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Woodbury v. Victory Van Lines

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 6, 2018

VICTORY VAN LINES, d/b/a Great Nations Van Lines, LLC, now Great Nation Moving, LLC, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Shera Woodbury, who is self-represented, has brought this action against her former employer, Victory Van Lines (“Victory”), owned by Great Nation Moving, LLC (“Great Nation”), and Great Nation's principal owner, Sherif Yanuzov, [1] alleging that she was subjected to employment discrimination on the basis of sex, national origin, and disability. On December 21, 2017, this Court issued a Memorandum Opinion dismissing all of Woodbury's claims except those brought against Victory pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (2012), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112 to 12117 (2012). Pending before the Court is Victory's Motion for Summary Judgment on the grounds that it was not a “covered” employer under Title VII and the ADA because it did not have 15 or more employees at the time of the alleged discrimination. Having reviewed the submitted materials, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED.


         Woodbury worked as a relocation specialist for Victory, a moving company, from March 2012 until she was terminated on April 4, 2014. Woodbury is a woman, born in North America, who suffers from a neurological disorder that causes seizures. She alleges that Victory discriminated against her based on these traits by subjecting her to unequal terms of employment and by terminating her employment. The Court has set forth the factual and procedural background for Woodbury's allegations in its December 21, 2017 Memorandum Opinion on the Motion to Dismiss. Woodbury v. Victory Van Lines, 286 F.Supp.3d 685, 690-91 (D. Md. 2017).

         On April 18, 2017, Yanuzov and Victory filed a Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment in which Defendants asserted, as relevant here, that the Title VII and ADA claims should be dismissed because Victory is not an employer under those statutes because it lacked 15 employees at the time of the alleged discrimination. Attached to that Motion were certain tax and pay records and an affidavit from Yanuzov, which Defendants offered as evidence that Victory had fewer than 15 employees in the years 2013 and 2014. In her memorandum in opposition to the motion, Woodbury asserted that she knows that Victory had 20 to 30 employees because she “has personally been responsible” for scheduling them, argued that Yanuzov and his wife should be counted as employees, and claimed that Victory left out relevant documents from its submission. Opp'n Mot. Dismiss at 2-3, ECF No. 38. The Court declined to consider the submitted documents, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d), denied the Motion to Dismiss as to that argument, and granted the parties limited discovery on the number of Victory employees in 2013 and 2014.

         After the completion of the limited discovery period, Victory filed the pending Motion for Summary Judgment on the grounds that Victory did not have 15 employees and thus is not subject to liability under Title VII or the ADA. In support of the Motion, Victory has submitted an affidavit from Yanuzov stating that Victory has never employed 15 or more individuals at the same time; Yanuzov never turned away any prospective employees because Victory was fully staffed; and Yanuzov and his wife, Milena Zaimova, are the sole owners of Victory. Victory has also submitted tax and pay records relating to 20 individuals for 2013 and 16 individuals for 2014. The records reveal that for 2013, 12 individuals worked for Victory for 20 or more weeks, and that for 2014, 13 individuals worked for Victory for that length of time or more. In her deposition testimony, however, Woodbury stated that she personally observed at least 10 additional employees who worked at Victory for more than 20 weeks in the relevant timeframe, six of whom she identified by first name-“Vasko, ” “Teti, ” “Stanko, ” “Emmanuel, ” “Marlo, ” and “David”-and four of whom she pointed out in photographs but could not identify by name.


         The sole issue in Victory's Motion for Summary Judgment is whether Victory is a covered employer under Title VII and the ADA based on its number of employees in 2013 and 2014. Victory asserts that it is not a covered employer because the pay records definitively establish that it had fewer than 15 employees who worked more than 20 weeks during both years; Victory's owners are properly not counted as employees for purposes of this calculation; and Woodbury's asserted facts and evidence are insufficient to create a genuine dispute on the number of Victory employees and the number of weeks they worked in the relevant years. Woodbury counters that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the number of employees based on her personal observations during her tenure at Victory, because Victory has falsified and omitted employees from its pay records, and because the EEOC's alleged finding that Victory had more than 15 employees should bind this Court.

         Victory also argues that, if the Court finds that Victory is a covered employer, its Motion should still be granted on the ground that Victory articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Woodbury's employment. Because discovery to date has been limited to the issue of the number of employees at Victory, the Court will not consider this argument.

         I. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the Court grants summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In assessing the Motion, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, with all justifiable inferences drawn in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The Court may rely only on facts supported in the record, not simply assertions in the pleadings. Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute of material fact is only “genuine” if sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party exists for the trier of fact to return a verdict for that party. Id. at 248-49.

