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Allison v. Farmer Bros. Co.

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

July 27, 2018

FARMER BROS. CO., d/b/a FARMER BROS, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Wayne Allison filed this action against his former employer, Farmer Bros. Co., for wrongful discharge. (Doc. 1). Farmer Bros, has moved for summary judgment on Allison's claims and requested oral argument on the same. (Doc. 31). For the reasons set forth below, Farmer Bros.' motion is granted. Farmer Bros.' request for oral argument is denied.

         I. Statement of Facts

         Wayne Allison started working for Farmer Bros, in 1983 as a route driver. (Doc. 37 at 6). During the course of his employment with Farmer Bros., Allison developed a computer tool to enhance his ability to provide coffee and equipment price quotes to customers. (Id.). Farmer Bros, eventually made Allison Direct Store Delivery Pricing Director and began using his pricing tool all around the country. (Id.).

         In 2014, Farmer Bros.' Senior Leadership Team decided to make changes in the company to increase overall market competitiveness and future growth. (Id. at ¶ 2). Company headquarters and the rest of the operation were relocated from Torrance, California, to Northlake, Texas. (Id.). Significant changes to the organization as a whole were also made, including structure, centralization, technology, and talent. Some in the company knew this process as "Project Evolution." (Id.).

         Allison's group, the Direct Store Delivery Group, was subject to this company-wide process. In January 2016, the DSD Group leader began implementing structure changes, position eliminations, and strategic initiatives aimed at improving the DSD portion of the business. (Id. at 3). At that time, numerous DSD Group employees' positions were eliminated and not replaced. (Id.). Allison became concerned that other DSD employees were being separated from the company without prior warning. (Doc. 36-2 at 40:2-41:6)). In mid-January, the leadership team arranged a conference call for company directors. Three of the directors, with long tenures with Farmer Bros., were "pulled" from the call and terminated from the company. (Doc. 36-2 at 40:2-22).

         By March 2016, Allison knew that Farmer Bros, was making changes that affected his role and that his job was in danger of being eliminated. (Doc. 36-3 at 94:13-98:3). Specifically, Allison knew that Farmer Bros, was making changes but he felt that pricing was still necessary, and hoped that if control over pricing were given to another department, he could remain useful to that department. (Id.).

         Allison's duties were gradually absorbed by the new technology and the employees in Texas. Specifically, data management became automated, so Allison was no longer needed to do data management. (Doc. 36-4 at 19:6-20:7). Additionally, a new group of employees in Texas generated the information required to make pricing decisions, so Allison was not needed to generate the same information. (Id.) According to Allison's supervisor, Scott Bixby, the changes to technology and the centralized business systems eliminated the need for Allison's position. (Id.).

         In April, Allison responded to and signed a DSD Survey and indicated that he thought the recent position eliminations and director firings were eroding the confidence and trust in the future of the company. (Doc. 38 at 7). After submitting the survey, Allison continued to express his concerns to Bixby about candor and trust within the department throughout the month. (Doc. 37 at 10). Throughout the course of May, Bixby believed Allison would remain with Farmer Bros. (Doc. 36-4 at 72:2-8). On May 25, 2016, Bixby advised Allison that the price analysis work was going to change from the "past approach" to a team approach to pricing decisions and that if it did not "feel right" to Allison that they "should talk" about him continuing to work for pricing. (Doc. 38 at 24). The next day, Allison sent an email to the management team expressing his concerns with moving forward on pricing initiatives without consulting members of the pricing team. (Id. at 13).

         Approximately a month later, Bixby emailed Farmer Bros.' head of Human Resources, Susan Gargis, regarding a "DSD People Update." (Doc. 38 at 26). In the email, Bixby advised Gargis that Allison's work in pricing "was moving to a team based approach, [so] his location/skills won't be need[sic] going forward." (Id. at 29). Shortly thereafter, Bixby requested that Allison come to Texas to discuss his performance. Allison was let go at the meeting. Allison had worked for Farmer Bros, for 33 years when he was terminated from the company. (Doc. 37 at ¶ 1). At the time his position was eliminated, Allison was working in the . pricing division in Billings, Montana. (Id.), Farmer Bros, has not replaced Allison in Montana or hired anyone else in Montana to perform the duties he had at the time his employment ended. (Doc. 33-3 at 68:22-69:5; 87:7-21).

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). An issue is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable fact finder could find for the nonmoving party and a dispute is "material" only if it could affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court "may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 130, 150 (2000); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. The Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all justifiable inferences in the non-moving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Betz v. Trainer Wortham & Co., Inc., 504 F.3d 1017, 1020-21 (9th Cir. 2007).

         A. Wrong ...

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