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Villeneuve v. Avon Products, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 19, 2019

MARÍA I. VILLENEUVE, Plaintiff, Appellant,
AVON PRODUCTS, INC., Defendant, Appellee.


          Juan M. Frontera-Suau, with whom Kenneth Colón and Frontera Suau Law Offices, PSC were on brief, for appellant.

          Elizabeth Pérez-Lleras, with whom Lourdes C. Hernández-Venegas and Schuster Aguiló LLC were on brief, for appellee.

          Before Torruella, Thompson, and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.


         In this diversity case - governed by Puerto Rico law, as the parties agree (Puerto Rico is a "state" for diversity-jurisdiction purposes thanks to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(e)) - María Villeneuve contests the district judge's orders jettisoning her discrimination claims against her former employer, Avon Products, Inc. (just "Avon" from now on). Detecting no reversible error, we affirm.


         Because the judge kicked out Villeneuve's claims on Avon's motions to dismiss and for summary judgment (the judge should have treated the first motion as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, for reasons we will get to), we sketch the pertinent events in the light most flattering to her cause. See, e.g., Small Justice LLC v. Xcentric Ventures LLC, 873 F.3d 313, 323 (1st Cir. 2017); Estate of Bennett v. Wainwright, 548 F.3d 155, 159 (1st Cir. 2008).

         Villeneuve's Stint at Avon

         In January 1998, when she was 30 years old, Villeneuve started working as a "Caribbean Zone Manager" for Avon, a multinational cosmetics, fashion, and accessories company. Sometime in 2005 (the record does not say exactly when), she became a "District Zone Manager." And several years later, in May or June 2012, she became a "Caribbean Call Center Correspondent" ("Caribbean CCC," for short), though her salary was the same as her District Zone Manager salary. Avon terminated her employment effective July 11, 2014. She was 47 years old on the day Avon let her go.

         Villeneuve's Suit Against Avon

         Unhappy with this turn of events, Villeneuve filed this lawsuit against Avon in November 2014. Stripped to its essence, her complaint alleged that Avon had discriminated against her by firing her because of her age and because of her affectionate, "longstanding" relationship with an attorney "of a different gender" who had sued Avon "several" times before on behalf of other former Avon employees - a relationship that Avon knew about. Consistent with the judge and the parties, we refer to the claim involving her "longstanding affective partner" as the "sexual-orientation-discrimination claim." According to her complaint, the discrimination in question violated two Puerto Rico statutes: P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 185a - a law commonly called "Law 80"; and P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 146 - a law colloquially called "Law 100."[1] As relevant here, Law 80 requires an employer to "[i]ndemni[fy]" the employee if the employer terminates her "without just cause." See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 185a. And Law 100 outlaws employment practices that discriminate against persons on the basis of "age" or "sexual orientation." See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 146.

         Avon's Partial Motion to Dismiss and the Judge's Ruling

         After answering Villeneuve's complaint, Avon filed a motion to dismiss the sexual-orientation-discrimination claim against it - citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).[2] In its memo supporting its dismissal motion, Avon stressed how Law 100 forbids an employer from firing an employee because of the employee's sexual orientation. And Avon quoted a 2013 amendment to Law 100, which provides that "sexual orientation"

[m]eans the ability of any person of having an emotional, affectional, or sexual attachment to persons of the other gender, the same gender, or more than one gender. . . . [T]o accomplish all the purposes provided herein, this definition shall be interpreted as broadly as possible to extend the benefits thereof to any citizen who is a victim of discrimination, whether it is a onetime event or a pattern.

See P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, § 151(7). With that foundation in place, Avon revealed its big argument - that Villeneuve's allegations of being "in a relationship with a lawyer who has sued Avon in the past" did not put her in a "protected class." In other words, because, according to Avon, Villeneuve "bases her" sexual-orientation-discrimination claim "on the profession and conduct of the person she is dating, i.e., an attorney who has sued Avon," her allegations have "nothing to do with [her] sexual orientation" -which excludes her from the class protected by Law 100. And Avon saw no basis for extending Law 100's protections to cover such a situation.

         Villeneuve countered that because she alleged "Avon took into account the specific and affectionate relationship she had with said lawyer when deciding . . . her employment status at the company" - i.e., because she alleged this "affectionate and romantic relationship . . . was a motivating factor" in her firing

         -she had "protected status under Puerto Rico Law." Which is why, her argument continued, the judge had to deny Avon's partial motion to dismiss.

         The judge, for his part, sided with Avon. Noting that Law 100 bans an employer from terminating an employee "because of" the employee's "sexual orientation," the judge ruled that an employee's "being terminated because the employer disapproves of the professional legal conduct of the romantic partner . . . is not . . . a discriminating event within the law." So the judge granted Avon's motion and dismissed Villeneuve's sexual-orientation-discrimination claim.

