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Lizotte v. Dacotah Bank

January 7, 2010

ALFRED J. LIZOTTE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DACOTAH BANK, A SOUTH DAKOTA BANKING CORPORATION, GAYLEN W. MELGAARD, BOBBY COMPTON, AND JOE SENGER, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Daniel L. Hovland, District Judge United States District Court

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Before the Court is the Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment filed on October 20, 2009. See Docket No. 12. The Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion on November 19, 2009. See Docket No. 17. On November 24, 2009, the Defendants filed a reply brief. See Docket No. 19. The Court denies the motion for the reasons set forth below.

I. BACKGROUND

In March 2003, the plaintiff, Alfred J. Lizotte, was hired as a mortgage loan officer by Defendant Dacotah Bank to work in the Minot, North Dakota branch. Lizotte was later promoted to assistant vice president of commercial lending. At the time of the alleged wrongdoing, Defendant Gaylen W. Melgaard was the market president for Dacotah Bank in Minot, North Dakota; Defendant Bobby Compton was the human resources director of Dacotah Banks, Inc., the parent holding company of Dacotah Bank; and Defendant Joe Senger was the senior vice president of Dacotah Bank.

On May 5, 2004, Lizotte signed an employee acknowledgment form in which Lizotte agreed that either he or Dacotah Bank could terminate employment "at will, with or without cause, at any time, so long as there is no violation of applicable federal or state law." See Docket No. 16-2. The agreement also stated that it was "neither a contract for employment nor a legal document." See Docket No. 16-2.

On Thursday, November 30, 2006, Lizotte consumed approximately ten to twelve drinks at a Minot, North Dakota bar. On his way home, "and for whatever reason had the thought I have had enough of this shit" and drove to a cemetery in Minot. See Docket No. 16-6, p. 48. Lizotte took a gun out of his backseat and was standing in the cemetery when his sister arrived. In his deposition, Lizotte stated,

She approached me, asked me to give her the gun[, saying] A.J., this is stupid, don't do this. I told her I'd had enough, I don't want to be here anymore. She proceeded to grab the gun and take it away from me, and I told her to -- I said, let go unless you want to go first. You better let go. I was pissed. I was serious. And she let go and got on the phone and went over to the -- probably 30, 40 yards away from me and was on the phone with the police.

See Docket No. 16-6, p. 49. Lizotte then got into his sister's vehicle and drove away. Several police cars ended up following Lizotte to his mother's home in Minot, where he was taken into custody. Lizotte was involuntarily committed to the psychiatric inpatient unit for a period of four days following the incident.

On December 1, 2006, Lizotte called his immediate supervisor at Dacotah Bank, Doug Freeman, and told him that he was unable to come into work that morning. The following day, Compton spoke with Lizotte on the phone. On December 5, 2006, Lizotte's physician, Dr. Shamim Anwar, filled out a "Certification of Health Care Provider" which was provided by Dacotah Bank, and faxed it to Dacotah Bank in Minot. The certification stated that Lizotte could return to full work duties on December 11, 2006. See Docket No. 1-1. On December 8, 2006, Compton sent Lizotte a letter, stating, "Because of the impact of your action in the community and on the ability to perform your job, we are placing you on a Leave of Absence to allow us time to review the information and consider that issue." See Docket No. 1-2.

On December 14, 2006, Lizotte met with Compton, Melgaard, and Senger at Dacotah Bank in Minot. Lizotte was given a document to sign that indicated it was his last day of employment and, "In exchange for your agreement to the terms of this letter, we will offer you a special severance package of six thousand five hundred dollars ($6,500.00) . . ." See Docket No. 1-3. According to the complaint, Lizotte unwillingly signed the document. See Docket No. 1. On December 15, 2006, Dacotah Bank sent Lizotte a "Notification of Employee" resignation form which Lizotte did not sign. See Docket No. 1-4.

On April 9, 2007, Lizotte filed a charge of discrimination with the North Dakota Department of Labor, alleging Dacotah Bank violated the North Dakota Human Rights Act and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. On January 3, 2008, the Department of Labor issued a determination that the Department "reasonably believes a violation of applicable statutes has occurred." See Docket No. 16-5. The Department of Labor concluded:

Evaluation of the evidence DOES support [Lizotte's] allegations of discrimination because of his disability. The evidence indicates that [Lizotte] was regarded as a person with a disability and was terminated from employment for reasons relating to his perceived disability in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, and the North Dakota Human Rights Act.

