United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JOHN G. HEYBURN, II, District Judge.
Plaintiff Beth Ann Luckett is a former employee of Defendant DF Investment Group, Inc. ("DF Investment"). She was terminated in March 2012. She later sued, claiming she was discriminated against because of her age; DF Investment says it was simply downsizing and that there was no impermissible purpose behind her firing. In April 2014-when discovery was ongoing and scheduled to last for another five months-DF Investment filed a motion for summary judgment. DF Investment argued that summary judgment was appropriate because (1) it did not qualify for liability under the Age Discrimination Employment Act, and (2) Luckett had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court disagrees. For the following reasons, DF Investment's motion for summary judgment is denied.
The facts stated in the light most favorable to Plaintiff are as follows. Beth Ann Luckett, an Indiana resident, took employment with Defendant in November 2010. At the time, she was 55 years old. She was the Executive Assistant/Project Coordinator for Rick Merritt, the president of DF Development, LLC ("DF Development"). DF Investment, DF Development, and DF Property Management ("DF Property") are three different divisions of Denton Floyd. The divisions share office space on South Fourth Street in Louisville, Kentucky. They share equipment; operate the same computer network; have a unified website; can be reached at the same email address extension; give all employees the same handbook, regardless of division; and during Luckett's firing all 40 to 50 employees across all divisions were on the same payroll administered by the same human resources manager. Moreover, one executive, Brandon Denton, helps manage both DF Development and DF Investment. Although Luckett technically worked for DF Development, Alyssa Weingartner, a former human resources manager for DF Investment, has explained that all divisions and employees were under the DF Investment umbrella. DF Development was not a separate company. In fact, DF Investment paid Luckett's wages. Her paystubs show her checks were made out by "DF Investment Group." Under her name, the paystubs list "DIGI"-short for DF Investment Group, Inc.-as her company and DF Development as her "department."
During Luckett's employment at DF Investment, the company began using Mac computers. Luckett asked Chris Thompson, DF Property's president, why they were switching to Macs. He told her that the company wanted to project a younger image. Luckett was never provided a new Mac-she was the only DF Development employee not to receive one.
Before Luckett was terminated in March 2012-when she was 57 years old- Weingartner told Luckett that she was about to lose her job. She was not given the chance to take a lower salary. Luckett had never received negative performance reviews. Indeed, she was repeatedly told that she was meeting or exceeding expectations and received three different pay raises in her time at DF Development. She was even told in writing that she was not being fired over poor performance. Luckett was told that the company was downsizing and could no longer afford her $1, 920.20 biweekly salary. Her replacement, Shawn Willoughby, was hired-despite the company's supposed downsizing-before Luckett was terminated. Willoughby, a 38 yearold female, became the Executive Assistant to Rick Merritt-Luckett's old role-for a $1, 730.77 biweekly salary. According to Luckett, in late March Weingartner told Luckett that Weingartner knew why Willoughby was hired: it was because Willoughby was "young and pretty." Weingartner gave Luckett the contact information for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and told Luckett that she could use Weingartner as a referral.
Luckett filed this lawsuit in April 2013. She alleges termination in violation of the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, KRS § 344.040. She seeks reinstatement to her former position, as well as the salary and seniority level she would have had but-for her firing. In the alternative, she seeks front pay in lieu of reinstatement. She also seeks lost wages and benefits, liquidated damages for the ADEA violation, pre- and post-judgment interest, and costs and attorneys' fees.
Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The Court must determine whether "the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Patton v. Bearden, 8 F.3d 343, 346 (6th Cir. 1993) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986)). Viewing this case in the light most favorable to Luckett, the nonmovant, and drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor, the Court concludes that genuine issues of material fact exist and denies DF Investment's motion for summary judgment. See Bender v. Southland Corp., 749 F.2d 1205, 1210-11 (6th Cir. 1984).
DF Investment contends that summary judgment is appropriate because Luckett's claims cannot pass muster under the ADEA. To fall within the ADEA's scope, an employer must have twenty or more employees for each working day in the given statutory period. 29 U.S.C. § 630(b) (2012). This is called "the small firm exemption." See Richard Carlson, The Small Firm Exemption and the Single Employer Doctrine in Employment Discrimination Law, ST. JOHN'S L. REV., 1197, 1197-98 (2006). If a firm hires "as many as nineteen, but no more, it can terminate and refuse to hire anyone over the age of forty." Id. at 1197. Congress has exempted these small firms on the fear that the burden of compliance might otherwise overwhelm them. Id. at 1198. DF Investment claims it cannot be liable under the ADEA since Luckett worked for DF Development and, at all relevant times, DF Development had fewer than twenty employees. DF Investment maintains that DF Development had only seven employees in March 2012, when Luckett was terminated. It further states that during its "right-sizing, " four employees- including Luckett-were let go. It now has three employees. Thus, DF Development on its own would be exempt from liability under the ADEA. See 29 U.S.C. § 630(b).
The Court believes, however, that it must more carefully consider how the "single employer" or "joint enterprise" doctrine may apply here. See Carlson, The Small Firm Exemption, ST. JOHN'S L. REV. at 1201. This doctrine may apply to corporations small enough to be exempt under the ADEA, but are sometimes swept back under the law's coverage. The single employer doctrine might apply where "one corporation owns another, or where two or more corporations are owned by another entity, individual, or group of individuals." Id. It may also apply if plaintiffs can "prove that the affiliated corporations also operate to some degree as a single enterprise, such as by pursuing the same business, serving each other, and sharing common management and resources...." Id. If the requirements for the single employer doctrine are met, "then all the employees of the multi-corporate enterprise count toward the threshold for employer coverage, frequently with the result that none of the affiliated firms is exempt, no matter how small its own workforce." Id.
The Sixth Circuit utilizes the doctrine in employment discrimination cases where there is "sufficient indicia of an interrelationship between the immediate corporate employer and the affiliated corporation to justify the belief on the part of an aggrieved employee that the affiliated corporation is jointly responsible for the acts of the immediate employer." Armbruster v. Quinn, 711 F.2d 1332, 1337 (6th Cir. 1983), abrogated on other grounds by Arbaugh v. Y&H, Corp., 546 U.S. 500 (2006). It adopted a four factor test for applying the single employer doctrine: (1) the interrelation of operations, including common offices, record keeping, and shared bank accounts and equipment; (2) common management; (3) centralized control over employees and labor relations; and (4) common ownership and financial control. York v. Tennessee Crushed Stone Ass'n, 684 F.2d 360, 362 (6th Cir. 1982). Single employer status can be satisfied with as much as a "high intergrat[ion]... [of] ownership and operations" or as little as participation that "is sufficient and necessary to the total employment process' even absent total control or ultimate authority over hiring decisions.'" Armbruster, 711 F.2d at 1338 (citations omitted).
To the Court, it appears that DF Investment and DF Development are sufficiently integrated as to qualify as a single employer or joint enterprise. Indeed, it appears that all four Sixth Circuit factors are present here. First, their operations are interrelated. DF Investment and DF Development share office space on South Fourth Street in Louisville. They also share equipment, a computer network, and an email extension. All employees, regardless of division, are given the same employee handbook. And all employees, from all divisions, were on the same payroll during Luckett's employment. Second, they are under common management. At least one executive, Brandon Denton, helps manage both DF Investment and DF Development. Third, DF Investment centrally controls employees and labor relations. Again, all employees across all divisions were given the same employee handbook. Weingartner, the former H.R. manager, was responsible for all employees across all divisions. Luckett, even though she worked for DF Development, was nevertheless paid by DF Investment. ...