United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
WILLIAM L. CAMPBELL, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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”).
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.).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
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).
PLAINTIFF'S ADA AND TDA DISCIMINATION CLAIMS
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).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
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. Instead, Defendant argues Plaintiff cannot
put forth evidence that Defendant's decision was
pretextual. (Doc. No. 24 at 13).
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).
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
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).
Plaintiff argues he can show pretext for all three
situations. Therefore, the Court will analyze each of
Plaintiff's arguments in turn.
Defendant's Proffered Reason Had No. Basis in
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).
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).
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.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