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Johnson v. Fortune Plastics of Tennessee

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

October 26, 2016

WAYNE V. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,



         Wayne V. Johnson filed this action against Fortune Plastics of Tennessee (“Fortune Plastics”) challenging his demotion under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., and his termination from employment under the FMLA, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Doc. No. 28, First Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 19, 20 and 21.) For the following reasons, Fortune Plastics' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 36) is GRANTED.

         I. Undisputed Facts

         Johnson is an African American man who was fifty-five years old when Fortune Plastics moved him to a different job position and, five months later, terminated his employment. (Doc. No. 28 at 2.) Fortune Plastics manufactures can liners, supermarket items, bags, and other industrial products in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Doc. No. 46 at 1.) It hired Johnson in 1978 and he later became a Lead Operator. (Id. at 2-3.) Eric Taylor was the Plant Manager. (Id.) Keith Anderson was the General Manager until mid-December 2013, when Karl Lehtola replaced him. (Id.; Doc. No. 36-4 at 6-7.) Plaintiff concedes that he never heard Taylor, Anderson or Lehtola make a discriminatory statement. (Doc. No. 46 at 3.)

         Johnson received every FMLA leave request he made. (Doc. No. 6.) From May 21, 2013 to May 30, 2013, and from June 7, 2013 to July 24, 2013, Johnson was approved for medical leave under the FMLA. (Id. at 5-6.) During Johnson's June-July FMLA leave, Taylor and Anderson moved Edward Young, a white male, to the Lead Operator position and placed Johnson in a Senior XO position when he returned from leave.[1] (Id. at 8.) Their decision was made because Johnson was not trained on the new software system[2] and because of concerns about Johnson's job performance and his attention to safety precautions. (Id. at 8-9.) Johnson was informed of his reassignment upon his return from FMLA leave on July 24, 2013. Fortune Plastics did not tell him that he was being demoted. (Id. at 9.) Indeed, there was no change in his pay, benefits, work shift or hours of work. (Id.) As the Senior XO, Johnson would continue to be involved in the supervision of employees, as he had done as the Lead Operator. (Id. at 10.)

         On December 16, 2013, Johnson committed a safety violation that caused his co-worker, Celeste Burch, to suffer an injury. (Id. at 13-14.) Johnson turned off the folder machine to investigate the cause of a jam, removed the safety guard, but failed to disconnect the machine from its energy source when he walked away from the machine. (Id. at 13.) He admits that he did not lock the machine when he removed the safety guard as required by the company's “lock-out, tag-out procedure.” He was unable to lock out the machine because the lock was not in its proper place and he was unable to locate it. (Doc. Nos. 46 at 13-15; 36-4 at 44-45.) After Johnson walked away to look for a lock, Burch turned the machine on and began pulling bags from the machine when her finger was injured. (Doc. No. 46 at 14.) While Burch went to the restroom to wash off her injured finger, Johnson also pulled bags off the folder machine, which was still running. (Id. at 14-15.) About ten to fifteen minutes after Burch's injury, she and Johnson walked away from the folder machine to report her injury. (Id.) Johnson again failed to turn off the machine before walking away from it. (Id.) However, Johnson believes that he instructed another employee to “shut the whole line down.” (Doc. Nos. 46 at 14; 36-4 at 48.)

         After the December 16, 2013, incident, Fortune Plastics conducted an investigation. Among other things, Johnson admitted that he had been trained on the proper “lock-out, tag-out procedure, ” that he did not follow the company's safety precautions, and that Burch would not have been injured if he had stayed by the machine after removing the safety guard and sent someone else to find a lock. (Id. at 16.) He also admits that he had previously received a safety warning when he permitted a subordinate to repair a machine without using the company's lockout, tag-out procedure. (Id. at 19-20.) On December 20, 2013, after concluding the investigation, Johnson was terminated for the December 16, 2013 safety violations. (Id. at 17-18.) The company also terminated Burch, a white female, for her involvement in that accident. (Id. at 19.)

         Fortune Plastics has disciplined and terminated other employees for safety violations. (Id. at 20.) In 2014, the company terminated two white males - Josh Bozarth and Josh Brewington -under the age of forty for violating workplace safety rules. (Id.) Also in 2014, three white employees, two over 40 years and the third who was 40 at the time, were disciplined for failing to lock-out while making repairs. (Doc. No. 46 at 20-21.) They were not terminated because their safety violations were less egregious than Johnson's violation. (Id. at 21.)

         II. Legal Standard

         In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, this Court will only consider the narrow question of whether there are “genuine issues as to any material fact and [whether] the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The Court is required to view "the facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party . . . ." Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co., 826 F.3d 885, 891 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Cass v. City of Dayton, 770 F.3d 368, 373 (6th Cir. 2014)).

         III. Analysis

         Johnson alleges that he was subjected to retaliation and discrimination. He alleges that he was demoted and terminated in retaliation for requesting FMLA leave and that his termination was unlawful under the FMLA, ADEA, and Title VII.[3] (Doc. No. 28.)

         A. FMLA

         The FMLA entitles eligible employees to twelve-weeks of leave and reinstatement to their previous or an equivalent position. Edgar v. JAC Prods., Inc., 443 F.3d 501, 506 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1)). Employers are prohibited from “us[ing] the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions.” Hunter v. Valley View Local ...

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