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Wilson v. K.T.G. (USA), Inc.

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

August 6, 2019

JOSEPH WILSON, Plaintiff,
v.
K.T.G. (USA), INC., Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

          TU M. PHAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the court is plaintiff Joseph Wilson's Motion for New Trial, filed on December 27, 2018. (ECF No. 107.) Defendant K.T.G. (USA), Inc. (“K.T.G.”) responded on January 24, 2019. (ECF No. 115.) For the following reasons, the motion is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 7, 2011, Wilson, who is African-American, started working as a Unitizer/Loader Operator for K.T.G.[1] On February 25, 2013, Anthony Dix, who is also African-American, became Wilson's supervisor and remained his supervisor up through Wilson's termination. K.T.G. has a Progressive Discipline Policy in place with escalating punishment for employee misconduct: for the first instance of misconduct, the employee is orally reprimanded; for the second, the employee receives a written warning; for the third, the employee receives a final written warning and a suspension; and for the fourth, the employee is terminated. Dix has the sole discretion to discipline an employee who is under his supervision for that employee's first three acts of misconduct. Dix is therefore able to suspend an employee without involving anyone from K.T.G.'s Human Resource department. Utilizing his discretion, Dix first disciplined Wilson on September 30, 2013, for failing to clean up a product spill and placing pallets in front of the area of the spill. On November 5, 2013, Dix disciplined Wilson for talking on his cell phone at work. After each of these incidents, Wilson filed internal grievances complaining about Dix's “harassing” behavior. For example, on October 22, 2013, Wilson filed a grievance in which he stated that Dix had been bullying and harassing him and “has made my job a hostile work environment” based on “my ethic [sic] age.” (ECF No. 32-3 at 78-79.) On November 6, 2013, Wilson filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, Charge No. 490-2014-00128 (the “Charge”), in which he alleged as follows:

Since Anthony Dix became my supervisor he consistently harasses and scrutinizes my work. On October 2, 2013, I received a write up from Dix. On or about October 29, 2013, I filed a grievance concerning Dix's harassing behavior. On November 5, 2013, I received a written-up [sic] from Dix. I believe I have been discriminated against because of my race (Black) and retaliated against in violation of Title VII[.]

(ECF No. 37-4 at 20.)

         Sometime in December 2017, Dix suspended Wilson for allegedly failing to complete a Receiving Report, which loaders, such as Wilson, were required to complete. Wilson contended that completing the Receiving Report was not required and that Dix actually suspended him in retaliation for engaging in protected activity. Dix's decision to suspend Wilson was made without input from or involvement of any other K.T.G. supervisor or Human Resources' employee. At the time Dix suspended Wilson, Dix was aware that Wilson had filed internal grievances; however, Dix had no knowledge that Wilson had filed the Charge. Ann Fleck, K.T.G's Human Resources Manager, had no knowledge of Wilson's internal grievances when Dix suspended Wilson. Fleck did not know that Wilson had filed the internal grievances until January 2014, which was after Dix suspended Wilson. (ECF No. 111 at 44.) In addition, Fleck did not know that Wilson had filed the Charge until late December 2013 or early January 2014 (after Dix suspended Wilson).

         This case proceeded to a jury trial in November 2018 to resolve a single issue - whether Dix suspended Wilson in retaliation for the grievances Wilson filed.[2] Prior to trial, on November 12, 2018, K.T.G. filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude evidence regarding the Charge. (ECF No. 61.) The next day, the court held a pretrial conference and when Wilson was asked about K.T.G.'s motion in limine, he asserted that filing a response in opposition to the motion was unnecessary because he did not oppose the motion. The court therefore granted the unopposed motion. (ECF No. 65.) However, on the morning of trial Wilson's position changed. Contrary to his earlier representation, Wilson argued that while the Charge itself should not be admitted, evidence referencing the Charge should be admitted. As one example, Wilson argued that statements where Wilson references that he filed the Charge, within his Exhibit 13, should be admitted. (See ECF No. 107-1, Unredacted Copy of Wilson's Exhibit 13.) The court disagreed with Wilson and again ordered that evidence regarding the Charge would not be admitted. (ECF No. 96.)

         After the parties presented closing arguments, the court instructed the jury. During its deliberations, the jury asked the following question: “For Mr. Wilson's Grievances to be protected activities under Title VII, do the grievances have to allege prohibited discrimination.” (ECF No. 103 at 2.) After discussing that question with the parties, the court took a lengthy recess to consider the parties' arguments and to review Sixth Circuit case law. The court then notified the parties that it would give the jury the following supplemental instruction:

To come within the protection of Title VII, the plaintiff must prove that he challenged an employment practice that he reasonably believed was unlawful. Title VII does not restrict the manner or means by which an employee may oppose an unlawful employment practice. The manner of opposition must be reasonable, and that opposition must be based on a reasonable and good faith belief that the opposed practice was unlawful. In other words, a violation of Title VII's retaliation provision can be found whether or not the challenged practice ultimately is found to be unlawful. Title VII does not protect an employee if his opposition is merely a vague charge of discrimination. Although vague complaints do not constitute opposition, the law does not require that the plaintiff's complaint be lodged with absolute formality, clarity, or precision.

(ECF No. 104.) The court explained to the parties the bases for this supplemental instruction:

And, then, second, this supplemental instruction, let me explain to you what I've done. First of all, I've taken the first sentence from the protected activity section of the Yazdian opinion. The only change I made in Yazdian, it says, "Yazdian must establish," and that was a summary judgment issue at trial, so I substituted that by saying that, "The plaintiff must prove that he challenged an employment practice that he believed was unlawful."
The second sentence, which Plaintiff asked to include, says, "Title VII does not restrict the manner or means by which an employee may oppose an unlawful employment practice."
The third sentence of Yazdian, I'm not including, the one that read, "Indeed, a demand that the supervisor cease his or her harassing conduct constituted protected activity covered under Title VII."
I think that would be misleading to the jury because the way it reads, it sounds like I'm telling them what would be found - what they should find, excuse me, and that's confusing and misleading and inappropriate as part of the jury instruction. So that sentence of Yazdian that begins with ...

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