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Britt v. Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

March 26, 2019




         This cause comes before the court upon the motions to dismiss filed by defendants Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company, Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company, and George “Bubba” Cole. Upon due consideration of the motions, responses, and applicable authority, the court is ready to rule.

         The plaintiff alleges that she was an employee of Defendants Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company (“MFB”) and Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company (“SFB Life”) (collectively “Farm Bureau Defendants”) working in the Columbus, Mississippi Farm Bureau office. She alleges that Defendants George “Bubba” Cole and Barry Patton, also employees of MFB and SFB Life, sexually harassed her by making inappropriate sexual comments to her, treated her differently than her male co-workers, denied her employment benefits, retaliated against her for reporting the defendants' conduct, covered up their conduct, and ultimately fired her and replaced her with a male employee.

         The plaintiff filed the present action on September 28, 2017, and amended her complaint shortly thereafter. The defendants subsequently filed motions to dismiss, but the court later granted the plaintiff leave to amend her complaint a second time, which she did on July 22, 2018. The Second Amended Complaint asserts a number of claims under Title VII, an alternative claim for the breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the event the court finds the plaintiff to be an independent contractor and therefore not subject to Title VII protection, state law claims against the individual defendants Cole, Patton, Brenda Wheat, and Tina Stapp[1] for intentional interference with contract and business relationships and intentional infliction of emotional distress, a state law claim against MFB and SFB Life for wrongful termination and retaliation under McArn v. Allied Bruce-Terminix Co., Inc., 626 So.2d 603 (Miss. 1993), and finally a state law defamation claim against Defendant Cole individually for allegedly telling a now-dismissed defendant, Farm Bureau agent Roy Weathers, [2] that the plaintiff threatened Cole with a gun, was emotionally unstable, and was sleeping with Farm Bureau clients. Defendants MFB, SFB Life, and Cole subsequently filed motions to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint. As there is substantial overlap of the issues between the two motions of the Farm Bureau Defendants, the court will address MFB and SFB Life's motions jointly and then turn its attention to Cole's motion.

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “Motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) are viewed with disfavor and are rarely granted.” Lormand v. U.S. Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 232-33 (5th Cir. 2009). A court must accept all well-pleaded facts as true and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id.

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court generally may not look beyond the pleadings. Cinel v. Connick, 15 F.3d 1338, 1341 (5th Cir. 1994). Matters of public record and matters of which the court may take judicial notice as well as documents attached to the complaint are exceptions. Id. at 1343 n.6; Lovelace v. Software Spectrum, Inc., 78 F.3d 1015, 1017 (5th Cir. 1996). Further, “[d]ocuments that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss are considered part of the pleadings if they are referred to in the plaintiff's complaint and are central to [the] claim.” Causey v. Sewell Cadillac-Chevrolet, Inc., 394 F.3d 285, 288 (5th Cir. 2001).

         The defendants assert that the plaintiff was an independent contractor and that she has made no plausible allegations that MFB and SFB Life were her employers. “[G]enerally only employers may be liable under Title VII.” Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007). The plaintiff specifically alleges, however, that MFB and SFB Life intentionally misclassified her as an independent contractor to avoid liability.

         Mississippi courts consider a number of factors to determine if a relationship is that of employer/employee or independent contractor, but “the right to control and actual control have always been primary factors.” McKee v. Brimmer, 39 F.3d 94, 96 (5th Cir. 1994). “At last, and in any given case, it gets back to the original proposition whether in fact the contractor was actually independent.” Id. (quoting Richardson v. APAC-Mississippi, Inc., 631 So.2d 143, 148 (Miss. 1994)). “Where the facts are undisputed, determining the type of relationship is a legal question.” McKee, 39 F.3d at 96. Factors that may be considered are:

Whether the principal master has the power to terminate the contract at will; whether he has the power to fix the price in payment for the work, or vitally controls the manner and time of payment; whether he furnishes the means and appliances for the work; whether he has control of the premises; whether he furnishes the materials upon which the work is done and receives the output thereof, the contractor dealing with no other person in respect to the output; whether he has the right to prescribe and furnish the details of the kind and character of work to be done; whether he has the right to supervise and inspect the work during the course of employment; whether he has the right to direct the details of the manner in which the work is to be done; whether he has the right to employ and discharge the subemployees and to fix their compensation; and whether he is obliged to pay the wages of said employees.

McKee, 39 F.3d at 97.

         In support of her assertion that she was an employee of the Farm Bureau Defendants, the plaintiff alleges in her Second Amended Complaint:

The Plaintiff is an employee of Farm Bureau, since Farm Bureau exercised control over her work activities. She was forced to work full time and overtime in the Farm Bureau office. She was closely supervised and monitored by Cole and Patton, who are both Farm Bureau employees. Cole provided her with potential customers to contact. Cole controlled the Plaintiff's book of business. She was required to pay into an agent's fund for purposes of marketing Farm Bureau products. She was required to attend mandatory meetings and conferences. She had to undergo quarterly reviews by her manager where she was evaluated on her sales performance, punctuality, appearance, community involvement, product knowledge, and attitude. She was given a Farm Bureau email address. Farm Bureau also provided the Plaintiff with office space, furniture, office supplies, internet, clerical assistance, computer and an IT department. She was also a captive agent, meaning she could only sell Farm Bureau products and work exclusively for Farm Bureau. Farm Bureau also prevented the Plaintiff from assigning any of her rights under her contract to third parties. Farm Bureau also controlled the amount of commission compensation that the Plaintiff would earn and when and how payments would be made.

         The defendants direct the court to the plaintiff's contracts with MFB and SFB Life, which they assert establish the plaintiff's status as an independent contractor. The defendants set forth excerpts from the contracts showing that the plaintiff agreed to assume responsibility for withholding her own taxes, that she would not participate in benefits or programs only applicable to Farm Bureau employees, that she would not be subject to any employment rules, and that she had the right to control her daily activities and means by which she conducted her sale and servicing of insurance policies.

         While the defendants contest the plaintiff's general assertion that she was an employee and direct the court to the applicable contract language, they do not contest the relevant underlying factual assertions from the Second Amended Complaint quoted above which the plaintiff uses to establish that Farm Bureau misclassified her as an independent contractor. The plaintiff's specific factual allegations, which are not conclusory as the defendants suggest, paint an entirely different picture of control and independence from that outlined in the contracts. The plaintiff addressed almost every factor suggested by McKee and then some, showing that Farm Bureau asserted considerable control over her. The court accepts these uncontested underlying ...

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