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Brooks v. Invista Koch Industries

February 7, 2007

ERICA T. BROOKS PLAINTIFF,
v.
INVISTA KOCH INDUSTRIES DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Curtis L. Collier

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Invista's ("Defendant") motion for summary judgment (Court File No. 10). Defendant filed a memorandum in support of its motion (Court File No. 11). Although Plaintiff Erica T. Brooks ("Plaintiff") filed a response (Court File No. 14) and a brief in opposition to Defendant's motion (Court File No. 20), the Court will not consider Plaintiff's response or her brief in resolving this motion since both were untimely filed. Plaintiff also filed a surreply, which she labels as a reply to Defendant's reply (Court File No. 25). For the following reasons, the Court will GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment and will DISMISS Plaintiff's race discrimination, hostile work environment, and Tennessee Public Protection Act ("TPPA") claims. However, because Defendant did not move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's Title VII retaliatory discharge claim, it will proceed to trial, and the Court will RESERVE RULING on Defendant's request for attorneys' fees.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Initially, the burden is on the moving party to conclusively show no genuine issues of material fact exist, Leary v. Daeschner, 349 F.3d 888, 897 (6th Cir. 2003), and the Court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88, (1986). However, the nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations, but must come forward with some significant probative evidence to support its claim. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). If the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment. Id. at 323.

The Court determines whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper jury question, but does not weigh the evidence, judge the credibility of witnesses, or determine the truth of the matter. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986); Weaver v. Shadoan, 340 F.3d 398, 405 (6th Cir. 2003). The standard for summary judgment mirrors the standard for directed verdict. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The Court must decide "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Id. at 251-52. There must be some probative evidence from which the jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. If the Court concludes a fair-minded jury could not return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party based on the evidence presented, it may enter a summary judgment. Id.; Lansing Dairy, Inc. v. Espy, 39 F.3d 1339, 1347 (6th Cir. 1994).

II. RELEVANT FACTS

Defendant is a producer of chemical intermediates, polymers and resins, and man-made fibers used in the manufacturing of nylon, spandex and polyester. (Court File No. 11, Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defendant's Memo") at 3). Defendant's Chattanooga facility takes product orders for specific grades, quality and type of textiles, transforms the raw materials into thread, binds it together, and ships it to customers on bobbins or rolls. (Court File No. 10, Exh. 1, Deposition of Erica Brooks ("Brooks Dep.") at 40).*fn1 On May 1, 2004, Plaintiff began working at Defendant's Chattanooga facility as a spinning operator. Id. at 64. Plaintiff received a copy of Defendant's Code of Conduct and received training on the Code of Conduct. (Exh. 2, Brooks Dep. at 93). The Code of Conduct specifically prohibits discrimination or harassment based on race or disability, including insulting comments concerning a person's disability. (Court File No. 10, Exh. 7, Code of Conduct at 16).

As a spinning operator, Plaintiff was responsible for the textile spinning machines in her area and making sure the threadlines were running through the machines correctly. (Court File No. 10, Exh. 8, Robin Williams' Declaration ("Williams Decl.") ¶3). The spinning machines have threadlines (where a polymer has been melted and is pouring through a freezer and begins hardening into lines). Id. The threads pour onto spools or rolls, and the full roll is the finished product that is shipped to customers. Id. It is very important for the threads to run smoothly onto the roll and that they are in no way damaged. Id. If damage occurred, the company had to either throw away the entire spool, or downgrade the product and tell the customer, who would get the product at a discount. Id.

To ensure proper quality, Defendant hired employees as "Quality Resources" to routinely perform quality checks to make sure the process was working and the threads were being spooled correctly. Id. at ¶5. If the threadlines were not being spooled correctly, Quality Resources would mark the line as off-standard. Id. If Quality Resources located an off-standard, they would issue an Off-Standard Corrective Action Report ("OSCAR") to the operator responsible for the machine. (Exh. 1, Brooks Dep. at 81 and 82). Quality Resources also issued Serious Quality Incident ("SQI") reports, which were issued for any incorrect product that has the potential to leave the plant and reach the customer. Id. at 90. If an operator is issued too many OSCARS, the operator will be written up, and multiple SQI reports result in termination. Id. at 90-91. Plaintiff received several OSCAR and SQI reports. Id. at 90. As a result, Plaintiff received a rating of "below expectations" on her performance review for the 2004 year. (Court File No. 10, Dep. Exh. 6, 2004 Non-Exempt Performance Feedback ("Perf. Feedback") at 2).

