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Orfano v. NV Energy, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Nevada

February 3, 2015

JOSEPH E. ORFANO, an individual, Plaintiff,
NV ENERGY, INC., a corporation, d/b/a NV ENERGY, and DOES and ROES 1-50, Defendants.


GLORIA M. NAVARRO, Chief District Judge.

Pending before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 44) filed by Defendant NV Energy, Inc.; Plaintiff Joseph E. Orfano ("Plaintiff") filed a Response (ECF No. 48), and Defendant filed a Reply (ECF No. 51). For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's Motion is GRANTED.


This case arises from the termination of Plaintiff's employment with Defendant NV Energy, Inc. ("Defendant" or "NV Energy"). (Am. Compl. ¶ 10, ECF No. 10). Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges that Defendant hired Plaintiff on September 6, 2005. ( Id. at ¶ 6). While employed by Defendant, "Plaintiff was a vested participant and vested in the NV Energy 401(k) Plan." ( Id. at ¶ 3). During this time, Plaintiff was also a "vested participant in the NV Energy Retirement Plan." ( Id. at ¶ 4). Throughout Plaintiff's employment, he "directly supervised two (2) employees and was responsible for approximately twenty-one (21) employees" without ever being "counseled about his behavior in the workplace." ( Id. at ¶¶ 7-8).

The Amended Complaint claims that on June 9, 2011, Plaintiff received a letter terminating him from his position as "Assistant Treasurer and Director Capital Markets effective on June 3, 2011." ( Id. at ¶ 10). Defendant represented to Plaintiff that this termination resulted from allegations by a co-worker. ( Id. at ¶¶ 9, 12). Plaintiff, on the other hand, alleges that "he was terminated without cause as a pretext to avoid the expense of contributions on his behalf" by Defendant to Plaintiff's 401(k) and Retirement plans. ( Id. at ¶ 11).

After his termination, Plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit alleging one cause of action for "violation of ERISA." ( See generally Compl., ECF No. 1). Defendant subsequently filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint. (ECF No. 6). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 10). In response, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 14) and Motion for Sanctions (ECF No. 15). The Court denied both motions. ( See Order, ECF No. 20). Subsequently, Defendant filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 44).


The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for summary adjudication when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show 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). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See id. "Summary judgment is inappropriate if reasonable jurors, drawing all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor." Diaz v. Eagle Produce Ltd. P'ship, 521 F.3d 1201, 1207 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Shumway, 199 F.3d 1093, 1103-04 (9th Cir. 1999)). A principal purpose of summary judgment is "to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986).

In determining summary judgment, a court applies a burden-shifting analysis. "When the party moving for summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial. In such a case, the moving party has the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact on each issue material to its case." C.A.R. Transp. Brokerage Co. v. Darden Rests., Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). In contrast, when the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving the claim or defense, the moving party can meet its burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence to negate an essential element of the nonmoving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323-24. If the moving party fails to meet its initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party's evidence. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60 (1970).

If the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue of material fact exists. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). To establish the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that "the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. P. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 631 (9th Cir. 1987). In other words, the nonmoving party cannot avoid summary judgment by relying solely on conclusory allegations that are unsupported by factual data. See Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). Instead, the opposition must go beyond the assertions and allegations of the pleadings and set forth specific facts by producing competent evidence that shows a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

At summary judgment, a court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. The evidence of the nonmovant is "to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Id. at 255. But if the evidence of the nonmoving party is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See id. at 249-50.


In his only claim for relief, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant terminated his employment to avoid the expense of contributions to his 401(k) and pension plans in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1140. (Am. Compl. ¶ 11). Defendant moves for summary judgment as to this claim, arguing that: 1) Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination; and 2) even if he had, Plaintiff has failed to carry his burden of showing that Defendant's purported reasons for terminating Plaintiff's employment were a pretext for discrimination. (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. 16:4, 18:25-26, ECF No. 44).

Section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA") provides that "[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, discipline, or discriminate against a participant or beneficiary... for the purpose of interfering with the attainment of any right to which such participant may become entitled under the plan...." ERISA, § 510, 29 U.S.C. § 1140. The Ninth Circuit "[has] adopted the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework for assessing an employer's liability for discriminatory interference with a plaintiff's exercise of protected rights under section [1140]." Lessard v. Applied Risk Management, 307 F.3d 1020, 1025 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Ritter v. Hughes Aircraft Co., 58 F.3d 454, 457 (9th Cir. 1995)). Under this framework, a plaintiff must first make out a prima facie case of discrimination. Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254 (1981). If a plaintiff successfully establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the ...

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