         II. EEOC Finding

         The Court begins by addressing Woodbury's argument that the Court is bound by a prior determination by the EEOC that Victory had 15 or more employees in 2013 or 2014. In asserting this argument, Woodbury relies on the Dismissal and Notice of Rights Letter (“Right to Sue Letter”), issued by the EEOC on August 5, 2015, which stated that the EEOC closed its file on Woodbury's charge because it had “adopted the findings of the state or local fair employment practices agency that investigated this charge.” Right to Sue Letter at 2, Opp'n Mot. Dismiss Ex. 1, ECF No. 17-1. Woodbury argues that had the EEOC concluded that her case could not proceed because Victory had less than 15 employees, the Right to Sue Letter would have stated that conclusion, such as by checking the box noting that the case was closed because “[t]he Respondent employs less than the required number of employees or is not otherwise covered by the statutes.” Id. The Right to Sue Letter, however, does not purport to include an exhaustive list of the reasons why the EEOC could have closed its investigation into Woodbury's claims. In fact, the Right to Sue Letter references the fact that Woodbury's charge had been filed with the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights (“MCOHR”), and that the EEOC had simply adopted the MCOHR's findings without necessarily conducting an independent investigation. Thus, it is not reasonable to infer that the EEOC made a finding on whether Victory had 15 or more employees. Moreover, where Woodbury has not submitted any records reflecting MCOHR's specific findings, the Court lacks a basis to conclude that the MCOHR made a finding whether Victory had 15 or more employees.

         Even if Woodbury had shown that the EEOC or MCOHR had made a finding on the number of Victory employees during the relevant time period, Victory is correct that such a finding “would be, at best, a tentative conclusion.” Reply Mot. Summ. J. at 4, ECF No. 63. Indeed, an EEOC Right to Sue letter does not resolve issues with finality: it informs the charging party that the EEOC has found no violation of law but that the charging party may nevertheless file suit seeking an independent determination by a federal court. See EEOC Form 161 (rev. Nov. 2009) (stating that, despite the EEOC's failure to find reasonable cause, the petitioner retains the right to “pursue [the] matter further” by filing a lawsuit within 90 days). Notably, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has held that an EEOC Letter of Determination of Reasonable Cause, a separate form letter issued when the EEOC finds reasonable cause to conclude that discrimination has occurred, is “merely preparatory to further proceedings.” Georator Corp. v. EEOC, 592 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1979) (stating that an EEOC determination of reasonable cause, standing alone, “is lifeless, and can fix no obligation nor impose any liability on [the employer]”); see EEOC v. Harvey L. Walner & Assocs., 91 F.3d 963, 968 (7th Cir. 1996) (stating that an EEOC's determination “is only an administrative prerequisite to a court action and has no legally binding significance in the subsequent litigation”). EEOC investigatory findings simply are not binding on federal courts in the private employment context. See, e.g., Georator Corp., 592 F.2d at 768-69 (stating that the EEOC's determination of reasonable cause, while final, lack any binding effect); Moore v. Devine, 780 F.2d 1559, 1562 (11th Cir. 1986) (stating that the EEOC lacks the power to order remedial action in cases of private-sector employment discrimination, so the issue of the binding nature of an EEOC decision favorable to a private-sector employee never actually arise); McClure v. Mexia Indep. Sch. Dist., 750 F.2d 396, 400 (5th Cir.1985) (noting that “EEOC determinations and findings of fact” are “not binding on the trier of fact”).

         Accordingly, there is no evidence that the EEOC or the MCOHR made any determination as to the number of Victory employees in 2013 or 2014 and, even if either agency had, such a finding would not override this Court's independent review of the evidence presented by the parties. Woodbury's reference to the Right to Sue Letter therefore does not provide a basis upon which to deny the Motion for Summary Judgment.

         III. Number of Employees

         In seeking summary judgment, Victory argues that neither Title VII nor the ADA apply to it because Victory had fewer than 15 employees during the years 2013 and 2014. Title VII defines an “employer” as “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year, and any agent of such a person.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(b). The ADA contains a substantively identical definition. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(5)(A). The United States Supreme Court has held that “the threshold number of employees for application of Title VII is an element of a plaintiff's claim for relief, not a jurisdictional issue.” Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 516 (2006); see also Fox v. Gen. Motors Corp., 247 F.3d 169, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (“Because the ADA echoes and expressly refers to Title VII, and because the two statutes have the same purpose-the prohibition of illegal discrimination in employment-courts have routinely used Title VII precedent in ADA cases.”). Accordingly, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant employer had the threshold number of employees to be subject to the requirements of Title VII and the ADA in order to prevail on a discrimination claim under those statutes. See Arbaugh, 546 U.S. at 515-16.

         Woodbury does not dispute that Title VII and the ADA would not apply to Victory if it had fewer than 15 employees in 2013 or 2014. She also does not dispute that 2013 and 2014 are the relevant years of inquiry in this case, given that the alleged discriminatory acts occurred in 2014, Woodbury was fired in 2014, and Woodbury filed her charge of discrimination in June 2014. Instead she argues that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Victory employed fewer than 15 individuals in the years 2013 and 2014.

         A. ...

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