On Wednesday, February 16, 2005, Jenni Gass ("Gass"), who worked as a Quality Resource, conducted a quality inspection of Plaintiff's machines and issued two OSCARS for off-standards. (Exh. 2, Brooks Dep. at 100-101). Plaintiff asked other employees to inspect her machine, and according to Plaintiff, none of them saw any problems. Id. at 101. Plaintiff began looking for Gass to tell her she was wrong about the OSCARS. Id. at 102. Plaintiff and Gass went over to the machine and used a flashlight to inspect the machine again. Id. at 102. After disputing whether there was an off-standard, Plaintiff told Gass, "it's hard for me to see it with two eyes, let alone one eye." Id. When Plaintiff made this comment, she knew Gass had previous health issues and had lost an eye. Id. at 104.

Gass went to find Robin Williams ("Williams"), the first line supervisor, and told her Plaintiff was upset Gass had found two off-standards on her machine, and Gass wanted to make sure she had someone to confirm the off-standards. (Williams Decl. ¶7). As Williams and Gass walked back to Plaintiff's machine, Williams noticed Gass appeared to be upset. Id. at ¶8. After Williams "prodded a little bit," Gass told Williams Plaintiff had made a derogatory statement about Gass having only one eye. Id. When they arrived at Plaintiff's machine, Williams told Plaintiff she was there to take another look at the off-standards. Id. at ¶9. Williams noticed the threadline was clearly off the roll, and Plaintiff agreed with the first off-standard concerning this roll. Id. Plaintiff disputed, however, the second off-standard concerning whether there was a missing grain. Id. Williams looked at the line and agreed with Gass that a grain was missing and thus concluded Gass had correctly issued both off-standards. Id.

After reviewing the off-standards, Williams heard Plaintiff and Gass arguing, so she asked Plaintiff to come to her office and instructed Gass to go to another office, and she would return to talk to her. Id. at ¶10. Williams told Plaintiff her behavior was unacceptable and questioned Plaintiff about the comment she made about Gass. Id. at ¶11. Plaintiff admitted making the comment, and Williams told her disrespectful comments are not tolerated. Id. Williams asked Plaintiff why she had not previously expressed concerns about Gass' eyesight. (Exh. 3, Brooks Dep. at 121). Plaintiff stated Cheryl Vaughn, Plaintiff and Gass' supervisor, did not listen to anything anyone said about Gass. Id. Plaintiff also made allegations that Gass had been leaving the facility without permission and without writing it down on her time card. Id. at 125. After this conversation, Williams contacted her supervisor, Dave Forsthoffer ("Forsthoffer"), and informed him about Plaintiff's comment to Gass and Plaintiff's allegations against Gass. (Williams' Decl. ¶15).

The next day, Thursday, February 17, 2005, Forsthoffer had a meeting with Williams and Plaintiff to discuss the issues. (Exh. 3, Brooks Dep. at 133). Plaintiff admitted making the comment to Gass about her eye, and made the following allegations about Gass: (1) Gass was not keeping her time accurately; (2) Gass was pairing people together on the line to make her numbers look better; (3) Gass did not know how to identify quality issues; (4) Gass used overtime rather than bringing in additional employees if a line was short; and (5) Gass went home to let her dogs out and had to have another employee write-up an injury report. (Exh. 4, Brooks Dep. at 146). At the conclusion of the meeting, Forsthoffer called Sue Koopman ("Koopman"), the Human Resources Site Manager, and told her about the incident. (Court File No. 10, Exh. 11, Declaration of Dave Forsthoffer ("Forsthoffer Decl.") at ¶4). Plaintiff, Gass, and Vaughn were sent home and an investigation ensued regarding Plaintiff's allegations about Gass. Id. The investigation revealed Gass' supervisor had given her permission to leave the facility during shifts, and Plaintiff's allegations were unfounded. (Court File No. 10, Exh. 9, Declaration of Joe Perry ("Perry Decl.") at ¶7).

