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Schulz v. JTL Group, Inc.

Supreme Court of Montana

November 27, 2018

TYE SCHULZ, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
JTL GROUP, INC., d/b/a/ KNIFE-RIVER, Defendant and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: September 26, 2018

          District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DV-17-0252 Honorable Gregory R. Todd, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Ben T. Sather, Sather Law, PLLC, Billings, Montana

          For Appellee: Harlan B. Krogh, Crist, Krogh & Nord, PLLC, Billings, Montana

          OPINION

          James Jeremiah Shea, Justice.

         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Tye Schulz appeals the Order of the Thirteenth Judicial District, Yellowstone County, granting JTL Group, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment. We affirm.

         ¶3 Schulz worked for JTL Group, Inc. (known as "Knife-River") in various capacities for twenty-nine years. In 2016, Schulz was working as a Project Superintendent. Schulz reported directly to Project Manager Eric Van Hemelryck, and Van Hemelryck reported directly to General Manager J. Halvor Fuglevand.

         ¶4 On March 21, 2016, Schulz and two other Knife-River employees were working on a job near Lodge Grass, when Schulz discovered that fuel was siphoned from company equipment left on the job site. On March 23, 2016, Schulz arrived on the job site to find wet and muddy conditions due to recent rain and snow. Schulz and another employee got their vehicles stuck, and Schulz stated he "needed to get his pickup unstuck with the [company] bulldozer." Schulz shut down the job site because of the poor conditions. Schulz and the other employee then noticed some of the heavy equipment had again been vandalized: padlocks and battery cables had been cut and fuel and batteries were stolen.

         ¶5 Schulz traveled about a mile from the job site, where there was cellular service, and called Van Hemelryck to report the vandalism. Van Hemelryck instructed Schulz to: (1) report the vandalism to the Big Horn County Sheriff's Department; (2) take photographs of the damaged equipment; and (3) contact a private landowner to make arrangements to store the heavy equipment on the landowner's property adjacent to the job site.[1] Schulz called the landowner, who lived roughly a half-mile up the road, but was unable to reach him. At 8:31 a.m., Schulz called the Big Horn County Sheriff's Department to report the vandalism. Schulz arranged to meet Deputy Mike Colvin at a specific mile marker along the road. While waiting at the designated mile marker, Schulz "did the incident report . . . and took some pictures . . . ." Schulz claimed he did not travel the half-mile to the landowner's property to attempt to make arrangements because he did not want to miss Deputy Colvin's arrival. It is unclear whether the other employee was still present at the job site, but Schulz did not send any employees to make arrangements with the landowner. At 10:55 a.m., Deputy Colvin arrived. While Schulz conversed with Deputy Colvin, the landowner drove by the job site and stopped to speak briefly with Schulz. Schulz stated that,

I told [the landowner] that I needed to get with him to try and make an arrangement to maybe put equipment on his land, but he had to get to town, and I had to get with the sheriff to do that report, so I never actually got to really meet with [the landowner] on that subject.

         At 11:11 a.m., Schulz concluded his report with Deputy Colvin. Schulz then returned to Billings, arriving around 1:00 p.m. Schulz reported to Knife-River's West End shop and delivered the photographs of the damaged equipment.

         ¶6 Around 3:30 p.m., Schulz went to Knife-River's administrative offices, also located in Billings. There, Fuglevand and Van Hemelryck questioned Schulz about whether he had secured the heavy equipment. Schulz stated that he had not, and he suggested hiring a night watchman to guard the equipment. Fuglevand and Van Hemelryck rejected that suggestion and instructed Schulz to return to the job site to make an agreement with the landowner and to move the equipment onto the private property. Schulz objected, arguing the ground was "slop" and not suitable for moving heavy equipment. Fuglevand disagreed, and stated that it would not be a problem to move "tracked and all-wheel-drive construction equipment over muddy ground . . . ." Fuglevand again instructed Schulz to return to the job site and secure the equipment. Schulz responded, "I can't do that." Following this refusal, Fuglevand told Schulz, "[y]ou're done then." Schulz demanded a termination slip, which Fuglevand provided to him. The termination slip stated that Schulz was terminated because he had refused to perform his duty to secure company equipment. That evening, Van Hemelryck went to the job site. Van Hemelryck made a verbal agreement with the landowner that Knife-River would blade the landowner's road in exchange for allowing Knife-River to move the equipment onto the landowner's property. Van Hemelryck and another employee then moved the heavy equipment to the property.

         ¶7 On February 15, 2017, Schulz filed a wrongful discharge suit against Knife-River, alleging Knife-River lacked good cause to terminate his employment.[2] On December 29, 2017, Knife-River moved for summary judgment. On February 14, 2018, ...


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