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Phelan v. General Motors

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

September 15, 2017

JOHN PHELAN, Plaintiff



         Pending before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 24) filed by General Motors (“GM”). For the reasons stated herein, the Motion will be GRANTED, and this action will be DISMISSED.


         John Phelan was hired at GM's Spring Hill, Tennessee manufacturing facility in 2013 and was fired on January 4, 2016. Phelan worked his way up to a Maintenance Group Leader (“MGL”) position in General Assembly. In October of 2015, Phelan reported to Maintenance and Engineering Manager Charlie Sageman. At that time, the Spring Hill facility was transitioning from a low volume production facility to a full-time production facility, and, to oversee this transition in General Assembly, Jill Phillips Ortega became General Assembly's Area Manager. One of her tasks was to gauge how the existing maintenance structure needed to change to support the coming transformation to the facility.

         During this time, Ortega called for MGLs to take ownership for improvement in responding to maintenance problems, analyzing and reporting problems, and standardizing and communicating steps for preventative and ongoing fixes so that problems would not recur. As part of this process, Ortega directed that the End of Shift (“EOS”) reports of MGLs should contain more details than they had previously contained. GM contends that EOS reports are important because they help better communication within the production facility. GM argues that an EOS report requires an MGL to analyze each mechanical breakdown by indicating the issue, the root cause, and the countermeasure (to avoid the problem in the future). GM asserts that an EOS report should be completed each day no later than 30 minutes after the end of the MGL's shift. GM argues that Phelan was fired because of repeated poor performance, a “stubborn unwillingness to follow directions, ” including directions about the EOS reports, and for a safety violation.

         Phelan has alleged that GM terminated his employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Title VII, and Tennessee's Occupational Safety and Health Act (“TOSHA”). Phelan asserts that he was fired because he has a disabled daughter and he had to take time off to help her; because he complained that his supervisor engaged in racial harassment and discrimination; and because he refused to participate in an OSHA safety violation.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56©; Pennington v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., 553 F.3d 447, 450 (6th Cir. 2009). The party bringing the summary judgment motion has the initial burden of informing the Court of the basis for its motion and identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute over material facts. Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 595 (6th Cir. 2003). The moving party may satisfy this burden by presenting affirmative evidence that negates an element of the non-moving party's claim or by demonstrating an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Id.

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must review all the evidence, facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Van Gorder v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad, Inc., 509 F.3d 265, 268 (6th Cir. 2007). The Court does not, however, 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). The Court determines whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper jury question. Id. The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party's position will be insufficient to survive summary judgment; rather, there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Rodgers, 344 F.3d at 595.


         The ADA prohibits employers from, among other things, “excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because of the known disability of an individual with whom the qualified individual is known to have a relationship or association.”[1] Shoemaker v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 219 F.Supp.3d 719, 734 (E.D. Tenn. 2016) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(4)).

         To establish a prima facie case of associational discrimination, a plaintiff must produce evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that (1) he was qualified for the position; (2) the employer subjected him to an adverse employment action; (3) the employer knew that the plaintiff was associated with a disabled individual; and (4) the adverse employment action raises a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative was a determining factor in the decision. Id. (citing Stansberry v. Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp., 651 F.3d 482, 487 (6th Cir. 2011)). The Complaint alleges that GM discriminated against him because of his association with his disabled daughter by disciplining and eventually firing him.

         GM argues that Phelan's ADA claim is based on the alleged failure to provide him notice of his Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) rights. Phelan has not asserted an FMLA claim, however, and contends that the failure to advise him of his FMLA rights is merely one of several ways GM treated him differently from employees without disabled relatives. Phelan has not identified any specific employees without disabled relatives who were similarly situated and were advised of their FMLA rights. To the extent his ADA claim is based upon this failure to advise him of his FMLA rights, Phelan has failed to produce evidence from which a reasonable jury could find for him on that claim.

         The safety violation for which Phelan was suspended involved what is called a “lockout violation.” GM policy requires all employees who are working in an area where production equipment is down and being repaired to “lock out” the machine before starting work.[2] (Doc. No. 27 at 16.) GM alleges that it is an MGL's responsibility to make sure that, before anyone enters the area being repaired, the machine is locked out. Id. GM contends that Phelan allowed a violation of the lockout policy on his “watch.” Phelan, on the other hand, argues that, pursuant to the policy of his manager, Mr. Sageman, the most senior employee present during a breakdown is “in charge” during that breakdown and responsible for any lockdown. Id. The Court cannot find the pages of his deposition that Phelan cites for this alleged fact in the record, so it cannot consider them. Phelan contends that other managers, higher up than he was, witnessed this ...

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