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Bates v. Mountaire Farms, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 17, 2019

EDWARD A. BATES, Plaintiff,
v.
MOUNTAIRE FARMS, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. DAVID COPPERTHITE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Defendant, Mountaire Farms, Inc., moves this Court for summary judgment (the "Motion") (ECF No. 25). Defendant seeks a ruling from the Court that it did not breach its Broiler Production Agreement (the "Agreement") with Plaintiff, Edward A. Bates, but rather that it was entitled to terminate the Agreement and properly did so due to Plaintiffs alleged deficient performance. Plaintiff filed an opposition to Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 26) and Defendant replied (ECF No. 27).

         After considering the Motion and responses thereto, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). In addition, having reviewed the pleadings of record and all competent and admissible evidence submitted by the parties, the Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact as to the claim asserted. Accordingly, the Court will DENY Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 25).

         Factual Background

         Defendant Mountaire Farms, Inc. is a producer in the poultry business and runs a "Growing Program" in which it contracts with third-party growers to raise flocks of broiler chickens. ECF No. 1 at 2, ¶ 6; ECF No. 1-3 at 1; ECF No. 4 at 2, ¶ 6. Through the Growing Program, Defendant engages third-party growers who own or occupy land to raise the broilers and memorializes the relationship with the growers in Broiler Production Agreements. ECF No. 25-2 at 1, ¶ 4. Pursuant to these Agreements, growers "take possession of flocks of broiler chickens owned by [Defendant] and use their own knowledge, skill, experience, and discretion to provide care to the flocks in accordance with applicable industry and animal welfare standards," and Defendant retains title and ownership of the broilers while they are in the growers' possession. Id. at 2, ¶ 5. Defendant's employees, including Flock Supervisors and Broiler Service Managers, periodically visit the third-party growers' farms to check on the flocks' progress. Id.

         In February 2016, Plaintiff met with Defendant's employee and Broiler Services Manager, . Brian Smith, to discuss joining the Growing Program as a third-party grower. ECF No. 1 at 3, ¶¶ 8-9; ECF No. 4 at 2, ¶¶ 8-9. On March 8, 2016, Plaintiff and Defendant entered into the Agreement in which Defendant agreed to "furnish [Plaintiff] with a flock... of birds to raise for broiler production" and Plaintiff agreed to furnish and provide the facilities and personnel necessary to properly care for the broilers. ECF No. 25-6 at 1-2, 10. Thereafter, Plaintiff hosted three flocks of broilers between April 2016 and March 2017. ECF No. 1 at 3-6, ¶¶ 10, 12, 17, 19. During this time, Paul Akers, Defendant's employee and Flock Supervisor, made regular visits to Plaintiffs farm to conduct inspections and monitor the care of the flocks. Id. at 4-6, ¶¶ 13-14, 17, 20; ECF No. 1-4; ECF Nos. 26-7, 26-9, 26-11. After each visit, Mr. Akers completed Chick Placement Reports and Farm Visitation Reports.[1] ECF Nos. 26-7, 26-9, 26-11.

         On or about April 26, 2016, Defendant placed the first flock with Plaintiff. ECF No. 26-3 at 8-9; ECF No. 26-7 at 1; ECF No. 26-8. Chick Placement Reports and Farm Visitation Reports completed by Mr. Akers between April 26 and June 13, 2016 demonstrate that Plaintiffs care was consistently rated "ok." ECF No. 26-7. Plaintiff received "not ok" ratings on only two reports during that period, id. at 5, 6, and remedied those issues prior to the final report, which stated that "[e]verything... looks good," id. at 7. On June 25, 2016, Defendant moved the first flock. ECF No. 26-8.

