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Williams v. Graphic Packaging International, Inc.

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

May 8, 2018




         Pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 24). Plaintiff filed a response in opposition (Doc. No. 29), and Defendant has replied. (Doc. No. 35). For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.


         Plaintiff, James Randy Williams, alleges unlawful employment practices against his former employer, Defendant Graphic Packaging International, Inc. Plaintiff asserts claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Tennessee Disability Act (“TDA”), Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (“GINA”), Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”), Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).

         Plaintiff was employed by Defendant as a department manager over cutting and gluing from September 2011 until December 2015. (Doc. No. 31 at 1). Plaintiff was 55 years old when Eddie Lee (“Lee”) hired Plaintiff. (Id. at 2). During his tenure with the Defendant, Plaintiff consistently received positive performance evaluations for meeting and exceeding production goals. (Id.). Plaintiff supervised four managers who reported directly to him: Tasha Pack (“Pack”), Sandy Williams (“Williams”), Jackie Miles (“Miles”), and Tony Sewell (“Sewell”). (Id. at 3). Plaintiff was “second in command” over operations at the facility, and the managers reported directly to him. (Id.). Plaintiff was diagnosed with prostate cancer for the second time in September of 2015, and requested a leave of absence under Defendant's medical leave policy to undergo treatment. (Id. at 4). Defendant granted Plaintiff's leave request and Plaintiff took medical leave from September 2015 until November 23, 2015. (Id. at 4). Pack assumed Plaintiff's duties while he was on leave. (Id.).

         While working with Pack during Plaintiff's FMLA leave, Lee noticed that Pack was not communicating with him regularly and met with Pack in mid -November to address her lack of communication. (Id. at 5). Pack revealed she was afraid to communicate with Lee because Plaintiff warned her that Lee was not to be trusted and cautioned her to avoid Lee as much as possible. (Id.). On November 30, 2015, Lee and Steve Flatt (“Flatt”), Defendant's HR Manager, spoke with Plaintiff about the issues Pack raised, and Plaintiff denied them. (Id. at 7). On December 1, 2015, Flatt interviewed Pack and she alleged Plaintiff yelled at her in front of her subordinates on multiple occasions, threatened to fire her, and stated that he “owned” her. (Id. at 12-14). Pack also told Flatt that Plaintiff disclosed to her that Miles received an unfavorable performance evaluation and did not get a raise. (Id. at 15).

         Flatt conducted an investigation and requested all the managers under Plaintiff to email him about grievances they had against Plaintiff. (Id. at 17). Miles and Sewell each emailed Flatt instances when Plaintiff told them they had “targets on their back” and he “owned” them, threatened to fire them, and led them around the production floor while making statements about their inability to manage in front of employees. (Id. at 18-19). Flatt learned from Connie Hunt (“Hunt”), a supervisor who did not report to Plaintiff, that she had helped Plaintiff cheat on a safety training test. (Id. at 21). Flatt also learned Plaintiff exchanged text messages with an employee and Pack about a rumor regarding Lee molesting his daughter. (Id. at 15, 22). On December 2, 2015, Defendant suspended Plaintiff pending an investigation into the Plaintiff's violations of the Company's Core Values. (Doc. No. 1 at 4).

         On December 7, 2015, Flatt conducted his first interview with Plaintiff by telephone; Plaintiff described his relationship with his subordinates as good. (Id. at 22). Plaintiff admitted to receiving “assistance” on his training test and telling only Pack about the rumor regarding Lee, but denied threatening employees with termination, yelling at them, or telling them that he “owned” them. (Id. at 23). Plaintiff further denied that he had spoken with another employee about the rumors concerning Lee. (Id.). On December 8, Flatt interviewed Plaintiff again by telephone to allow Plaintiff to clarify his response regarding speaking to another employee about the rumor concerning Lee because Flatt had reviewed the text messages involving Plaintiff about that subject. ( Id. at 24). When Flatt revealed he had the text messages that Plaintiff exchanged with the employee, Plaintiff claimed he forgot about the messages during the previous interview. (Id. at 24-25).

         After speaking with Plaintiff, Flatt gathered written statements, prepared a final report of his investigation and recommended Plaintiff's termination. (Id. at 25). Flatt submitted his report and recommendation to Lee, the regional director of operations, the regional director of human resources, the second regional director of human resources, the vice president of human resources, and in-house counsel, who were tasked with determining Plaintiff's termination. (Id. at 27). During a December 14, 2015 group call, to discuss Flatt's recommendation, all participants who viewed Flatt's recommendation agreed to terminate Plaintiff's employment for violating Graphic's Core Values. (Id. at 28-29). Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment on December 14, 2015. (Id. at 29).

         Plaintiff timely filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and filed his Complaint on November 21, 2016, within ninety (90) days of his receipt of the Notice of Rights to Sue Letter alleging that Defendant discriminated against him. (Doc. No. 1). In response, Defendant argues that Plaintiff was terminated for violating company policy by using fear, intimidation, and manipulation to manage his subordinates. (Doc. No. 24 at 1). Defendant denies discriminating, interfering, or retaliating against Plaintiff and seeks summary judgment on all claims.


         Summary judgment is appropriate “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). 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 evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the court views the facts in the light most favorable for the nonmoving party, and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Bible Believers v. Wayne Cty., Mich., 805 F.3d 228, 242 (6th Cir. 2015); Wexler v. White's Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d 564, 570 (6th Cir. 2003). The Court does not 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). Rather, the Court determines whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of material fact a proper jury question. Id. The mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party's position is insufficient to survive summary judgment; instead, there must be evidence of which the jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Rodgers v. Banks, 344 F.3d 587, 595 (6th Cir. 2003).

