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Bonner-Gibson v. Genesis Engineering Group

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

August 14, 2019




         Genesis Engineering Group (“Genesis”) has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 32), to which Rikita Bonner-Gibson has filed a Response (Docket No. 45), and Genesis has filed a Reply (Docket No. 50). For the reasons stated herein, Genesis's motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Bonner-Gibson's Time at Genesis Before Her Pregnancy

         1. Bonner-Gibson's Hiring and Licensure Status

         Genesis is an engineering firm founded in 2010 by Russell Skrabut. When Bonner-Gibson was an undergraduate student at Tennessee State University, Skrabut was one of her professors. In February 2012, after Bonner-Gibson had graduated, she began work for Genesis in an entry-level position as a structural engineer. (Docket No. 46 ¶¶ 2-8.)

         The parties agree that Bonner-Gibson was expected, at least eventually, to obtain her Professional Engineering (“P.E.”) license, which would allow her to oversee her own projects. Until she did so, a licensed engineer was required to supervise her closely and sign off on her work. (Id. ¶ 11.) Genesis concedes that Bonner-Gibson has testified that she was not given a formal or specific timeline for her licensure. (Docket No. 51 ¶ 11.) Skrabut has testified that it is “industry standard” that receiving one's P.E. “takes four years generally after you graduate from college with an accredited degree.” (Docket No. 47-5 at 89.) Prior to taking the P.E. licensing exam, an applicant is required to pass one of two other exams-the Fundamentals of Engineering (“Fundamentals”) exam or the Engineering Intern (“E.I.”) exam. (Docket No. 46 ¶ 12.) Bonner-Gibson took the Fundamentals exam in 2015 but did not pass. She did not attempt the exam again during her time at Genesis. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.)

         2. Bonner-Gibson's Pre-Pregnancy Absences from the Office

         Genesis requires its employees to work at least forty hours per week between the normal business hours of 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. The parties agree, however, that Genesis expressly maintained a policy of allowing employees to have a “flexible work schedule.” In addition, employees were given fifteen days of paid time off to be used at their discretion. Bonner-Gibson claims that Genesis agreed to allow her to work from home in meeting her minimum work hours, and Genesis concedes that “there were occasions over the years” when Bonner-Gibson was given permission to work from home. (Id. ¶¶ 15-18; Docket No. 51 ¶ 18.)

         Employee requests for time off or changes in schedule required the approval of Skrabut or Chou Wun Yong (another managing member of the company), depending on the nature of the request. (Docket No. 46 ¶¶ 5, 19.) Genesis maintains that Yong could approve minor scheduling adjustments, such as those needed for only a day, whereas only Skrabut could approve more substantial changes. (Id. ¶ 19.) The parties agree that, in practice, Bonner-Gibson communicated variously with either Skrabut, Yong, or both about requested scheduling adjustments and both managers had approved adjustments for Bonner-Gibson in the past. (Id. ¶¶ 20-23; Docket No. 51 ¶ 21.)

         a. January 6-7, 2015.

         On January 6, 2015, Bonner-Gibson emailed Skrabut, Yong, and another Genesis employee, Jacob Heltemes, explaining that she intended to work from home because her “bottom lip [was] swollen twice its normal size and [had] fever blisters all over it.” (Docket No. 46 ¶ 24.) Skrabut forwarded the email to Genesis Director of Finance and Administration Lisa Haney, who handled the company's human resources (and whom the court will call “Ms. Haney” because there is another Haney involved in this case). Skrabut wrote to Ms. Haney, “Please document for me. This is becoming a problem with her.” (Id. ¶ 25.) Ms. Haney responded to Skrabut, asking if there was a way to see what Bonner-Gibson was accomplishing while working from home. (Id. ¶ 27.) Later, another managing member of Genesis-Mike Haney-sent Ms. Haney an email agreeing that Bonner-Gibson's absences had become a problem and suggesting that the company begin keeping track of her sick days and absences. (Id. ¶ 28.)

         On the morning of January 7, 2015, Bonner-Gibson sent Skrabut, Yong, and Heltemes an email, stating that she had spoken to her doctor, who had advised her not to drive because medications she was taking had made her “dizzy and disoriented.” She said she would “still try to work from home today and pray my condition improves.” (Id. ¶ 29.) Medical records from Bonner-Gibson's physician confirm that she had seen the physician the day before, but they do not show that she was placed on a driving restriction. (Id. ¶ 30.)

         b. February 9, 2015.

         On February 9, 2015, Bonner-Gibson sent an email, informing Skrabut that she would be unable to come in to work because she was experiencing full-body pain and was unable to get out of bed. Skrabut responded with an email stating that he was concerned about the amount of sick time Bonner-Gibson was taking. He also suggested that, “[i]f you are sick to the degree you mention, you need to not be doing any work related tasks.” (Id. ¶¶ 31-32; Docket No. 35-5 at 39.)

         c. May 12, 2016.

         On May 12, 2016, Bonner-Gibson emailed Skrabut, telling him that she would be coming in to work late after having worked late on a project the night before. Skrabut responded with an email, stating the he needed her at work as soon as possible and explaining that she needed to be present and available to handle tasks that were necessary in order to keep projects moving. (Docket No. 46 ¶ 39.) Skrabut forwarded the email to Yong, stating, “I just don't understand this. I am again very inclined to find a replacement for her. The work is piling up on her desk and she is just not good [at] managing things to keep moving.” (Id. ¶ 40.) Yong responded that he was “[n]ot sure how to react to this” and considered Bonner-Gibson “a great help, ” although he believed she did not have “much ‘common sense' in work.” (Id. ¶ 41.)

         e. January 2-3, 2017.

