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Johnson v. Cox Oil Company, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

June 10, 2015

JAMES JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COX OIL COMPANY, INC., Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

J. DANIEL BREEN, District Judge.

On January 28, 2014, Plaintiff, James Johnson, brought this action against Defendant, Cox Oil Company, Inc. ("Cox Oil"), claiming that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000, et seq., and the Tennessee Human Rights Act (the "THRA"), Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-101, et seq. (Docket Entry ("D.E.") 1.) Before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (D.E. 24.) Plaintiff has responded to the motion, (D.E. 26), and Defendant has filed a reply, (D.E. 28), making the matter ripe for disposition. For the reasons discussed below, the motion is GRANTED.

I. Background

The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. In March 2008, Cox Oil hired Johnson to work at one of its convenience stores, Little General Store Number 28 in Sharon, Tennessee, and promoted him to the position of "Assistant Manager" in November 2008. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 1, D.E. 27; Def.'s Resps. and Objections to Pl.'s First Set of Interrogs. ¶ 8, D.E. 27-1.) The next year, Plaintiff transferred to Little General Store Number 55 ("Store 55"), located in Union City, Tennessee. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 2, D.E. 27.) During 2011 and 2012, Johnson spent six months working at a Maverick Quick Shop owned by Defendant, where he was managed by Dustin McBride. (Id. ¶ 3; McBride Dep. at 26, D.E. 25-3.)[1] He eventually transferred back to Store 55. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 3, D.E. 27.) According to Johnson, he specifically sought to work for McBride in an attempt to receive training and the opportunity to move up in the company, but he later requested to move back to Store 55 after McBride repeatedly wrote him up. ( See Pl.'s Dep. 33-36, D.E. 27-2.) Johnson testified in his deposition that McBride required him, on one occasion, to come in at 6:00 AM to compile a report after closing the store the previous night, which other managers had never expected him to do. ( See id. at 46.) Later in 2012, Plaintiff began working at Little General Store Number 8 ("Store 8"), located in Union City, to temporarily replace Store 8's General Manager, Delakeenah Anderson, who was unable to work for medical reasons. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 4-5, 14, D.E. 27.) Johnson's tenure at Store 8 ended on March 26, 2013, when Anderson received clearance from her doctor to return to work. (Id. ¶ 14.)

One of Johnson's duties as an Assistant Manager was to compile a "daily report" consisting of certain sales and inventory numbers. (Id. ¶ 9.) As part of the report, he performed so-called "cigarette counts, " which required him to "tak[e] the... count of cigarette inventory at the beginning of the day, subtract the number of cigarettes sold that day, and determin[e] whether the resulting number equal[ed] the number left in inventory at the end of the day." (Id. ¶ 23.) In his deposition, Plaintiff stated that he spoke to Chad Turnbow, the area supervisor for Store 8, about his cigarette counts shortly before Anderson returned. (Pl.'s Dep. 48-49, 54, D.E. 27-2.) According to Johnson, he told Turnbow that the counts were not adding up properly, and Turnbow replied that he did not have time to investigate the problem but would address the issue later. (Id. ) Plaintiff's testimony also indicated that Turnbow said he had recently performed an audit of Store 8, so the discrepancies should not have been a problem. (Id. at 48-50.)

On March 27, 2013, Anderson compiled her first daily report after having returned to work, and it indicated that eighty packs of cigarettes were missing from Store 8's inventory. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 15-16, D.E. 27.) She promptly called McBride to report her findings, [2] and he came to the store to investigate. (Id. ) After reviewing the inventory and sales reports, McBride called Johnson and asked that he meet him at the store to discuss discrepancies contained in the daily reports and inventory counts Plaintiff prepared. (Id. ¶ 16.) When Johnson arrived, McBride asked him to demonstrate a cigarette count, and Plaintiff did so. (Id. ¶ 20.)[3] McBride then showed Johnson that the number from some of his previous cigarette counts at Store 8 did not add up properly. (Id. ¶ 21.) After a conversation between the two, the content of which the parties disagree about, [4] McBride fired Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 26.) Defendant's stated reason for Johnson's termination was that he falsified company documents related to the cigarette counts. (Id. ¶ 26.) Under Cox Oil's discipline policy, certain conduct is considered "so serious that [it] will result in immediate termination of the first offense, " and "[f]alsifying [c]ompany records or reports including[] personnel, physical exams, employment records, ... etc." falls into this category. (Id. ¶ 25 (quoting Ex. 1 to McBride Decl.; D.E. 25-1).)

