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Wheeler v. Saga Communication of Tuckessee, LLC

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

June 7, 2018

CHRISTINA CARMACK WHEELER, Plaintiff,
v.
SAGA COMMUNICATION OF TUCKESSEE, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Christina Wheeler, a former on-air personality for the radio broadcasting company Saga Communication of Tuckessee, LLC (“Saga”), brought this employment action against her former employer alleging (1) gender discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq., the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1), and the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”), Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-21-401(a) and (2) retaliation, in violation of Title VII, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), the THRA, and the Tennessee Public Protection Act, Tennessee Code Annotated § 50-1-304. (Doc. No. 25.) Before the Court is Saga's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 33.) For the following reasons, Saga's Motion is denied.

         I. UNDISPUTED FACTS[1]

         Saga operates seven radio stations in Clarksville, Tennessee. (Doc. No. 40 at 1.) Three of the radio stations are at issue here: “Beaver 100.3” is the largest-watt radio station, generating the most revenue, “Q108” is the second-largest radio station, and “Rewind 94.3” is one of the smaller stations. (Id. at 2.) The on-air personalities that worked the “Morning Drive” shift, from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., were generally paid the highest because they had the most listeners, while the personalities that worked the “Afternoon Drive, ” from 2:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m., were generally paid the second-highest. (Doc. No. 36-2 at 35-36.) There is no other proof in the Statement of Undisputed Facts (Doc. Nos. 40, 42) about amounts other shifts or radio stations paid.

         A. Wheeler's Employment With Saga

         Saga hired Wheeler in 2007 as a full time on-air personality with an annual salary of $22, 000. (Doc. No. 42 at 3.) This was the lowest salary for any on-air personality at that time. (Id. at 3.) She signed a 12-month contract each year from 2007 until 2015. (Doc. No. 36-2 at 41.) For the 2015 calendar year, Saga and Wheeler agreed that Wheeler would receive a $24, 000 salary (Doc. No. 40 at 3; Doc. No. 36-3), although Saga's records indicate that it paid Wheeler an annual salary of $31, 876. (Doc. No. 36-8 at 2.) Either of these salaries would have been the lowest of all on-air personalities at that time.[2] (Id.) That year, Wheeler worked as an “on-air personality” for the 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. shift for Q108, and the Afternoon Drive shift on Rewind 94.3. (Doc. No. 40 at 2-3.) She also worked weekend shifts on both station. (Id. at 3.)

         At some point, Wheeler inadvertently saw documentation that another on-air personality, Nicholas Fox, had an annual salary of $36, 000 per year. (Doc. No. 42 at 4.) Wheeler believed she was not paid enough money, and began looking for other employment opportunities in November 2015. (Doc. No. 40 at 4; Doc. No. 36-2 at 51.) Around that time, Saga, through Wheeler's supervisor Jason Giardina, presented her with a contract for the 2016 calendar year with a salary of $24, 000. (Doc. No. 38-3 at 10-11.) Wheeler indicated that she was hesitant to sign the contract because Saga was paying her less than her male counterparts. (Doc. No. 36-2 at 44.)[3] A few days later, Giardina agreed with Wheeler that she was paid significantly less than the male on-air personalities. (Doc. No. 25 at 5; Doc. No. 36-2 at 75 (affirming that Giardina made the statement in Paragraph 36 of the original Complaint, which is paragraph 38 in the Amended Complaint)). Giardina told Wheeler that it would be great if she could make more money because he was surprised about how little she was making. (Doc. No. 36-4 at 11; Doc. No. 42 at 8.) Giardina stated that he would convey Wheeler's complaints to Katie Gambill, Giardina's superior. (Doc. No. 36-2 at 70.)

         On November 30, 2015, Wheeler sent Giardina an email that she needed more time to decide whether to sign her 2016 offer of employment so that she could explore other employment opportunities. (Doc. No. 40 at 4; Doc. No. 36-1 at 16.) Giardina informed Gambill, who instructed him to give Wheeler until December 11, 2015, to consider her options. (Doc. No. 40 at 4; Doc. No. 36-1 at 16.) In December 2015, Giardina asked Wheeler if she was ready to sign the 2016 contract, to which Wheeler stated she was not because she was expecting another job offer that would be more lucrative. (Doc. No. 40 at 5; Doc. No. 36-4 at 9.) Giardina reported the update regarding Wheeler to Gambill, who then authorized Giardina to offer Wheeler a temporary 30-day contract that would allow her to stay at Saga through January 2016. (Doc. No. 40 at 5; Doc. No. 38-1 at 13; Doc. No. 38-2 at 16.) Giardina then provided Wheeler with a temporary 30-day contract, which she signed. (Doc. No. 36-2 at 51-52.)

         On January 11, 2016, Wheeler met with Giardina and Gambill. (Doc. No. 40 at 5.) Gambill immediately stated that Wheeler was not going to be getting any more money and “there is no discussion to be had about that.” (Doc. No. 36-2 at 79-80.) At the meeting, Wheeler indicated that she was willing to sign the contract, but she would ask Gambill to release Wheeler from her contract if she received a better offer during the year. (Id. at 80-82.) At that point, Gambill stated, “I'm not going to renew your contract. I'm going to give you the gift of freedom to pursue another opportunity where you won't feel that you're being discriminated against.” (Id. at 82.) Wheeler indicated that she was disappointed that her pay was lower than her male counterparts after being with the company for nine years and that Gambill chose to treat her poorly when raising the issue. (Id. at 83.)

         B. Proposed Comparators at Saga

         Wheeler compares herself to male on-air personalities Fox and David Meyers. (Doc. No. 42 at 4-6.) As stated previously, Fox made $36, 000 per year in salary, while Myers earned $30, 000 per year in salary. (Id. at 4-5.) It is unclear from the cited portions of the record what constituted either Fox's or Meyers' radio experience at the time Saga hired them. Saga originally hired Meyers to be an on-air personality on the afternoon shift of Beaver 100.3. (Id. at 5.) Until he was promoted to become a morning host, replacing Fox, Myers had no additional responsibilities as compared to Wheeler. (Doc. No. 36-1 at 21.)

         II. ANALYSIS

         Saga moves for summary judgment on Wheeler's state law claims as time-barred by the employment contract. (Doc. No. 34 at 12.) It also moves for summary judgment on the gender discrimination claims because it argues Wheeler does not establish there were any similarly-situated male counterparts. (Id. at 16.) Finally, Saga moves for summary judgment on Wheeler's retaliation claims because it argues Wheeler cannot prove causation. (Id. at 19.)

         In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the 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 must view the “inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts . . . in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, ” in this case, Wheeler. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)). “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 nonmoving party then has the burden of showing that a “rational trier of fact [could] find for the non-moving party [or] that there is a ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S, at 587. If the evidence offered by the nonmoving party is “merely colorable, ” “not significantly probative, ” or not enough to lead a fair-minded jury to find for the nonmoving party, ...


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