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Walter v. Guitar Center Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

July 31, 2017

GREGORY A. WALTER, Plaintiff,
v.
GUITAR CENTER STORES, INC. and KIRK HAMILTON, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Joseph M. Hood Senior U.S. District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Guitar Center Stores, Inc. and Kirk Hamilton's Partial Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint [DE 6], as well as Plaintiff Gregory A. Walter's Motion to Amend Complaint [DE 9]. The Motions are fully briefed and ripe for the Court's review [DE 7, 8, 10, 11]. For the reasons stated herein, Defendants' Motion is hereby GRANTED and Plaintiff's Motion is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Walter worked as a Store Manager at Guitar Center's Lexington, Kentucky location from October 2009 to March 2016. [DE 1-1, p. 5, ¶ 7-9]. During this time, he suffered from a medical condition that caused serious pain in his knees and feet. [Id. at p. 5-6, ¶ 11]. As a result, he took a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) from September 1, 2015 to November 15, 2015, and again from January 1, 2016 to February 23, 2016. [Id. at p. 7, ¶ 20]. On February 17, 2016, he submitted a Reasonable Accommodation Request to Guitar Center's Human Resources Administrator Nancy Ponce. [Id. at p. 6, ¶ 13].

         Six days later, Walter returned to work. [Id.]. Walter alleges that his supervisor, Eric Garrett, made disparaging comments about his disability. [Id. at p. 7, ¶ 16-17]. He indicates that his “superior, ” Kirk Hamilton, made similar statements about his condition. [Id.]. When Walter complained to Dennis Haffeman, Guitar Center's Vice President of Human Resources, Haffeman told him to “look in the mirror.” [Id. at p. 7, ¶ 18].

         When Walter returned to work, Guitar Center had a vacancy for a Sales and Training Manager. [Id. at p. 6, ¶ 14]. Because the position was unfilled, Walter was required to stand without breaks for the entire workday. [Id.]. He requested that Guitar Center hire an appropriate individual to resolve this problem. [Id.]. On February 25, 2016, Walter notified Garrett and Hamilton that his tasks were exacerbating his condition. [Id. at p. 8, ¶ 23]. Hamilton made more disparaging comments about Walter's condition and suggested that Walter resign if he could not walk the store. [Id.].

         That same day, Walter contacted Ponce to notify her that he still had not received approval for his Reasonable Accommodation Request. [Id. at p. 6, ¶ 13]. He submitted physician's notes to support his Request and informed her that he needed to discuss “unfavorable conditions here in the store” with her. [Id. at p. 7, ¶ 22]. She explained that Human Resources Field Representative Kenric Knecht would be handling the Request. [Id.]. However, Knecht never contacted Walter. [Id.].

         On February 26, 2016, Walter again e-mailed Ponce about his situation and explained that he was not receiving accommodation for his condition. [Id. at p. 8, ¶ 24]. Walter's supervisor, Garrett, was terminated and replaced by Ryan Flannery that same day. [Id. at p. 8, ¶ 25]. On February 29, 2016, Walter received a letter from Ponce indicating that the following accommodation had been approved, effective that same day: “when patient has a flare up, patient should be allowed to sit down and rest his feet at least fifteen to thirty minutes every two hours.” [Id. at p. 6-7, ¶ 15]. However, the accommodation was not implemented. [Id. at p. 8, ¶ 26].

         On March 4, 2016, Walter tendered his resignation to Flannery and informed him that he was resigning due to the lack of accommodation. [Id. at p. 8, ¶ 28]. Flannery claimed to be unaware that Walter was entitled to any accommodations. [Id.]. Although Walter planned to work two weeks after submitting his resignation, he was unable to come to work due to a flare up on March 7, 2016. [Id. at p. 9, ¶ 29]. When he informed Flannery that he could not work that day, Flannery responded that Walter did not need to finish up the two-week period because Guitar Center had already hired a replacement. [Id. at p. 9, ¶ 30]. Guitar Center then sent Walter a release from liability and informed him that he would not receive his final paycheck if he refused to sign it. [Id. at p. 9, ¶ 32]. Walter notified the Kentucky Department of Labor about the issue, prompting Guitar Center to send him his final paycheck. [Id. at p. 9, ¶ 33].

         On November 21, 2016, Walter filed suit against Guitar Center and Hamilton in Fayette County Circuit Court, asserting the following claims: (1) discrimination in violation of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (“KCRA”); (2) retaliation in violation of the KCRA; (3) outrageous conduct; and (4) negligent hiring and retention against Guitar Center only. [DE 1-1]. Guitar Center and Hamilton removed the case to federal court on December 16, 2016 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. [DE 1]. They then filed the instant Motion to Dismiss. [DE 6]. Once that Motion was fully briefed, Walter submitted a Motion to Amend, in which he seeks to add further detail to his retaliation claim and assert additional claims for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), constructive discharge under Kentucky law, and retaliation under the FMLA.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Guitar Center and Hamilton's Motion to Dismiss

         1. Standard of Review

         A Complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This statement should include “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly v. Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that a defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “[A] formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         2. Counts I, III, and IV

         Defendants move to dismiss Count I against Hamilton and Count III against Hamilton and Guitar Center. They also seek dismissal of Count IV against Guitar Center. Walter makes no attempt to salvage these claims in his Response. The Court has reviewed the Complaint, as well as relevant case law, and finds that partial dismissal is appropriate for the reasons stated by Defendants. Because Walter does not provide any opposing arguments, the Court will be brief in its analysis of these claims.

         a. Claim against Hamilton for Discrimination in Violation of the KCRA

         The KCRA “provide[s] for execution within the state of the policies embodied in the [federal civil rights statutes].” Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 344.020(1)(a). Accordingly, “Kentucky courts have always construed violations under the KCRA consistent with federal construction of similar violations under the federal civil rights laws.” Ky. Dep't of Corr. v. McCullough, 123 S.W.3d 130, 138 (Ky. 2003).

         Under the KCRA, it is unlawful for an employer:

[t]o fail or refuse to hire, or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of the individual's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age forty (40) and over, because the person is a qualified individual with a disability or because the individual is a smoker or nonsmoker, as long as the person complies with any workplace policy concerning smoking.

Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 344.040(1)(a); compare 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has held that an employee or supervisor who does not otherwise qualify as an “employer, ” as that term is defined in Title VII, cannot be subject to individual liability for Title VII violations. Wathen v. Gen. Elec. Co., 115 F.3d 400, 404 (6th Cir. 1997); see also 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b) (defining an “employer” as “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has fifteen or more employees … and any agent of such person”). The Sixth Circuit further stated that its ruling was “equally applicable to KRS Chapter 344” because its provisions mirror those set forth in Title VII. Id. at 405.

         As Defendants are quick to point out, there are no allegations in the Complaint to suggest that Hamilton qualifies as an “employer” under Title VII and, by extension, the KCRA. Walter simply refers to Hamilton as his “superior” throughout the Complaint. [DE 1-1, p. 7-8, ¶ 17-23]. As the above-cited case law indicates, Hamilton cannot be considered an “employer” simply because he has supervisory authority over Walter.[1] Thus, Hamilton cannot be held individually liable for disability discrimination in violation of the KCRA. Dismissal of Count I against Hamilton is appropriate.

         b. Claim of Outrage against ...


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