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Montella v. Chugachmiut

United States District Court, D. Alaska

September 25, 2017





         At docket 17, Defendant Chugachmiut (Chugachmiut or Defendant) filed a motion for summary judgment as to the claims brought against it by Plaintiff Xiaofang Montella (Plaintiff). Plaintiff responded at docket 25. In her response, Plaintiff opposed summary judgment on the merits and also as premature. She asked the court to provide her additional time to conduct discovery pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[1] Defendant replied at docket 29, stating that it did not oppose the request for additional time to conduct limited discovery. The court granted Plaintiff's request for additional time and allowed for supplemental briefing after discovery had been conducted. Plaintiff filed her supplemental opposition at docket 46 and docket 61.

         Defendant filed its supplemental reply at docket 62. Oral argument would not be of assistance to the court.


         Defendant is a non-profit tribal consortium that provides, among other things, health care services throughout the Chugach Region. It is governed by its member tribes, with each tribe electing one individual to sit on the board of directors. Chenega IRA Council of Chenega Bay, Alaska is one of its member tribes.

         Plaintiff is of Chinese national origin and English is her second language. In May or June of 2014, Plaintiff applied for a Community Health Aide Trainee position at the Chenega Bay health clinic, which is operated by Defendant. The position was a combined one, where the trainee would also serve as a custodian for the clinic. Lloyd Kompkoff, Chenega IRA Council's alternate Chugachmiut board member and the Vice President of Chenega Corporation, participated in Plaintiff's interview for the position. Plaintiff was hired and began working in the combined trainee/custodial position as of June 24, 2014.

         As part of Plaintiff's trainee position, she completed certain prerequisite courses that were necessary to enroll in the community health aide certification program with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). ANTHC informed Plaintiff's Chugachmiut supervisor, Sue Steward, that Plaintiff had not been admitted into its January 2015 session but that she would be considered for the October 2015 session. Plaintiff continued in her position as a trainee and custodian at the Chenega Bay clinic.

         In May 2015, the Executive Director of the Chenega IRA Council, Shelly Wade, contacted Steward to inform her that Chenega IRA Council community members had expressed concern over Plaintiff's English language communication skills. Steward responded that Plaintiff was meeting all requirements and expectations in her position as a community health aide trainee. Wade continued to correspond with Chugachmiut management and employees about Plaintiff's language proficiency and the hiring process for Chenega Bay's clinic throughout the summer of 2015.

         During this time, the Chenega Corporation had an ongoing road access dispute with Plaintiff's fiancé, John Lunetta. Chenega Corporation believed that Lunetta was trespassing on its property. Plaintiff and Lunetta were concerned about Plaintiff's job security. Steward informed Plaintiff and Lunetta that she would support Plaintiff in her training position. Lunetta and Chenega Corporation were unable to resolve their dispute and Lunetta filed a lawsuit in state court on October 15, 2015.

         Plaintiff was not admitted to ANTHC's October 2015 session for community health aide certification, but on October 9, 2015, ANTHC told Steward that Plaintiff would again remain in the pool of applicants and, while no guarantees could be made, she would be a “high priority” for the February 2016 training session. Shortly thereafter, on October 19, 2015, Defendant eliminated Plaintiff's trainee position. On October 20, 2015, Steward informed Plaintiff of the termination but told her she could stay on at the clinic as a custodian and as a volunteer emergency responder in Chenega Bay. The next day, Plaintiff resigned from her position as custodian.

         Plaintiff subsequently filed for unemployment insurance benefits. In her appeal of the denial of benefits she stated that she believes she was terminated in retaliation for submitting an affidavit against Chenega Corporation in Lunetta's court case. She later filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination in violation of Title VII. The complaint was dismissed based on Defendant's status as a “tribal entity.” This lawsuit followed. In her complaint, she brings a claim for discrimination under Title VII, as well as a claim for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. Defendant moves for summary judgment.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[2] The materiality requirement ensures that “only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”[3]Ultimately, “summary judgment will not lie if the . . . evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[4] However, summary judgment is mandated “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.”[5]