         On January 2, 2017, Bonner-Gibson emailed Skrabut and Yong to inform them that she would be taking two days off from work because her cousin had died. (Id. ¶ 43.) Skrabut forwarded the email to Ms. Haney and Mr. Haney, indicating that he was considering a change to the company's policies for approving time off. (Id. ¶ 44.)

         3. Other Alleged Pre-Pregnancy Issues with Bonner-Gibson's Performance

         Skrabut testified that he had “hand picked, ” “coached, ” and “mentored” Bonner-Gibson and “tried to bring her along as long as I possibly could, ” but, “after several years, it just started to become clear that she wasn't progressing.” (Id. ¶ 46.) Genesis has identified evidence of a number of incidents described in Bonner-Gibson's own testimony in which Bonner-Gibson encountered mostly minor difficulties at work, such as, for example, being unable to complete a task as quickly as a client desired. (Id. ¶¶ 47-49.)

         Genesis has also produced an affidavit from Richard Clem, a project manager for a Genesis client, who worked with Bonner-Gibson. Clem states that he was unhappy with aspects of Bonner-Gibson's work, particularly her failure to follow through with requested changes and her lack of responsiveness when Clem attempted to contact her. Clem states that he informed Skrabut of his displeasure with Bonner-Gibson on several occasions. (Id. ¶¶ 50-52; Docket No. 35-7 ¶¶ 3-6.) Dan Shehan, the director of construction for another Genesis client, also provided an affidavit detailing his problems with Bonner-Gibson. According to Shehan, Bonner-Gibson had refused to consider changes that Shehan had requested, and Shehan was forced to contact Yong to resolve the resulting problems on two different projects. (Docket No. 46 ¶¶ 53-54; Docket No. 35-8 ¶¶ 2- 4.) Bonner-Gibson concedes, for the purposes of this motion, that another employee, a white male named John Wiseman, was terminated following client complaints. Bonner-Gibson testified, however, that Wiseman's errors were significantly more severe than hers. (Docket No. 46 ¶¶ 55- 56; Docket No. 35-1 at 159.)

         In December 2016, Skrabut gave Bonner-Gibson a performance evaluation. Genesis has produced what it alleges is a copy of the written evaluation she received. (Docket No. 35-9 at 12- 14.) The evaluation identifies numerous categories in which Bonner-Gibson's performance was rated “inconsistent” or “unsatisfactory” and none in which it was rated “exceptional” or “highly effective.” (Id.) Bonner-Gibson concedes that she received an evaluation in December 2016 and met with Skrabut and Yong about it, but she testified that the evaluation presented by Genesis is inconsistent with her memory of how she had been rated. Specifically, she testified, “I don't remember having so many inconsistent and unsatisfactory [ratings] ever.” (Docket No. 35-1 at 72.) Genesis has provided an affidavit from a proffered digital forensics expert purporting to establish the authenticity of the evaluation. (Docket No. 35-9.) Bonner-Gibson received a raise and a bonus shortly after the evaluation, but Skrabut testified that it was the minimum bonus and raise awarded to Genesis employees that year. (Docket No. 46 ¶ 62.)

         B. Bonner-Gibson Informs Genesis She is Pregnant

         In May 2017, Bonner-Gibson informed Genesis that she was pregnant. (Id. ¶ 63.) Bonner-Gibson has testified that, after the company learned she was pregnant, she was given an increased workload with “more work and faster deadlines than anyone.” (Id. ¶ 64.) She also testified that, after Skrabut and Yong learned about her pregnancy, they began providing her less mentorship and assistance in learning how to solve engineering problems on clients' projects. (Docket No. 35-1 at 42-43.)

         According to Bonner-Gibson, Skrabut told her that he “did his research and he found out that most first-time moms take off three to four years and he wanted to make sure that [she] was committed and coming back.” (Id. ¶ 65.) When Skrabut voiced concern about first-time mothers losing interest in work, Bonner-Gibson told him that she loved her job and expected to return to the office after six weeks. (Docket No. 35-1 at 45-46.) She testified that Skrabut nevertheless continued to raise the issue, and, when she began experiencing complications related to her pregnancy, expressed concern about whether she would be able to “give a hundred percent” to her job. (Docket No. 46 ¶¶ 66-67.) Bonner-Gibson testified that Skrabut brought up the issue of her post-pregnancy return “weekly, ” in a manner that was “excessive and kind of . . . aggressive.” (Docket No. 47-2 at 75-76.)

         Bonner-Gibson requested some minor accommodations related to her pregnancy-such as having a parking spot near the door and being allowed to elevate her feet at work-which were granted. (Docket No. 46 ¶¶ 74-75.) She also, at times, missed work for pregnancy-related reasons. For example, on August 23, 2017, Bonner-Gibson texted Skrabut and Yong to inform them that she was experiencing bleeding and was going to receive an emergency ultrasound. That afternoon, she informed them that she and the baby were fine but that she had been placed on some physical restrictions. (Id. ¶¶ 77-78.) Bonner-Gibson has testified that, despite these occasional absences, she continued to work 50 to 60 hours per week and, for at least part of the pregnancy, also attended work-related licensure classes four nights a week. (Docket No. 47-2 at 136-37.)

         C. Incidents of ...

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