         III. ANALYSIS


         Title I of the ADA and the Tennessee Disability Act prohibits covered employers from discriminating against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability with regard to hiring, advancement, training, termination, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a), Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-50-103(b). Claims are analyzed using the familiar burden-shifting analysis established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).[1]The analysis applies when, as here, a plaintiff relies on circumstantial evidence to prove that an employer discriminated or retaliated against the employee. If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the defendant to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action. Bryson v. Regis Corp., 498 F.3d 561, 570 (6th Cir. 2007). If the defendant articulates such a reason, the burden then “shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant's proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination.” Id.

         Defendant argues it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's ADA and TDA discrimination claims. To establish a prima facie case for ADA and TDA discrimination, Plaintiff must show: (1) he is disabled, (2) he is otherwise qualified for the position, with or without reasonable accommodation, (3) he suffered an adverse employment action, (4) Defendant knew or had reason to know of Plaintiff's disability, and (5) the position remained open while Defendant sought other applicants or the disabled individual was replaced. Whitfield v. Tennessee, 639 F.3d 253, 259 (6th Cir. 2011). The parties do not appear to dispute whether evidence supports establishment of a prima facie case of ADA or TDA discrimination or that Defendant provides a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Plaintiff.[2] Instead, Defendant argues Plaintiff cannot put forth evidence that Defendant's decision was pretextual. (Doc. No. 24 at 13).

         Thus, the burden shifts to the Plaintiff to prove Defendant's legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for adverse action is pretextual. Bryson, 498 F.3d at 570 (6th Cir. 2007).

         A plaintiff may show pretext in one of three ways: “(1) that the proffered reasons had no basis in fact, (2) that the proffered reasons did not actually motivate the employer's action, or (3) that they were insufficient to motivate the employer's action.” Barlia v. MWI Veterinary Supply, Inc., 2018 WL 327448 at *6 (6th Cir. 2018) (quoting Ferrari v. Ford Motor Company, 826 F.3d 885, 895 (6th Cir. 2016)), see also Quillen v. Touchstone Medical Imaging LLC, 15 F.Supp.3d 774, 781-82 (M.D. Tenn. Apr. 18, 2014). The Sixth Circuit explained,

The first type of showing is easily recognizable and consists of evidence that the proffered bases for the plaintiff's discharge never happened, i.e., that they are factually false. The third showing is also easily recognizable and, ordinarily, consists of evidence that other employees, particularly employees not in the protected class, were not fired even though they engaged in substantially identical conduct to that which the employer contends motivated its discharge of the plaintiff. . . The second showing. . . the plaintiff admits the factual basis underlying the employer's proffered explanation and further admits that such conduct could motivate dismissal. . . In such cases, the plaintiff attempts to indict the credibility of his employer's explanation by showing circumstances which tend to prove that an illegal motivation was more likely than that offered by the defendant. In other words, the plaintiff argues that the sheer weight of the circumstantial evidence of discrimination makes it “more likely than not” that the employer's explanation is a pretext, or a coverup.

Hedrick v. Western Reserve Care System, 355 F.3d 444, 461 (6th Cir. 2004).

         Here, Plaintiff argues he can show pretext for all three situations. Therefore, the Court will analyze each of Plaintiff's arguments in turn.

         1. Defendant's Proffered Reason Had No. Basis in Fact.

         Plaintiff argues Defendant's reasons for terminating him are pretextual because the investigation conducted by Flatt had no basis in fact. (Doc. No. 29 at 18). Specifically, Plaintiff argues Defendant's investigation and resulting report was filled with inconsistencies and falsehoods. (Id. at 18). Plaintiff alleges Flatt mischaracterized Pack's official complaint and the emails from other managers by including language that the managers never used in their email. (Id. at 19). Plaintiff asserts Defendant relied on false information from Pack and the other managers, because he never demeaned, berated or forced them to stay at work just to show that he could make them stay. (Doc. No. 30-2, William Affidavit).

         In response, Defendant relies on the “honest belief” rule to dispute Plaintiff's assertion that he never violated the Company's Core Values. (Doc. No. 24 at 14-15). The Sixth Circuit applies the honest belief rule to employment discrimination claims and states, “as long as the employer honestly believed the reason it gave for its employment action, an employee is not able to establish pretext even if the employer's reason is ultimately found to be mistaken.” Ferrari v. Ford Motor Company, 826, F.3d 885, 895-96 (6th Cir. 2016); see also Tingle v. Arbors at Hilliard, 692 F.3d 523, 530 (6th Cir. 2012) (explaining that “[w]hen an employer reasonably and honestly relies on particularized facts in making an employment decision, it is entitled to summary judgment on pretext even if its conclusion is later shown to be mistaken, foolish, trivial, or baseless.”). Defendant based Plaintiff's termination on complaints from other managers and Flatt's investigation and report. The report presumed Plaintiff violated the Company's Core Values, and Plaintiff cannot show that Defendant unreasonably relied on the report. (Doc. No. 24 at 15-16).

         The Court finds that Defendant's proffered reason had a basis in fact. Furthermore, Plaintiff admitted to some of the conduct upon which the termination recommendation was based. (Doc. No. 31 at 23-25). Defendant has implemented an Open Door and Problem Resolution Policy that allows employees to bypass their immediate supervisors when raising concerns, and states that open communication is essential to a successful work environment. (Id. at 30). Defendant had an honest belief in terminating Plaintiff, and reasonably relied on employees' signed emails and Flatt's recommendation and report regarding how Plaintiff treated the managers, which violated the Open Door and Problem Resolution Policy.[3]See Marshall v. The Rawlings Co. Inc., 854 F.3d 368, 380 (6th Cir. 2017); Jones v. Potter, 488 F.3d 397 (6th Cir. 2007). Even if Plaintiff asserts ...

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