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Mayhew v. Hermitage Club LLC

United States District Court, D. Vermont

November 30, 2016

EFFIE MAYHEW, Plaintiff,


          William K. Sessions III District Court Judge.

         Plaintiff Effie Mayhew (“Mayhew”) brings this action against her former employer, Defendant Hermitage Club, LLC (“Hermitage Club”), alleging that she was wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy, that Defendants failed to pay her for time worked in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and Vermont wage and hour laws, and that she was wrongfully discharged in violation of an implied modification to her at-will contract established by promissory estoppel. Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on each of these claims. For the reasons outlined below, the Court denies summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, but grants summary judgment on Plaintiff's wage and hour and promissory estoppel claims.


         Mayhew began working as a groundskeeper for the Hermitage Club in mid-April of 2014. Her supervisors were Benjamin Fritz (“Fritz”), the Building and Grounds manager at the time, and Michael Quinn (“Quinn”), Vice President and Operations Manager of the Hermitage Club. As part of her search for a renewed sense of meaning in her work, Mayhew took an interest in the company's horses, Will and Bill. At that time, Defendant had engaged outside contractors to feed and care for the horses. Mayhew observed deficiencies in the horses' care: notably, she testified that the horses' hooves were overgrown, cracked, and improperly shod, that their chestnuts were not properly trimmed, that their manes and coats were matted and unkempt, and that the horses had sores on their legs that were oozing and appeared infected. She shared some of these concerns and observations with Fritz. Although Fritz has testified that he did not recall these physical markers of neglect, he expanded Mayhew's duties to include care for Will and Bill.

         Mayhew spoke to Hermitage Club management about the horses at a social gathering shortly thereafter and began to discuss the company's possible plans for their use as working horses with several different managers in the company. After Hermitage Club managers expressed interest in getting the horses to become commercially useful, Mayhew began taking driving lessons to be able to provide carriage and sleigh rides for guests at the Hermitage Inn. Mayhew also researched selections of a horse wagon, sleigh and carriage for management to consider, which Defendant's manager later purchased. Over the months of June and July, Mayhew had further conversations with these managers about their future plans for Will and Bill. Defendant's managers informed Mayhew that the Inn was considering building a high-end Equestrian Center that would offer clinics, riding lessons and training. Mayhew researched possible materials and design of a suitable equestrian center.

         On August 4th, 2014, Mayhew sent Defendant's managers an email laying out her estimates for the amount of time that she believed would be required to properly care for the horses in order to prepare them to give carriage and sleigh rides. She stated that she was working with the horses “on her own time.” Based on the responsibilities laid out in that email, Mayhew requested that the company create a full-time equine manager position and give that job to her. On August 14th, Quinn sent an email to Fritz and Rob Aubin, the manager who had initially engaged Mayhew on the idea of providing carriage and sleigh rides. In that email, Quinn requested an account of the training hours and other duties that would be necessary per day and week for the company's horse venture, stating that “the ultimate goal is to have the horses start making money, with limited expenses at this time.” He then proposed an incentive agreement in which a percentage of sales would be paid directly to Mayhew for her involvement with revenue-generating horse activity. He requested that Mayhew “commit to being the representative” for the Horse Center in order to take responsibility for these tasks.

         Fritz shared this information with Mayhew, and he and Quinn encouraged her to develop a business plan for the profitable use of horses in the future. Mayhew submitted a plan for their consideration. At least some of this work was performed during her time on-site, and Mayhew claims that some was performed off-site on her own time. Fritz testified that he did not know when Mayhew worked on these projects. On August 20th, after submitting the plan, Mayhew sent an email to Quinn and Fritz quantifying the hours that she believed she needed to work with the horses in order to accomplish the company's business objectives and requesting support with the horse-care tasks. In that email, Mayhew also expressed frustration with Fritz' modifications to the horses' pasture. Quinn responded by stating that he was also growing frustrated and offering to talk. Quinn met with Mayhew on August 21st, and sent her a follow-up email on August 22ndsuggesting an interim plan for the horses until management made a decision about their future plans. He explained that the care of the horses would remain under Fritz' leadership until that point.

         Between August 22nd and August 25th, Mayhew again raised concerns with Fritz about the risks posed by the horses' pasture area, which she claimed might contain poisonous plants. Mayhew stated that if the horses were harmed by his decision to let them pasture in that area, she would disclose to everyone that Fritz had disregarded her advice. Fritz disregarded these concerns and took down a fence that Mayhew had erected to keep the horses from pasturing in the area that she believed contained poisonous plants.

         At this point, Mayhew sent an email to Hermitage Club owner Jim Barnes (“Barnes”). She alleged that Fritz was “forcing [her] to turn [the horses] out in the wooded area that's fenced in, even though I have explain[ed] this is not good for them because there are … poisonous plants growing in that area. Plants that can cause ulcers, brain bleeding and death within hours.” She also alleged that the horses were improperly fed, that other staff did not appear to understand the importance of the horses' health and that others had recognized the improved care that the horses were receiving since she was assigned to look after them. She stated that she would “probably lose [her] job for this but [she] couldn't in good conscience ‘walk away' without telling [Barnes] what is being done with YOUR horses.” Id. Barnes forwarded the email to Quinn and Fritz instructing them to “please handle” and stating that “we can use brook bound property also”. Id.

         The day after Mayhew sent this email, Fritz terminated her from her employment. Fritz stated that he was terminating her because of her threatening conduct. He did not mention the email to Barnes and did not claim that Mayhew had otherwise failed to meet her other duties. Quinn testified that Mayhew's email to Barnes was a basis for terminating her employment. In a written document that Fritz composed after he terminated Mayhew, he alleged that Mayhew had fallen behind in her grounds keeping work as a result of her horse-care duties and that, after Mayhew sent the email to Barnes, the relationship between Mayhew and her supervisors “appeared too far gone to repair as we would not be able to reach common ground or agreement”.


         Summary judgment should be granted if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “[O]n summary judgment the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts ... must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)) (internal quotations omitted). However, summary judgment must be entered “after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).


         I. Wrongful discharge in violation of public policy

         a. Legal framework

         In resolving claims of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, Vermont courts have relied on cases involving claims under the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act (VFEPA). Adams v. Green Mountain Rlrd., 862 A.2d 233, 235 (Vt. 2004); Regimbald v. Gen. Elec. Co., No. 2:05-CV-161, 2007 WL 128963, at *3 (D. Vt. Jan. 12, 2007) (applying McDonnell Douglas standard to wrongful discharge in violation of public policy claim). “[U]nder VFEPA, the standard and burdens of proof are identical to those under Title VII.” Gallipo v. City of Rutland, 882 A.2d 1177, 1182 (Vt. 2005) (internal quotations omitted); Hodgdon v. Mt. Mansfield Co., 624 A.2d 1122, 1128 (Vt. 1992). Therefore, Vermont courts require a plaintiff bringing a claim under VFEPA to establish a prima facie case by applying the burden-shifting framework established by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnellDouglas Corp. v. Green, 411. U.S. 792, 802-804 (1973). Plaintiff must show that (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) the employer was aware of the activity; (3) Plaintiff suffered adverse employment consequences as a result of the activity; and (4) there was a causal connection between the activity and the ...

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