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Rhodes v. Bates Rubber, Inc.

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

June 26, 2019

MIKE RHODES, Plaintiff,



         Before the Court is Plaintiff Mike Rhodes's Motion to Remand (ECF No. 19) filed on April 1, 2019. Defendants Pamela McDaniel; Bates Rubber, Inc.; Fluid Routing Solutions, LLC; Park Ohio Assembly Components; and Supply Technologies, LLC have responded in opposition, and Rhodes has filed a reply. Defendant Pamela McDaniel has separately filed a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 7), presenting essentially the same issue raised in the Motion to Remand. For the reasons set forth below, Rhodes's Motion to Remand is DENIED, McDaniel is DISMISSED as a party, and her Motion to Dismiss is DENIED as moot.


         I. Factual Allegations

         Rhodes's Complaint (ECF No. 1-2) alleges claims for age discrimination in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“the THRA”) against his former employer Bates Rubber, Inc. and several other related corporate entities: Fluid Routing Solutions, LLC; Park Ohio Assembly Components; Supply Technologies, LLC; Park-Ohio Holdings Corp.; and Park-Ohio Industries, Inc. (collectively, “the Employer Defendants”). The Complaint further alleges a claim under Tennessee common law for the intentional infliction of emotional distress and outrageous conduct (“IIED”) against the Employer Defendants and Rhodes's former plant manager, Pamela McDaniel, in her individual capacity. The Court accepts the following well-pleaded factual allegations as true at this stage of the proceedings.

         Plaintiff Mike Rhodes is a former employee of Bates Rubber, Inc. in Lobelville, Tennessee. (Compl. ¶ 2.) Rhodes had been employed at Bates Rubber since 1995. (Id. ¶ 23.) Rhodes was 59 years old at the time of his termination and therefore belonged to a class of individuals over the age of 40 who are protected from age discrimination under the THRA. (Id. ¶ 7.) Pamela McDaniel was the plant manager at Bates Rubber and had been Rhodes's direct supervisor since 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 18.) Defendant Ohio Park Holdings Corporation acquired Bates Rubber in 2013 and initiated a pattern and practice of age discrimination against older employees. (Id. ¶ 26.) The Complaint describes a series of incidents in which older employees received discipline and demotions and eventually lost their jobs as part of this pattern, allegations which are supported by affidavits from two of the affected employees, David Weston and Tim O'Guin. See Weston Aff., ex. A to Compl., O'Guin Aff., ex. B to Compl. The Complaint alleges that McDaniel was generally “abrasive and rude” to Rhodes and other older plant employees. (Id. ¶¶ 40, 61.) McDaniel made age-related comments and treated older employees with condescension, for example, by speaking to them loudly and slowly. (Id. ¶ 41.) McDaniel also let it be known that she preferred to eliminate older employers who had more seniority, higher salaries, and greater accrued benefits like paid time off. (Id. ¶ 46.)

         The Complaint alleges that prior to Rhodes's termination, McDaniel replaced one older supervisor at the plant with a younger employee named Scott Cude. (Id. ¶ 43.) Cude, who is not a party to this action, made remarks to Rhodes about his “old man shirts” and put the word out around the plant that McDaniel was looking for a way to get rid of Rhodes, because Rhodes supposedly made too much money and used too much vacation time. (Id. ¶ 44.) The Complaint alleges that McDaniel also made a number of comments to other plant employees about her view of Rhodes. McDaniel once described Rhodes to another management employee as “nothing but a stupid-ass old hillbilly.” (Id. ¶ 62.) McDaniel also made comments that Rhodes “needed to go” because he made “too much money” and took four weeks of vacation a year. (Id. ¶ 63.) The Complaint adds that Defendants implemented a “use it or lose it” policy for accrued time off, which had a detrimental effect on older employees like Rhodes who were entitled to more vacation time because of their seniority. (Id. ¶ 68.) The Complaint alleges that McDaniel's discriminatory treatment of Rhodes came to a head in 2018 and resulted first in his demotion as a supervisor and then in his termination. In September 2018, McDaniel summoned Rhodes and another plant employee to a brief meeting at which time she informed Rhodes she was demoting him from his position as a supervisor. (Id. ¶ 71.) Rhodes, who did not immediately challenge the decision, had no other notice of the demotion and had no reason to believe that his performance merited a demotion. (Id. ¶ 75.) Then a few weeks later in October 2018, Rhodes was placed on leave and ultimately fired for an alleged violation of company policy. On October 4, 2018, Rhodes had approached Marty Bullock, a welder at the plant, and asked for his help in repairing a small metal bracket Rhodes had brought from home. (Id. ¶ 87.) According to the Complaint, there was a long-standing custom at the plant of welders assisting other plant employees with personal repair jobs that a welder could complete off the clock during a regularly-scheduled, 30-minute break. (Id. ¶ 84.) Scott Cude, who was not Rhodes's supervisor, observed Rhodes speaking with the welder and reported it to McDaniel. (Id. ¶¶ 89, 90.) McDaniel approached Rhodes and the welder about their activities and then directed human resources to take statements from each. (Id. ¶ 91.) Human resources, at McDaniel's direction, advised Rhodes he was being placed on administrative leave for working on personal matters on company time. (Id.) Rhodes was permitted to retrieve two personal items from his desk and then escorted from the plant. (Id. ¶ 96.) Rhodes was informed six days later that his employment was being terminated. (Id. ¶ 100.) Upon his termination, Rhodes applied for unemployment benefits, which Defendants contested during administrative proceedings.

