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Northern v. Chase Scientific Glass

November 2, 2007

EVETTE D. NORTHERN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHASE SCIENTIFIC GLASS, INC. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas W. Phillips United States District Judge

(Phillips/Guyton)

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Evette D. Northern brings this action for retaliatory discharge under Title VII, the Tennessee Human Rights Act, and the Tennessee Public Protection Act, and further alleges retaliatory discharge and outrageous conduct under the Tennessee common law. Defendant Chase Scientific Glass, Inc. has moved for summary judgment on all five of plaintiff's causes of action [Doc. 20]. Plaintiff responded in opposition [Doc. 28], and defendant replied [Doc. 35]. After reviewing the extensive briefs and evidence submitted in support thereof, the court has determined that oral argument will not be necessary. The plaintiff's request for oral argument is therefore denied.

For the reasons that follow, defendant's motion will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. BACKGROUND

The facts as follows are construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the plaintiff.

Defendant Chase Scientific Glass, Inc. ("Chase") is a manufacturer of laboratory and scientific glass products located in Rockwood, Tennessee. During the relevant time period, Chase was a wholly owned subsidiary of Fisher Scientific International, Inc., and part of the Fisher Scientific Products division. On February 15, 2005, plaintiff Evette Northern was hired by Chase as a Human Resources ("HR") Generalist by then-HR Director Vicki Bryant. As an HR Generalist, plaintiff Northern was responsible for human resources functions at the Chase plant in Rockwood, Tennessee, as well as various other locations in the United States.

When Vicki Bryant's employment was terminated, plaintiff assumed additional responsibilities and was promoted to HR Supervisor on May 26, 2005. In July 2005, Robert Brooks was hired as the new director of HR for Chase. At that time, two HR Supervisors reported to Mr. Brooks, plaintiff and Sandy Roy.

In October 2005, Mr. Brooks streamlined the HR department, assigning plaintiff as the HR Supervisor for Employee Relations and Ms. Roy as the HR Supervisor for Compensation & Benefits. Mr. Brooks created a "task list" for each member of the HR department to complete for the remainder of 2005. Plaintiff's job duties included hiring, recruiting, interviewing, orientation, counseling, disciplinary actions, investigations, and terminations for the Chase facilities in Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Between October 2005 and February 2006, Mr. Brooks met with plaintiff on at least three occasions. Defendant alleges that these meetings were to review with plaintiff her performance and to discuss what had and had not been accomplished. Although plaintiff acknowledges the meetings, she disputes that she was made aware that she was not fulfilling her assigned tasks. Defendant alleges that based on these meetings, Mr. Brooks assessed the need for a strong Employee Relations Manager and created a job description to that end. Defendant alleges that Mr. Brooks determined that plaintiff, who holds an Associates of Applied Science, Contemporaneous Business Management Degree from Roane State, did not possess the requisite education, skills, or experience to perform this position. Plaintiff, however, notes that there is no documentation of any problems with her performance and that Brooks at all times found her performance satisfactory and complete.

In late 2005, Mr. Brooks placed the Employee Relations Manager job description in various publications and provided the same to a recruiter. In January 2006, Mr. Brooks drafted the "Chase Group HR Re-alignment Recommendation" ("Recommendation"), wherein he advised his superiors of his observations over the first six months of his employment and, in particular, his recommendation that a strong Employee Relations Manager be hired. In the Recommendation, Mr. Brooks noted that plaintiff, though she was the Employee Relations Supervisor at the time, did not have the requisite skills, education, or background to fulfill this new role of Manager. Throughout January 2006, Mr. Brooks forwarded copies of the Recommendation to his superiors, including the new Vice President of HR for Fisher Scientific Products Division, Patrick Brown, all of whom agreed with the substance of the Recommendation. Mr. Brooks therefore began to search confidentially for a qualified candidate for the position.

On February 22 and 23, 2006, Messrs. Brooks and Brown attended an internal HR conference in Southfield, Michigan. Defendant contends, and plaintiff disputes, that at this time Mr. Brooks and Mr. Brown decided to "move forward with respect to plaintiff's termination." Meanwhile at the Chase facility, plaintiff was advised that an employee, Paul Underwood, had violated Chase's attendance policy. Because of his poor attendance record, plaintiff issued Mr. Underwood a final written warning and contacted him to discuss his violation. Mr. Underwood, however, requested to meet with plaintiff in person. On February 23, 2006, plaintiff met with Mr. Underwood, who voiced various concerns related to his employment and the well-being of the local community, including alleged pay discrepancies, monetary kickbacks, sexual harassment by his superiors, and illegal dumping.

After her meeting, plaintiff called Mr. Brooks and advised him of the allegations raised by Mr. Underwood. Upon Mr. Brooks's return to Tennessee on February 24, 2006, both Mr. Brooks and plaintiff met with Mr. Underwood to discuss the concerns raised. Following the meeting, Mr. Brooks asked plaintiff to follow-up solely with regard to the potential wage disparity claimed by Mr. Underwood. Plaintiff also reported personal knowledge of dumping activities at Chase to Mr. Brooks and alerted Mr. Brooks that if the allegations were true, "heads would roll." In fact, Ms. Northern's investigation of the pay discrimination claims by Mr. Underwood did reveal disparities.*fn1

On February 28, 2006, Mr. Brooks met with plaintiff to advise her that her employment with Chase was being terminated. Plaintiff maintains that she was never given a reason for her termination and was informed that there were no problems with her performance. Defendant, however, maintains that plaintiff was advised that her employment was terminated due to planned restructuring as outlined in the Recommendation, not poor performance.

Plaintiff timely filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Chase, alleging retaliation. On August 11, 2006, plaintiff received a notice of right to sue and timely filed the instant case. Plaintiff alleges that Chase terminated her employment in retaliation for her refusal to remain silent and participation in relaying the information conveyed to her by Mr. Underwood, in violation of Title VII, the Tennessee Human Rights Act, the Tennessee Public Protection Act, and the Tennessee common law. Plaintiff further seeks recovery for the tort of outrageous conduct, alleging that Chase acted maliciously, intentionally, and with reckless indifference so as to be intolerably outrageous.

Defendant Chase has moved for summary judgment with regard to all of plaintiff's claims, arguing that the absence of genuine issues of material fact entitle Chase to judgment as a matter of law. Specifically, Chase asserts that plaintiff did not engage in any protected activity and that Chase decided to terminate plaintiff prior to her engagement in the alleged protected activity. Finally, Chase asserts that there is insufficient evidence to support a claim of outrageous conduct.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may grant summary judgment only when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(c). The court must construe the facts and draw all inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion-in this case, the plaintiff. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zendith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The sufficiency of the evidence at summary judgment is guided by the "substantive evidentiary standard of proof that would apply at the trial on the merits." Id. at 252. Because the instant case is governed by the preponderance of the evidence standard, this court must ask itself "whether reasonable jurors could find by a preponderance of the evidence that the plaintiff is entitled to a verdict." Id. at 252.

This does not mean that the evidence must dictate a verdict for plaintiff; rather, a genuine issue of material fact exists if there is sufficient evidence, beyond a "mere scintilla," that a jury could return a verdict for plaintiff. Id.

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. With regard to issues where the moving party will not bear the ultimate burden of proof at trial,"the burden on the moving party may be discharged by 'showing' ... that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate the existence of genuine issues of material fact. Id. at 324. The nonmoving party demonstrates the existence of genuine issues of material fact by "going beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the ...


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