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Metcalf v. Oneok, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

June 12, 2019

MISTY METCALF, Plaintiff,
v.
ONEOK, INC., Defendant.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION OF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Misty Metcalf (“Metcalf”) brings this action and asserts a claim against ONEOK, Inc. for alleged violation of the Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act (“WDEA”). Presently before the Court is ONEOK's motion for summary judgment, which has been referred to the undersigned under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (Doc. 20.) The motion is fully briefed and ripe for the Court's review. (Docs. 21, 25, 26.) Having considered the parties' arguments, and for the following reasons, the Court recommends ONEOK's motion be GRANTED.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         ONEOK is in the natural gas business, and is involved in connecting natural gas supply basins with market centers. (Doc. 22 at ¶1.) In furtherance of its operations, ONEOK enters into “Enterprise Agreements” with right-of-way service entities. Id. at ¶¶ 2-3. The right-of-way companies provide services for ONEOK under their respective service agreements through the right-of-way companies' employees, agents, and contractors. Id. at ¶ 3. ONEOK receives invoices from the right-of-way companies for the services provided, and ONEOK remits payment through a direct deposit to the entities.

         U.S. Land Professionals Inc. (“U.S. Land”), a Florida corporation, is one of the right-of-way companies that provides services to ONEOK's operations in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Id. at ¶¶ 6-7. Metcalf was an employee or independent contractor for U.S. Land and worked on ONEOK projects. Id. at ¶ 10. Metcalf also previously performed services on ONEOK projects for a different right-of-way company, Dakota Land Services, Inc. Id. at ¶ 10.

         Beginning in 2015, ONEOK's need for right-of-way services decreased. Id. at ¶ 5. It communicated its declining need for services to the right-of-way companies and reduced their services. Id. U.S. Land reduced its employee and contractor base accordingly, and it discontinued employing or contracting with Metcalf. Id. at ¶¶ 11-12. Metcalf filed the instant action on March 8, 2017, alleging ONEOK violated the WDEA. (Doc. 7.)

         II. STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         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 non-moving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the non-moving 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 non-moving 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. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995) (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party's position is not sufficient.”) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In her complaint, Metcalf asserts that ONEOK violated the WDEA by discharging her without good cause. (Doc. 7 at ¶ 5.) Specifically, she argues that her discharge was wrongful because ONEOK did not have a reasonable, job-related reason for terminating her employment. Metcalf also contends that she entered an Independent Contractor Agreement with ONEOK that violated Montana's public policy and does not absolve ONEOK's violation of the WDEA.

         At issue is whether the WDEA applies to Metcalf and ONEOK's relationship, and whether Metcalf has a viable claim for relief. ONEOK disputes the WDEA's application because it contends it was not ...


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