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Engelhardt v. Qwest Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 22, 2019

Walter Engelhardt Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
Qwest Corporation; Tim Buchholz Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: October 18, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, LOKEN and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.

          SMITH, Chief Judge.

         Plaintiff Walter Engelhardt sued Qwest Corporation, a subsidiary of CenturyLink, and Tim Buchholz, CenturyLink's operations director, alleging that CenturyLink and Buchholz terminated him in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act (MWA). He also sued for tortious interference with a prospective business relationship. Engelhardt claimed that CenturyLink and Buchholz terminated him in retaliation for legal action he had taken against the company. CenturyLink and Buchholz averred that they terminated Engelhardt for low productivity. The district court[1] granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and dismissed the MWA claim for lack of standing. On appeal, Engelhardt argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment because genuine issues of material fact remain as to CenturyLink and Buchholz's motives for terminating him; he also claims the district court erred in finding he lacked standing under the MWA. We disagree and affirm the district court's judgment.

         I. Background

         Engelhardt began working for CenturyLink as a St. Paul-based technician in 2000. In 2007, he joined a class action lawsuit ("the Brennan lawsuit") of over 300 employees against the company. The suit settled, and Engelhardt received a payment. Then, in 2008, CenturyLink terminated Engelhardt for low productivity.

         In 2011, Engelhardt applied for work through MP Nextlevel (MP). MP supplies contractors to telecommunications companies, including CenturyLink. MP initially placed Engelhardt with a company in Big Lake, Minnesota, but Engelhardt requested a transfer to CenturyLink in St. Paul. While the transfer was pending, Engelhardt's former CenturyLink supervisor Chris Fry noticed Engelhardt's request. Fry then notified his superior, Tim Buchholz, of Engelhardt's impending return. Fry expressed confusion about how a terminated employee could return to the company as a contractor.

         Six days after Engelhardt's assignment to CenturyLink through MP, Buchholz released Engelhardt. Buchholz terminated Engelhardt after seeing his name on the company's "Do Not Rehire" list. This list contained names of employees who had been fired for workplace violations, including productivity and performance issues. CenturyLink placed former employees' names on the list if they were fired for a qualifying reason. These employees would be marked as "not rehirable" in the CenturyLink system. Fry testified he believed Engelhardt had been marked as "not rehirable" after his termination because of low productivity.

         About a month after being released, Engelhardt contacted Buchholz and threatened to sue CenturyLink for retaliation. Engelhardt believed he was being punished for his participation in the Brennan lawsuit. Buchholz and Engelhardt communicated over the course of several weeks. After investigating the matter, Buchholz informed Engelhardt on a Friday that he had been cleared to return to work as a contractor. The following Monday, an MP employee accidentally sent an e-mail to Engelhardt claiming that "[a CenturyLink employee] told me on Friday that he or anyone else at Century Link will have no contact with Walt." Decl. of Charles A. Delbridge, Ex. 16, at 135, Engelhardt v. Qwest, No. 0:15-cv-04591-ADM-SER (D. Minn. Feb. 16, 2017), ECF No. 27-1. Two days later, however, that same employee reassured Engelhardt that he had indeed been cleared to return as a contractor. Because of the approaching seasonal slow down, Engelhardt did not ever actually report to CenturyLink. The company laid off all its contractors for the winter shortly after Buchholz cleared Engelhardt to return.

         That next year, in 2012, Engelhardt moved to North Dakota and did not reapply to work as a CenturyLink contractor. In 2015, however, a friend of Engelhardt's informed him that CenturyLink was hiring technicians and suggested he apply. Skeptical, Engelhardt contacted former associates at CenturyLink and MP. In response to Engelhardt's inquiries, Fry told Engelhardt's former union steward that Engelhardt was welcome to come back. MP supervisor Tedd Elliot personally assured Engelhardt there was nothing in his employment file that should impede his return. A CenturyLink manager reporting to Buchholz also told Elliot there was no reason Engelhardt should not be able to return.

         That summer, MP rehired Engelhardt, and he was assigned to work as a CenturyLink contractor. In mid-August, however, a little over a week into the job, Brian Burth contacted Fry asserting Engelhardt's productivity was low. Burth had been hired by CenturyLink in June 2015 and was in charge of monitoring contractor performance. Burth averred that he had not been aware of Engelhardt's prior relationship with the company when he contacted Fry about Engelhardt's issues.

         Burth's e-mail to Fry listed the number of jobs Engelhardt had completed each day. Burth considered this number unsatisfactory and suggested terminating Engelhardt. The list revealed that Engelhardt was completing about three jobs per day. Burth stated that he expected technicians to complete five to six jobs per day.

         Fry forwarded Burth's e-mail to CenturyLink's contractor liaison, Rennell Schank, and copied his supervisor, Buchholz. Fry explained that Engelhardt's production levels were low, that he was allegedly calling CenturyLink employees for assistance, and that he was "returning work to himself for future dates, and working at a pace that needs to be addressed." Decl. of Charles A. Delbridge, Ex. 17, at 137, Engelhardt v. Qwest, No. 0:15-cv-04591-ADM-SER (D. Minn. Feb. 16, 2017), ECF No. 27-1. At his deposition, Burth stated that calling CenturyLink employees ...


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