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Kennedy v. Supreme Forest Products Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 19, 2016

MICHAEL KENNEDY and FERRELL WELCH, Plaintiffs,
v.
SUPREME FOREST PRODUCTS, INC., and SUPREME INDUSTRIES, INC., Defendants.

          RULING GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Michael Kennedy and Ferrell Welch are two truck drivers who allege that they were fired from their jobs because they complained about having to drive trucks that were overloaded in violation of the federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act, 49 U.S.C. § 31105. Defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that summary judgment should be granted against plaintiff Welch but that genuine issues of fact remain that should allow Kennedy's claim to proceed to trial.

         Background

         The following facts are undisputed or, if disputed, are presented in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs as the non-moving parties. For several years leading up to 2014, plaintiffs Michael Kennedy and Ferrell Welch were employed as licensed commercial truck drivers. They hauled significant quantities of mulch for defendants Supreme Forest Products, Inc. and Supreme Industries, Inc.

         Sometime in 2013, defendants began attempting to squeeze more material-up to 70 cubic yards-into their delivery trucks, and quite a few drivers complained that the trucks were overweight. Doc. #77-10 at 22-24. The change in policy resulted in defendants' regularly sending out trucks loaded beyond the federal legal weight limit of 80, 000 pounds. See, e.g, Doc. #77-14 (dozens of weight slips showing more than 80, 000 pound gross weight for products including sand and wood chips).

         Plaintiff Welch began complaining about being asked to drive trucks that were too heavy. Doc. #77-9 at 263. Around the same time, he also began complaining that he was not getting enough work hours. Id. at 258-64. Ultimately, in January 2014, Welch asked to be laid off, and defendants gave him a pink slip. Doc. #68 at 4-5.

         On April 3, 2014, plaintiff Kennedy drove one load of mulch but refused to drive two other loads he was assigned. Doc. #62 at 4-6. One of these loads consisted of 70 yards of premium hemlock mulch; the other consisted of 70 yards of premium bark mulch. Id. at 4 (¶ 24); id. at 5 (¶ 34). Kennedy believed these loads to be over the legal weight limits, which he told to his supervising manager, Martin Paganini. Doc. #77-7 at 246. Paganini told Kennedy to go home, and Kennedy-believing that he had been fired-never returned to work for the defendants. Doc. #77-7 at 253, 269-74.

         Discussion

         The principles governing a motion for summary judgment are well established. Summary judgment may be granted only if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam). “A genuine dispute of material fact exists for summary judgment purposes where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is such that a reasonable jury could decide in that party's favor.” Zann Kwan v. Andalex Grp. LLC, 737 F.3d 834, 843 (2d Cir. 2013). The evidence adduced at the summary judgment stage must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non- moving party and with all ambiguities and reasonable inferences drawn against the moving party. See, e.g., Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866; Caronia v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 715 F.3d 417, 427 (2d Cir. 2013). All in all, “a ‘judge's function' at summary judgment is not ‘to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)).

         The Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”) protects employees from retaliation by their employers on account of a complaint of a violation of federal safety regulations in the transportation industry. The Act provides in relevant part that a person may not discharge an employee who refuses to operate a vehicle because the operation violates a federal safety regulation. 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)(1)(B)(i). Plaintiffs allege they were fired when they refused to operate trucks that were loaded in violation of a federal safety regulation limiting truck weights to 80, 000 pounds. See 23 C.F.R. § 658.17(b). Defendants counter that both plaintiffs freely chose to resign, and they dispute that plaintiffs were forced to drive any truckloads in violation of federal law.

         A. Supreme Industries as Defendant

         Plaintiffs have sued both Supreme Industries and Supreme Forest Products, and Supreme Industries moves for summary judgment on the ground that it cannot be considered plaintiffs' employer and subject to liability under the STAA. The STAA defines “employer” to mean “a person engaged in a business affecting commerce that owns or leases a commercial motor vehicle in connection with that business, or assigns an employee to operate the vehicle in commerce.” 49 U.S.C. § 31101(3).

         The record is scant on the issue of who owned the trucks driven by plaintiffs and who assigned employees. But, when the evidence is read in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, Supreme Industries has failed to show the absence of any genuine fact issue as to its employer status. Paganini testified that the two defendant companies have a close relationship with overlapping assets and organization: the two companies share equipment, employees, and even a dispatcher. Doc. #77-3 at 33-49. Given that the STAA primarily concerns itself with who owns the trucks and who assigns employees to operate them, this closeness between the two companies leaves open remaining fact issues about whether Supreme Industries may be considered to have jointly employed plaintiffs along with Supreme Forest Products for purposes of the STAA.

         B. STAA ...


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