to pad his employee file with nebulous and impossible-to-disprove violations to justify his eventual termination. Regardless of the parties' dispute as to the legitimacy of Roedocker's communication problem, it is undisputed that Roedocker's communication was the subject of several discussions between Carter and Roedocker, and resulted in multiple written corrective warnings. (Id. at ¶¶ 46, 59, 64.)

         On January 12, 2015, several managerial-level employees in various locations participated in a teleconference meeting. (Doc. 16 at ¶ 17.) Relevant parties to the meeting included Roedocker, Safety Manager Roger Pelzer, and Minot Branch Manager Lori Thom. (Doc. 45 at ¶ 72.) Roedocker asserts that Pelzer objected to certain issues Thom raised during the meeting, and that Pelzer sent Roedocker a text message, stating “[w]hat's the f***ing b**ch doing?” (Id. at 72.) Roedocker responded with a text to Pelzer in which he referred to Thom as a “c**t.” (Id.) According to Pelzer's testimony, Pelzer informed Farstad Human Resources Manager Natalie Mussell about Roedocker's text message immediately after the meeting. (Id. at ¶ 110.) No action was taken on the text message for the next four months.

         At a subsequent managers meeting on April 28, 2015, Roedocker again raised the commingling issue. (Doc. 45 at ¶ 31.) On this occasion, he reportedly voiced his concern that Farstad's Minot branch had provided the Fargo and Billings branches with an inferior quality diesel fuel, and had overcharged the other branches for the type of fuel they received. (Id. at 32.) According to Roedocker, raising the commingling issue again in this environment angered Carter. (Id. at ¶¶ 28, 34.)

         Shortly thereafter, Mussell, in her capacity as Farstad's Human Resources Director, initiated an investigation into Roedocker's text message to Pelzer. (Doc. 43-1 at 169:13-170:2.) While the exact date is unclear, Carter testified that Mussell informed him of the offensive text message from Roedocker in “kind of mid-May” of 2015, and the investigation was initiated soon thereafter. (Id. at ¶ 73; see also Doc. 43-1 at 168:25-170:2.) Farstad has provided no explanation for the four-month delay in taking any action on the text message.

         Roedocker admitted during the investigation that he sent the text message, and Carter terminated Roedocker's employment from Farstad on May 21, 2015. (Id. at ¶¶ 73, 83.) The document memorializing Roedocker's termination (the “Termination Decision”) discusses the various written corrective warnings Roedocker received, the issues surrounding his communication, and finally the text message he sent about Thom. (Doc. 43-15.) The Termination Decision concludes, “[d]ue to the seriousness of the remark from a leader of SPF Energy and overall poor communication, [Roedocker's] employment with SPF Energy is being terminated effective immediately.” (Id. at 2.)

         The Court will discuss additional facts below as necessary.

         II. Parties' Arguments

         Farstad argues that summary judgment is proper in this case because the undisputed facts demonstrate that it had good cause to terminate Roedocker. It dismisses as purely speculative, and therefore insufficient to defeat summary judgment, Roedocker's claims that (1) the text message issue is a pretext to disguise the actual basis for termination, and (2) that he was terminated in retaliation for raising the commingling issue.

         In response, Roedocker argues that there are disputed issues of material fact surrounding: (1) whether he was terminated for good cause; (2) whether the stated reason for his discharge, even if it could constitute good cause, was merely a pretext; and (3) whether he was terminated for reporting a violation of public policy. Based on those alleged factual issues, Roedocker argues that summary judgment is improper.

         The parties' arguments will be discussed in greater detail below as appropriate.

         III. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. “Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

         The party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23. If the moving party fails to discharge this initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party's evidence. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60 (1970).

         If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings and by ‘the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The opposing party cannot defeat summary judgment merely by demonstrating “that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Triton Energy Corp. v. ...

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