The investigation surrounding Plaintiff's comment to Gass revealed Plaintiff made harassing comments concerning Gass' loss of an eye; Plaintiff admitted making the comment and showed no remorse; Plaintiff continued to say Gass could not see and only has one eye; and Plaintiff never accepted the fact she had off-standards, even though they were verified and beyond dispute. Id. at ¶6. At this point, Defendant began considering whether to discipline and/or terminate Plaintiff. Defendant considers questions of discipline and termination in progressive groups, starting with the HR Personnel Core Team. (Forsthoffer Decl. at ¶4). This team tests potential terminations against company policies, and after making a recommendation about termination, the matter goes to a staff team, who reviews the matter anew. Id. The ultimate decision of whether to terminate rests with Ben Melnycuk ("Melnyczuk"), the facility manager. Id.

In deciding the issue of Plaintiff's discipline, the HR Personnel Core Team determined Plaintiff had violated company policy, and her violation was a terminable offense. (Forsthoffer Decl. at ¶4). Then, the matter was considered by the staff team. They considered the following factors: (1) Plaintiff had off-standards; (2) Plaintiff was already on "write-up" for a previous quality issue; (3) Plaintiff committed a Code of Conduct violation when she made the comment about Gass' eye; and (4) Plaintiff showed a lack of remorse for the situation since during the investigation she continued to state Gass could not see with one eye. (Court File No. 10, Declaration of Ben Melnyczuk ("Melnyczuk Decl.") at ¶7). The staff team unanimously voted to terminate Plaintiff's employment. Id. at ¶8. On March 2, 2005, Williams called Plaintiff and told her she was terminated. (Exh. 5, Brooks Dep. at 169).

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff's complaint alleges Defendant (1) terminated her because of her race; (2) subjected her to a hostile work environment; and (3) discharged her in retaliation as prohibited by the TPPA and Title VII. Defendant argues Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case with respect to three of these claims. The Court will address each claim in turn.

A. Race Discrimination Claim

In her complaint, Plaintiff alleges she was terminated because of her race. Defendant moves for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim, contending Plaintiff was not qualified for the position and was not replaced by a person outside her protected class or treated differently than similarly-situated employees outside her protected class. For the following reasons, the Court will GRANT Defendant's motion for summary judgment, and Plaintiff's claim for race discrimination will be DISMISSED.

A plaintiff "may establish a prima facie case of discrimination either by presenting direct evidence of intentional discrimination by the defendant or by showing the existence of circumstantial evidence which creates an inference of discrimination." Talley v. Bravo Pitino Rest., Ltd., 61 F.3d 1241, 1246 (6th Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). "The direct evidence and circumstantial paths are mutually exclusive; the plaintiff can meet her burden with either method of proof." Weberg v. Franks, 229 F.3d 514, 523 (6th Cir. 2000). Plaintiff has not presented any direct evidence the individuals responsible for making the termination decision were motivated by racial animus. Accordingly, the Court assumes she bases her claim on circumstantial evidence.

When relying on circumstantial evidence to prove a claim of discrimination, a burden-shifting paradigm is employed. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), as later clarified by, Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981). Under this paradigm, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. To establish a prima facie case of race discrimination, a plaintiff must show (1) she is a member of a protected group, (2) she was subject to an adverse employment decision, (3) she was qualified for the position, and (4) she was replaced by a person outside of the protected class. Carter v. Univ. of Toledo, 349 F.3d 269, 273 (6th Cir. 2003); Kline v. Tennessee Valley Auth., 128 F.3d 337, 349 (6th Cir. 1997).

Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to "articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's rejection." McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802; Logan v. Denny's, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 567 (6th Cir. 2001). If the defendant is able to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the action, then Plaintiff must prove the proffered reason was actually a pretext for discrimination. Id. Pretext can be proven by showing the stated reason (1) had no basis in fact, (2) was not the actual reason, or (3) was insufficient to explain Defendant's action. Logan, 259 F.3d at 567.

Plaintiff has met the first two elements of her prima facie case: she is African American and therefore a member of a protected class for the purposes of a race-discrimination claim. Further, Defendant does not contest Plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action. Accordingly, the Court will address whether Plaintiff was ...


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