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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 Defendants Bates Rubber, Inc.; Fluid Routing Solutions, LLC; Park Ohio Assembly Components Group; and Supply Technologies, LLC's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 8) filed on February 21, 2019. Defendants seek the partial dismissal of the Complaint against them. Defendants argue that Plaintiff Mike Rhodes fails to state two of his claims for relief: the intentional infliction of emotional distress and a claim for punitive damages for the violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act. Rhodes has responded in opposition, and Defendants have filed a reply. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED.


         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.

         The merit of Rhodes's IIED claim has been the subject of several post-removal motions filed by the parties. Soon after the removal of the case to federal court, McDaniel filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss (ECF No. 7) in which she argued that the Complaint failed to state an IIED claim against her. For his part, Rhodes filed a motion to remand (ECF No. 19) the case back to state court, also focused on the merits of his IIED pleadings. Rhodes argued that he had alleged a colorable IIED claim against McDaniel and that there was not complete diversity of citizenship among the parties. In a separately issued order, the Court held that Rhodes had not alleged enough facts to show that McDaniel's conduct met the test for outrageousness under Tennessee law. Without allegations to make out this essential element of his IIED claim, Rhodes did not have a colorable claim against McDaniel. The Court denied Rhodes's motion to remand, dismissed McDaniel as a party to the action, and denied her Rule 12(b)(6) motion as moot.

         This leaves the Employer Defendants' Motion to Dismiss in which they argue, in part, that the Complaint fails to state a plausible IIED claim against them. Just as they did in their Notice of Removal and in their opposition to the motion to remand, the Employer Defendants argue that the Complaint fails to allege that McDaniel or any other Employer Defendant engaged in outrageous conduct. And just as he did in support of his motion to remand, Rhodes argues that his Complaint plausibly alleges an IIED claim against McDaniel and the Employer Defendants. With specific reference to the Employer Defendants, Rhodes asserts that an employee may hold his employer liable for IIED where the employer ignores an ongoing pattern of harassment in the workplace.

         The other issue raised in the Employer Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is Rhodes's claim for punitive damages for the violation of the THRA. The Employer Defendants argue that the Tennessee Supreme Court has held the THRA permits punitive damages only in cases of housing discrimination and malicious harassment. Punitive damages are not available in age discrimination cases. Rhodes counters that based on the Sixth Circuit's recent decision in Lindenberg v. Jackson National Life Insurance Company, 912 F.3d 348 (6th Cir. 2018), punitive damages are available in age discrimination cases, and a jury is required to decide any claim for punitive damages as a question of fact. In their reply brief, the Employer Defendants note that the right to a jury trial in Tennessee is guaranteed only to the extent that it existed under North Carolina common law at the time of the Tennessee Constitution's adoption in 1796. The THRA, which the Tennessee Legislature enacted in 1978, does not implicate the common law right to a jury trial discussed in Lindenberg. As such, the Court should dismiss Rhodes's prayer for punitive damages.

         STANDARD ...

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