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Chandler v. Infinity Insurance Group

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

June 4, 2014

TERRI L. CHANDLER, Plaintiff,
v.
INFINITY INSURANCE GROUP, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, Magistrate Judge.

This cause is before the court on the motion for summary judgment (doc. 25) filed October 24, 2013, by the defendant, Infinity Insurance Group ("Infinity"). Defendant seeks dismissal of plaintiff's claims of religious discrimination and retaliation brought pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 2000e et seq. Plaintiff, Terri L. Chandler, is a Jehovah's Witness. Her complaint alleges that she was discriminated against on account of her religion because her employer, Infinity, forced her to attend a Christmas party, which violated her religious beliefs. (Count I).[1] She further alleges that she was later disciplined and fired in retaliation for her refusal to participate fully in the Christmas party events. (Count II). The motion for summary judgment was supported by a brief and evidentiary submissions. (Docs. 26, 27). Plaintiff filed an opposition in response, supported by a copy of her EEOC charge. (Doc. 29). Defendant filed a brief in reply. (Doc. 30).

SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party asking for summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact, or by showing that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322-23. There is no requirement, however, "that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim." Id. at 323.

Once the moving party has met his burden, Rule 56 "requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file, ' designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324 (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 324. "[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322.

After the plaintiff has properly responded to a proper motion for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. "[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 249. His guide is the same standard necessary to direct a verdict: "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Id. at 251-52; see also Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. N.L.R.B. , 461 U.S. 731, 745 n.11 (1983). However, the nonmoving party "must do more than show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); accord Spence v. Zimmerman , 873 F.2d 256 (11th Cir. 1989). Furthermore, the court must "view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, " so there must be sufficient evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Communication, Inc. , 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Nevertheless, credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury, and therefore the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 255. The non-movant need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference. Brown v. City of Clewiston , 848 F.2d 1534, 1540 n.12 (11th Cir. 1988).

FACTS

For purposes of determining the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the following facts are undisputed, or if disputed, are taken in a light favorable to the non-moving plaintiff:

Infinity is a property and casualty insurance company that provides automobile insurance. Infinity employs electronic funds transfer clerks ("EFT clerks") who work in the accounting department. They are responsible for setting up and maintaining the accounts for payment of insurance premiums. Because EFT clerks handle customers' bank account information, attention to detail and accuracy of work is very important. EFT errors may negatively affect customers' bank accounts, causing disgruntled customers and additional costs to Infinity.

At all relevant times, Infinity had an Equal Employment Opportunity Policy, which strictly prohibits any form of discrimination in all terms and conditions of employment, including discrimination based on religion. The policy also prohibits retaliation against an employee who reports discrimination. The policy is published in the employee handbook, which is distributed to employees upon hire and as updates are made. The policy requires an employee who believes he or she has witnessed or been subject to discrimination or retaliation to immediately report it to Human Resources. The handbook also contains an Employee Conduct Policy, which contains examples of conduct Infinity considers inappropriate and that will subject employees involved to disciplinary action up to and including termination.

The plaintiff, Terri L. Chandler, was hired as a part-time mail clerk in August 1992. She began working full-time at Infinity in 1993. She received a copy of the handbook and updates issued during her employment. She understood that Infinity prohibited religious discrimination and retaliation and that she was required to report any concerns about discrimination and retaliation to Human Resources. Chandler also understood that the following conduct was violative of Infinity's Employee Conduct Policy, and would subject her to disciplinary action that could include termination: inattention to duties; excessive use of company time, property, or materials for personal reasons; failure to notify a supervisor of an absence from work within one hour of her scheduled shift; and excessive inefficiency, substandard production, waste, or defective work.

During her employment at Infinity, Chandler held several positions in the accounting department. In March 2008, she was hired as an EFT clerk. Staci Elder, Cash Receipt Supervisor, interviewed her for that position and made the decision to hire her. Elder knew that Chandler was a Jehovah's Witness. Chandler understood that attention to detail was important to her job as an EFT clerk. As an EFT clerk, she reported to Elder and General Accounting Supervisor Helen Crenshaw.

