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Cruse v. The Sun Products Corp.

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

November 22, 2016

BRIAN CRUSE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE SUN PRODUCTS CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          J. DANIEL BREEN CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Brian Cruse, brought this action against Defendant, The Sun Products Corporation (“Sun Products”) on August 27, 2015, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000e), 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991), the Tennessee Human Rights Act, and the common law of the State of Tennessee. (D.E. 1.) Before the Court is Sun Products' amended motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (D.E. 22.) Plaintiff has responded to the motion, D.E. 28-29, and Defendant has filed a reply, D.E. 40, making the matter ripe for disposition. For the reasons discussed below, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. In late 2004, Plaintiff began working for Defendant as an operator in the raw materials department of its manufacturing center in Dyersburg, Tennessee. He received a promotion to “Team Lead” in 2006. Cruse filed an internal complaint in October 2013, alleging unequal treatment between himself and a white coworker. Cruse is African-American. He argues that Defendant punished him for making this complaint, starting a series of conflicts between himself and his employer that ultimately led to his termination one year later. (D.E. 1 at 2-4.)

         In February 2014, Cruse reported to Defendant that a coworker had drawn a racist image on the white board in a common area, depicting Plaintiff in an offensive manner. The employee who reportedly drew the image later resigned. Plaintiff observed other racist activity at work, including finding the phrase “White Pride Worldwide” written in dust on a railcar on more than one occasion. Cruse states that Sun Products did little to curb these occurrences, while Defendant maintains that management was not aware of some of the activity and properly dealt with the incidents brought to its attention. (D.E. 40.)

         Defendant asserts that in March 2014, Plaintiff “received a written warning for conduct and violation of the code of conduct.” (D.E. 9 at 3.) Cruse characterizes this event as “false allegations of bullying.” (D.E. 1 at 4.) Plaintiff then requested and received copies of his last three job performance evaluations. He claims that they had been altered, “adding absences from work that had not occurred and recording excused absences accompanied by a physician's note as unexcused.” (D.E. 1 at 5.) Defendant denies this allegation. (D.E. 9 at 3.)

         After a brief period of suspension from work, Sun Products terminated Plaintiff's employment on November 14, 2014, and filled his position with a white employee. Defendant maintains that it fired Cruse for unsatisfactory conduct, D.E. 9 at 4, but Plaintiff asserts that he “was a victim of the Defendant's pattern and practice of illegal race discrimination and retaliation, ” D.E. 1 at 3.

         B. Procedural History

         Cruse filed a Charge of Discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on June 11, 2014, while still employed with Defendant. (D.E. 22-5 at 53-54.) He amended the complaint in December of that year following his termination. (Id.) In his EEOC filings, he alleged racial discrimination and retaliation on the part of Sun Products. Id. On February 27, 2015, Plaintiff, through counsel, filed a voluntary petition for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Tennessee. Chapter 13 Voluntary Pet., In re Cruse, No. 15-10431 (Bankr. W.D. Tenn. Feb. 27, 2015), D.E. 1. This petition required that Plaintiff list his personal property and other assets, including his vehicles, household goods, and interest in his 401k. Id. When prompted to list “[o]ther contingent and unliquidated claims of every nature, ” Plaintiff did not include his claim against Defendant or mention that he had filed a complaint with the EEOC. Id. at 10. In fact, he did not mention this claim anywhere in the voluntary petition and did not otherwise communicate its existence to the bankruptcy court.

         Cruse obtained a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC on June 16, 2015, and subsequently filed suit in this Court on August 27 of that year. (D.E. 1.) Sun Products moved for summary judgment in this case on June 21, 2016, raising the issue of judicial estoppel. (D.E. 20.) On the next day, Plaintiff filed an amended schedule in his bankruptcy case, asserting for the first time in that court that he had a “potential EEOC settlement against Sun Products.” Am. Schedule A/B, In re Cruse, D.E. 28 at 5. He also specified that the value of the claim was $100, 000. Id. Plaintiff subsequently moved for permission to employ counsel to pursue this action, Mot. to Employ Att'y, In re Cruse, D.E. 29, which the bankruptcy court granted, Order on Mot. To Employ Att'y, In re Cruse, D.E. 35.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. “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.” (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255)).

         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). 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 Mats ...


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