         II. Procedural History

         Rhodes originally filed suit in the Circuit Court for Perry County, Tennessee, on January 15, 2019. Defendants removed the suit to federal court and filed their Notice of Removal (ECF No. 1) on February 14, 2019. Defendants alleged in their Notice of Removal that this Court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) based on the amount in controversy and the complete diversity of citizenship of the parties. Defendants specifically argued that Rhodes had fraudulently joined McDaniel, who like Rhodes is a resident of the state of Tennessee. The Complaint alleges only one cause of action against McDaniel, the IIED claim. According to the Notice of Removal, Rhodes's IIED claim against McDaniel arose out of his employment under McDaniel's supervision and his eventual termination at Bates Rubber. Courts applying Tennessee law have concluded that the emotional distress associated with the terms and conditions of one's employment and even the loss of that employment will not support a claim for IIED. Therefore, Rhodes's attempt to defeat diversity by including a meritless IIED claim against McDaniel should fail, and this Court should accept subject matter jurisdiction over the case.

         Rhodes now asks the Court to remand his case to Perry County Circuit Court based on the lack of complete diversity of citizenship among the parties. Rhodes argues that he has plausibly alleged an IIED claim against McDaniel and that Defendants have failed to carry their burden to show fraudulent joinder. While conceding that an insult or an adverse employment action typically will not make out an IIED claim, Rhodes contends that McDaniel's actions in his case went beyond mere derogatory remarks or discriminatory treatment. Rhodes believes that McDaniel acted with malicious intent by (1) placing Rhodes on administrative leave for violating a workplace policy that did not exist, (2) refusing to provide Rhodes with a written copy of the policy, and (3) actively opposing Rhodes's application for unemployment benefits after his termination. Rhodes also emphasizes that the Court must evaluate McDaniel's conduct from the perspective of the average person in a small community like Lobelville, Tennessee, particularly how termination might cause a person in small town to experience humiliation and emotional injuries. Rhodes argues then that under all of the circumstances, his is the exceptional case where the loss of his employment supports an IIED claim. Having stated a viable IIED claim against McDaniel, Rhodes argues that there is not complete diversity of citizenship among the parties. Therefore, the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and should remand the case to state court.

         Defendants oppose remand and argue that the Complaint fraudulently joined McDaniel as a defendant. For largely the same reasons, McDaniel argues in her separately filed Motion to Dismiss that the Complaint fails to state a plausible IIED claim against her.[1] According to Defendants, the Complaint fails to allege two essential elements of the IIED claim: outrageous conduct by any Defendant and serious mental injury to Rhodes. Defendants contend that the great weight of authority under Tennessee law holds that an employee does not have an IIED claim against an employer based on the employer's discrimination against the employee, even in cases of truly reprehensible conduct. Rhodes has failed to allege that McDaniel engaged in sufficiently outrageous conduct to support an IIED claim against her. Likewise, the Complaint contains no allegations to show that Rhodes has suffered a serious mental injury as a result of any action taken by McDaniel. Therefore, the Court should deny Rhodes's Motion to Remand and dismiss McDaniel as a party.

         Rhodes has filed a reply brief in further support of remand. Rhodes emphasizes that Defendants have the burden to establish the propriety of removal and that the doctrine of fraudulent joinder is disfavored. Rhodes further argues that McDaniel's brief misstates or mischaracterizes some of the facts alleged in the Complaint. For example, while the Complaint alleges that Rhodes asked a welder to repair a small metal bracket, McDaniel's brief refers to a piece of farm equipment. Finally, Rhodes argues that his IIED claim is fact bound and dependent upon the community standards of Perry County, Tennessee, and therefore appropriate only for a determination by a Perry County jury. For all of these reasons, the Court should grant the Motion to Remand.


         “When a plaintiff files a case in state court that could have been brought in a federal district court, a defendant may invoke the removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1441, to secure a federal forum.” Lincoln Prop. Co. v. Roche, 546 U.S. 81, 83 (2005); see also Jarrett-Cooper v. United Airlines, Inc., 586 Fed.Appx. 214, 215 (6th Cir. 2014). “Only state-court actions that originally could have been filed in federal court may be removed to federal court by the defendant.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987); see also Paul v. Kaiser Found. Health Plan of Ohio, 701 F.3d 514, 518 (6th Cir. 2012). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over any civil action “where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000” and the parties are citizens of different states. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a); Fritz Dairy Farm, LLC v. Chesapeake Exploration, LLC, 567 Fed.Appx. 396, 398 (6th Cir. 2014). Diversity of citizenship must be complete, meaning “no plaintiff can be the citizen of the same State as any defendant.” Exact Software N. Am., Inc. v. DeMoisey, 718 F.3d 535, 541 (6th Cir. 2013). The burden to establish the existence of federal jurisdiction by a preponderance of the ...

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