         The moving party has the burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.[6] Where the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, the moving party need not present evidence to show that summary judgment is warranted; it need only point out the lack of any genuine dispute as to material fact.[7] Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must set forth evidence of specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial.[8]All evidence presented by the non-movant must be believed for purposes of summary judgment and all justifiable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-movant.[9]However, the non-moving party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials, but must show that there is sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute to require a fact-finder to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.[10]


         A. Title VII

         Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot maintain her discrimination claim as a matter of law because Defendant is not subject to employment discrimination claims under Title VII. Indeed, Indian tribes are exempt from the definition of employer in Title VII.[11] The exemption is in furtherance of tribal sovereign immunity, the purpose of which is “to promote the ability of Indian tribes to control their own enterprises.”[12] While Defendant itself is not a tribe, it is nonetheless exempt under Title VII because it is a consortium organization controlled by its member tribes and operated to benefit those tribes.[13]

         Plaintiff does not dispute Defendant's status as a tribal entity but rather argues that Defendant waived its immunity under Title VII. She relies on the fact that Defendant declares itself to be an “equal opportunity employer” on its website and makes a similar representation on its employment applications:

[Chugachmiut provides] equal access to . . . employment . . . without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity (including gender expression), sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status, family/parental status, income derived from a public assistance program, political beliefs, veteran status, or any other status or classification protected by applicable state or federal law.[14]

         While a tribe may waive immunity to suit, the court cannot imply such a waiver. It must be unequivocally expressed.[15] There is a strong presumption against waiver of tribal sovereign immunity.[16] In Allen v. Gold Country Casino, the Ninth Circuit held that the tribal casino did not unequivocally waive its immunity when it stated in its employment application that employees could be terminated “for any reason consistent with applicable state or federal law” or when it stated in its employee orientation handbook that it practices equal opportunity employment and does not discriminate based on federally protected categories.[17] The court concluded that such statements only imply a willingness to submit to lawsuits and were not clearly expressed waivers of tribal sovereign immunity.[18] The court relied on the fact that the statements “did not mention court enforcement, suing or being sued, or any other phrase clearly contemplating suits against the [c]asino.”[19] Likewise, Defendant's website and application representations relied on by Plaintiff to support her waiver argument only mention being an equal opportunity employer; they do not mention being sued or court enforcement. Any waiver would therefore have to be implied, which is insufficient for the court to exercise jurisdiction over Plaintiff's Title VII claim.[20]

         B. Good Faith and Fair Dealing

         Defendant also moves for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's contractual breach of good faith and fair dealing claim on the basis that she has not provided any evidence to show such a breach. The covenant of good faith and fair dealing is implied in all at will employment contracts. “This covenant does not lend itself to precise definition, but it requires at a minimum that an employer not impair the right of an employee to receive the benefits of the employment agreement”[21] and that the “employer treat like employees alike.”[22] The covenant has both an objective and subjective component to consider. “An employer can commit either an objective or subjective breach of the covenant.”[23] The objective component focuses on the employer's conduct. It “‘prohibits the employer from dealing with the employee in a manner that a reasonable person would regard as unfair.'”[24] Unfair actions include disparate employee treatment, terminations on grounds that are unconstitutional, and firing that violates public policy.[25]Also, under the objective component, “an employee may not be terminated in express violation of the employee's contract terms.”[26] “The subjective component focuses on the employer's motives.”[27] It requires a showing that the employer's decision to terminate the employee was “actually . . . motivated by an improper or impermissible objective.”[28] The plaintiff must show more than just speculation about the motives for the termination.[29]

         Defendant first argues that Plaintiff was not actually terminated because the custodial portion of her job duties remained and she was invited to stay with the health clinic in that capacity. It therefore argues that her claim for wrongful termination pursuant to the implied covenant must fail. The court disagrees with Defendant's assessment. It is undisputed that the community health aide trainee position was eliminated, leaving only a partial job position that was no longer related to health care and did not provide the same amount of hours. A jury could reasonably conclude that the elimination of the health care portion of Plaintiff's job could constitute constructive discharge. That is, taking the facts in the light ...

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