         Avon's Motion for Summary Judgment and the Judge's Ruling

         Years of discovery ensued, culminating in Avon's moving for summary judgment on Villeneuve's remaining claims - age discrimination under Law 100 and unjust discharge under Law 80. Its summary-judgment submissions told the following story.

         At the time of her firing, Villeneuve worked as a Caribbean CCC at Avon's Call Center. Overseen by Carmen Miranda, the Head of the Avon Customer Care Department, the Call Center employed a number of Call Center Correspondents ("CCCs," from now on). But Villeneuve was the only Caribbean CCC there.

         "[I]n charge of dealing with the Caribbean," Villeneuve's duties included training Avon's Puerto Rico and Caribbean "representatives" to "place orders online"; "perform[ing] welcome calls for new representatives"; "mak[ing] past-due collection calls to representatives in the Caribbean"; "handling calls in English" and "provid[ing] English materials" on "request." She was also required to be bilingual; to send emails to representatives in the Caribbean reminding them of events happening in the Caribbean; and to travel within and outside Puerto Rico. CCCs, on the other hand, did not make calls on past-due orders; did not travel within or outside Puerto Rico; and only needed a basic knowledge of English.

         Concerned with Avon Puerto Rico's lack of growth, Adnauer Amorin, Avon's General Manager for Puerto Rico and Canada, ordered a reorganization - which required a reduction in personnel. Department heads in Puerto Rico had to achieve a certain level of savings, for example, with Miranda asked to shave $300, 000 from the Customer Care Department's budget. And after reviewing the situation, Miranda concluded that the Caribbean CCC's workload did not justify what Avon was paying Villeneuve. So Avon terminated Villeneuve, abolishing the Caribbean CCC job and transferring her duties to other positions.

         But Villeneuve was not the only person let go because of the reorganization, Avon was quick to point out. Several other employees in five departments - Customer Care, Sales, IT, Supply Chain, and Finance - lost their jobs too.[3] Five firees were younger than Villeneuve, Avon added. And three were older.

         Having said its piece on the facts, Avon made a multifaceted argument for why it should win at the summary-judgment stage (we highlight its main points). For starters, Avon contended that because Villeneuve had lost her job as part of "a bona fide reorganization, . . . implemented to obtain cost savings, optimize the [c]ompany's resources," and "increase its profits and competitiveness," she could not establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under Law 100. Next, Avon argued that even assuming Villeneuve had a prima facie case, she could not show that the articulated rationale was pretextual. And because she was fired during a "bona fide reorganization," her "termination was with just cause" - which means (at least in Avon's view) that her Law 80 claim was a no-go.

         Villeneuve's memo opposing summary judgment insisted that Avon got all the important things dead wrong. She claimed, for instance, that her duties as Caribbean CCC were "essentially the same" as the CCCs. She also claimed that they had the same direct supervisor; attended meetings called by that supervisor; got "the same training" on "Avon products and campaigns"; and "shared the same work schedule and the same evaluation performance forms." And she claimed that a "substantially younger" Avon employee assumed her duties after her termination.

         Moving from the facts to the law, Villeneuve complained that Avon had not carried its burden under Law 80 of showing just cause for her termination, principally because it based its "bona fide reorganization" theory on inadmissible hearsay evidence.[4] And even if the evidence were admissible, the evidence in no way indicates Avon faced a decrease in sales or revenues so substantial as to "put[] at risk the continuity of the business," thus necessitating a reorganization - or so she protested. She also argued that Avon failed to give her seniority preference over her coworkers in "the same occupational classification." As for the Law 100 matter, Villeneuve contended that Avon's proffered explanation was merely a pretext for unlawful age discrimination, especially since a younger employee assumed her former duties.

         With the issues teed up for decision, the district judge ruled this way. The judge first decided that Avon's evidence established Villeneuve was a legitimate casualty of a bona fide reorganization - legitimate, because Avon ordered the reorganization to combat the Puerto Rico operation's "lack of growth and to generate savings," not to discriminate against her on age grounds. On the age-discrimination point, the judge found that a "bona fide reorganization" led to the firing of eight employees - three of whom "were less than 40 years old" at the time (including one who was 29), while Villeneuve (don't forget) was 47. So "Avon's bona fide reorganization was not motivated by age discrimination, but [by] economic reasons," and was thus done with just cause. Villeneuve also showed "no evidence" of pretext, the judge added. Ultimately, because she "failed to show a prima facie case of age discrimination under Law 100," and because "Avon's reorganization was performed 'with good cause' under Law 80," the judge granted Avon's summary-judgment motion.[5]

         OUR TAKE

         Dissatisfied with the judge's dismissal and summary-judgment rulings, Villeneuve appeals. She and Avon make an array of arguments in support of their positions. And we address them below, adding more details as we go along. But first, a quick primer on the workings of the statutory system in vogue ...

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