         On or about July 12, 2016, Defendant placed the second flock with Plaintiff. ECF No. 26-10 at 1. Chick Placement Reports and Farm Visitation Reports completed by Mr. Akers between July 13 and August 30, 2016 again demonstrate that Plaintiffs care was rated "ok" for the majority of the criteria. ECF No. 26-9. While the reports reflect "not ok" ratings in some criteria during that period, they show that Plaintiff remedied many of the issues promptly after each inspection and report. See Id. However, several of the reports also demonstrate that Plaintiff consistently struggled to maintain proper migration of the broilers throughout the chicken houses and properly dispose of dead broilers. Id. at 4-11. Additionally, a report dated August 26, 2016 reflects that Plaintiff failed to respond to alarms indicating problems with chicken house temperature and ventilation, which then prompted Mr. Akers to call for a formal meeting. Id. at 10. Finally, on or about September 11, 2016, a flood occurred when a pipe burst in one of the chicken houses. ECF No. 26-4 at 8-9. Plaintiff failed to fence the flooded area off for the health and safety of the broilers, despite instructions to do so, which then required Mr. Smith and Mr. Akers to step in. Id. The following day, on September 12, 2016, Defendant moved the second flock. ECF No, 26-10 at 1.

         On or about January 2, 2017, Defendant placed the third and final flock with Plaintiff. ECF No. 26-12 at 1. Chick Placement Reports and Farm Visitation Reports completed by Mr. Akers between January 3 and February 20, 2017 demonstrate that Plaintiffs care was consistently rated "ok." ECF No. 26-11. While Plaintiff received a few "not ok" ratings over the course of several reports during that period, id. at 5-8, 10, the reports generally reflect that he remedied these issues promptly, id. at 5-10. As compared to reports from the second flock, Plaintiffs migration improved, and several notations stated that the broilers, conditions, and equipment were in good shape. Id. at 1-5, 9. On March 3, 2017, Defendant moved the third flock. ECF No. 26-12 at 1.

         In February 2017, during the placement of the third flock, Plaintiff was diagnosed with cancer and began undergoing chemotherapy treatments. ECF No. 26-3 at 14-15. Due to his diagnosis and treatments, Plaintiff was absent from his farm for approximately one week. Id. at 15. Plaintiffs employees, Stephen MacEmcy and Denise Jones, managed the broilers and the farm in his absence. ECF Nos. 26-14, 26-15. Around this time, Plaintiff informed Mr. Akers that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatment. ECF No. 26-3 at 14-15. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Smith informed Plaintiff that Defendant was terminating the Agreement. Id. at 16; see ECF No. 25-2 at 6, ¶ 23.

         Procedural Background

         On April 5, 2018, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court, alleging that Defendant breached the Agreement by failing to give Plaintiff written notice of the termination, provide Plaintiff with the reason for the termination, or place Plaintiff on a performance improvement plan prior to termination. ECF No. 1 at 9, ¶¶ 29-34. Plaintiff also alleged that Defendant terminated the Agreement due to Plaintiffs cancer diagnosis. Id. at 11, ¶¶ 38-39, Defendant filed an answer on May 11, 2018. ECF No.4.[2]

         On April 15, 2019, Defendant filed its Motion, seeking summary judgment against Plaintiff on his breach of contract claim. ECF No. 25. On April 29, 2019, Plaintiff filed an opposition. ECF No. 26. Defendant filed a reply on May 13, 2019. ECF No. 27.

         This matter is now fully briefed, and the Court has reviewed Defendant's Motion as well as the responses thereto. For the following reasons and pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d), Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 25) is DENIED.

         Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to Rule 56, a movant is entitled to summary judgment where 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. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The Supreme Court has clarified that not every factual dispute will defeat a motion for summary judgment but rather, there must be a genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) ("[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." (emphases in original)). An issue of fact is material if, under the substantive law of the case, resolution of the factual dispute could affect the outcome. Id. at 248. There is a genuine issue as to material fact "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.; see also Dulaney v. Packaging Corp. of Am., 673 F.3d 323, 330 (4th Cir. 2012). On the other hand, if after the court has drawn all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, "the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of either establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists or that a material fact essential to the non-movant's claim is absent. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-24. Once the movant has met its burden, the onus is on the non-movant to establish that there is a genuine issue of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In order to meet this burden, the non-movant "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleadings," but must instead "set forth specific facts showing that ...


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