See Docket No. 16-5.

On May 27, 2008, Lizotte commenced an action in state district court. Lizotte filed a complaint in federal district court on September 29, 2008. See Docket No. 1. On June 19, 2009, the state court issued an order to stay the state court proceedings until the disposition of the federal court action. See Docket No. 15-1.

The complaint alleges nine different claims: 1) disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 2) disability discrimination under the North Dakota Human Rights Act, 3) mental and emotional distress, 4) breach of contract, 5) tortious interference with prospective business relations, 6) violation of public policy, 7) false imprisonment, 8) defamation, and 9) the doctrine of respondeat superior. Lizotte does not allege that he had an actual limiting impairment at the time he was terminated. Instead, Lizotte contends he suffered discrimination because he was "regarded as" being disabled. The Defendants move for partial summary judgment, contending that Count I of the complaint (disability discrimination under the ADA) should be dismissed with prejudice as a matter of law, and the remaining counts of the complaint are state court claims with no independent basis for federal court jurisdiction that should be dismissed without prejudice.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, indicates no genuine issues of material fact exist and, therefore, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Davison v. City of Minneapolis, Minn., 490 F.3d 648, 654 (8th Cir. 2007); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Summary judgment is not appropriate if there are factual disputes that may affect the outcome of the case under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue of material fact is genuine if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id.

The Court must inquire whether the evidence presents sufficient disagreement to require the submission of the case to a jury or if it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law. Diesel Mach., Inc. v. B.R. Lee Indus., Inc., 418 F.3d 820, 832 (8th Cir. 2005). The moving party first has the burden of demonstrating an absence of genuine issues of material fact. Simpson v. Des Moines Water Works, 425 F.3d 538, 541 (8th Cir. 2005). The non-moving party "may not rely merely on allegations or denials in its own pleading; rather, its response must . . . set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2).

"Motions for summary judgment in employment discrimination cases are scrutinized more carefully because of the inherently factual nature of the inquiry and the factual standards set forth by Congress." Henderson v. Ford Motor Co., 403 F.3d 1026, 1032 (8th Cir. 2005). As such, "'summary judgment should seldom be used in employment-discrimination cases.'" Snow v. Ridgeview Med. Ctr., 128 F.3d 1201, 1205 (8th Cir. 1997) (quoting Crawford v. Runyon, 37 F.3d 1338, 1341 (8th Cir. 1994)). "Nonetheless, 'summary judgment is proper when a plaintiff fails to establish a factual dispute on an essential element of her case.'" Simpson, 425 F.3d at 542 (quoting EEOC v. Woodbridge Corp., 263 F.3d 812, 814 (8th Cir. 2001)).

III. LEGAL DISCUSSION

The complaint alleges disability discrimination under the ADA and eight different state law claims. The Defendants contend that the claim of disability discrimination under the ADA should be dismissed as a matter of law because Lizotte did not have a "disability" as defined by the ADA, and Lizotte has failed to present evidence of a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants regarded him as disabled.

The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., "seeks to eliminate unwarranted discrimination against disabled individuals in order both to guarantee those individuals equal opportunity and to provide the Nation with the benefit of their consequently increased productivity." Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 801 (1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101(a)(8), (9)). The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a "qualified individual on the basis of disability" regarding job application procedures, hiring, advancement, discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms and conditions of employment. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a).

Disability discrimination claims are evaluated under the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Simpson, 425 F.3d at 542 (citing Kratzer v. Rockwell Collins, Inc., 398 F.3d 1040, 1044 (8th Cir. 2005)). Under this framework, the plaintiff first has the burden to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Once the plaintiff makes a prima facie case, the defendant has the burden to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the defendant does so, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant's proffered reason is merely a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

A. ADA -- PRIMA FACIE CASE

In order for an employee to make out a prima facie case under the ADA, he must show: (1) he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) he suffered an adverse ...


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