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." "A dispute about a material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.'" Smith v. Perkins Bd. of Educ., 708 F.3d 821, 825 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Ford v. Gen. Motors Corp., 305 F.3d 545, 551 (6th Cir. 2002)). A court's function at the summary judgment stage is not to "weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter"; rather, it is "to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986); see Bobo v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 665 F.3d 741, 748 (6th Cir. 2012) ("Credibility determinations... and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.")

The moving party "has the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute as to a material fact." Automated Solutions Corp. v. Paragon Data Sys., Inc., 756 F.3d 504, 520 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). If the motion is properly supported, "the opposing party must go beyond the contents of its pleadings to set forth specific facts that indicate the existence of an issue to be litigated." Slusher v. Carson, 540 F.3d 449, 453 (6th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). A court must grant summary judgment "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, 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." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23; see In re Morris, 260 F.3d 654, 665 (6th Cir. 2001). Because "only admissible evidence may be considered by a trial court in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, " Shipp v. United States, 212 F.Appx. 393, 401-02 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Wiley v. United States, 20 F.3d 222, 226 (6th Cir. 1994)), "[a] party opposing a motion for summary judgment cannot use hearsay or other inadmissible evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact, " Sperle v. Michigan Dep't of Corr., 297 F.3d 483, 495 (6th Cir. 2002) (citing Weberg v. Franks, 229 F.3d 514, 526 n.13 (6th Cir. 2000)). Finally, although a court does not weigh the evidence at this stage, it "must view all evidence and draw any reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the nonmoving party." Demyanovich v. Cadon Plating and Coatings, L.L.C., 747 F.3d 419, 426 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

III. Analysis

A. Title VII and the THRA

Plaintiff brings both Title VII and THRA claims. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for any employer to "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin...." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Likewise, the THRA prohibits employers from "[f]ail[ing] or refus[ing] to hire or discharg[ing] any person or otherwise... discriminat[ing] against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of such individual's race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin...." Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-401(a)(1). With certain exceptions inapplicable to this case, the analysis for claims arising under the THRA and Title VII is the same. See Saulsberry v. Fed. Exp. Corp., 552 F.Appx. 424, 430 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Bobo v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 665 F.3d 741, 757 (6th Cir. 2012)). Because Plaintiff has not argued that a different standard applies to his claim under the THRA than to his claim under Title VII, and as the two arise out of the same facts, the Court will address them together. See Sybrandt v. Home Depot, U.S.A., Inc., 560 F.3d 553, 557 (6th Cir. 2009).

"Allegations of discriminatory conduct... fall into one of two categories: single-motive claims, where an illegitimate reason motivated an employment decision, ' or mixed-motive claims, where both legitimate and illegitimate reasons motivated the employer's decision.'" Spees v. James Marine, Inc., 617 F.3d 380, 389-90 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting White v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 533 F.3d 381, 396 (6th Cir. 2008)). In his response, Johnson argues that he has a valid claim under either theory. The Court will, therefore, address them in turn.

B. Single-Motive Claim

1. Direct Evidence

To survive summary judgment on a single-motive race discrimination claim, a plaintiff "must present either direct or circumstantial evidence that [the employer's] actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by racial animus." Reed, 556 F.Appx. at 428. "[D]irect evidence is that evidence which, if believed, requires the conclusion that unlawful discrimination was at least a motivating factor in the employer's actions." Sami v. Detroit Med. Ctr., 591 F.Appx. 419, 424 (6th Cir. 2014) (alteration in original) (quoting Jacklyn v. Schering-Plough Healthcare Prods. Sales Corp., 176 F.3d 921, 926 (6th Cir. 1999)). To qualify, the evidence must do more than show "that the plaintiff's employer was predisposed to discriminate"; it must also establish "that the employer acted on that predisposition." Grubb v. YSK Corp., 401 F.Appx. 104, 109 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting DiCarlo v. Potter, 358 F.3d 408, 415 (6th Cir. 2004)). "[U]nless a[n improper] motivation is explicitly expressed, " direct evidence of discrimination does not exist. Id. (second alteration in original) (quoting Amini v. Oberlin Coll., 440 F.3d 350, 359 (6th Cir. 2006)).

Defendant argues that "Johnson cannot present any direct evidence of discrimination whatsoever...." (D.E. 24-1 at 6.) Though Plaintiff does not explicitly concede that he lacks direct evidence, he fails to point to any such evidence. In ...


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