Plaintiff received several disciplinary notices during her employment at Infinity. On February 23, 2007, (before she began working as an EFT clerk) plaintiff was issued a written warning and placed on probation for 90 days for excessive inefficiency after she made excessive errors following her 2006 performance evaluation. She was cited for making duplicate payments to vendors and failing to research all issues to ensure that her processing was accurate. On May 13, 2008, (after she became an EFT clerk) plaintiff was issued a counseling report for inattention to duties after she updated a customer's EFT information with information from another customer's bank account.[2] Chandler committed at least one other EFT error in 2008 for which she was corrected by a supervisor in the normal course of business.[3] On September 21, 2009, plaintiff was issued a written warning and placed on probation for 90 days after she failed to notify her supervisor of an absence from work within one hour of her scheduled start time. Chandler, however, had been told by Elder that it was unnecessary to call in every day. Plaintiff committed at least nine EFT errors between February and early June 2010 for which she was corrected by a supervisor in the normal course of business. On June 21, 2010, plaintiff was issued another Counseling Report for inattention to duties after she processed four customer policies in error. Plaintiff disagreed with the Counseling Report because it was her first time processing "e-check re-sweeps" and she was distracted when one of her co-workers came to assist her. She admits that she received training on how to process "e-check re-sweeps" prior to making the errors, and concedes that she does not know of any co-worker who re-swept four policies in error and was not issued written discipline. On July 30, 2010, plaintiff was issued an Informal Discipline for failure to follow Infinity's mailing procedures, which resulted in customers not receiving notification of cancelled policies in a timely manner. Plaintiff committed at least four EFT errors between August 2010 and early January 2011 for which she was corrected by a supervisor in the normal course of business. On January 24, 2011, plaintiff was issued a written warning and placed on probation for 90 days for improper, unauthorized and excessive use of Infinity property after she made more than fourteen and a half hours of telephone calls during work hours in December 2010, even though she worked only 16 days that month. Plaintiff, however, had reasons she asserts were acceptable under the company policy for using the telephone for that amount of time. Plaintiff understood that any further performance issue or company-policy violation would result in termination. During the 90-day probation, plaintiff committed at least one EFT error. Although immediate termination was warranted, Elder only counseled plaintiff regarding the error. On June 13, 2011, plaintiff exhibited excessive inefficiency, substandard production, waste or defective work when she duplicated a debit to a customer's bank account, causing the customer to be charged twice for an insurance premium. Elder recommended that plaintiff be terminated, and Crenshaw approved the termination.

Plaintiff's employment was terminated on June 23, 2011. Infinity has stated that the reason for the termination was repeated deficiencies in the accuracy of her work. At no time did anyone from Infinity tell plaintiff that she was being terminated because of her religion. Plaintiff has identified Ann Reed and Cerethia Tyson as employees who were not Jehovah's Witnesses, but had the same types of performance issues and were not terminated. Ann Reed's December 2010 telephone report shows fewer hours of calls than plaintiff's report, and Reed explained to Elder that the majority of her calls were business related, not personal. There has been no evidence at all produced to show Tyson's disciplinary record, nor does plaintiff detail what she believes Tyson did for which she was not disciplined.

Elder and Crenshaw have terminated employees who were not of the same religion as Chandler for repeated deficiencies in the accuracy of their work. Elder knew when she hired Chandler that she was a Jehovah's Witness, and she never said anything inappropriate or derogatory about Chandler's religion.

As a Jehovah's Witness, plaintiff does not celebrate birthdays or civil, patriotic, or religious holidays, or anything that has a pagan origin. She may attend social functions that are not associated with religious, political, or patriotic observances, such as baby showers, anniversaries, charity events, and employee appreciation events.

Plaintiff does not allege that any discriminatory conduct occurred prior to November 2010. She alleges that, in November 2010, despite knowledge of plaintiff's Jehovah Witness religion, Elder forced her to attend a company holiday party at Infinity's Colonnade location, telling her that the party was mandatory and that she expected her to attend. Plaintiff did not tell Elder that she could not attend the function because of her religion, [4] and no one at Infinity forced her to eat, drink, or otherwise participate in any activities at the party. Plaintiff called the party a Christmas party in her complaint, but admits that she does not recall any holiday decorations, music, or other holiday celebration that took place at the function. She recalls pie-throwing.[5]

Plaintiff attended the event, but did not eat or drink at the party. She brought a drink with her to have at the party so that she would not be accepting any food or drink, or be "participating" in the event. Elder stared at her during the party and appeared upset that plaintiff did not participate in the festivities. Plaintiff did not tell anyone at Infinity that her refusal to participate was based upon her religion.[6] No one at Infinity said anything derogatory to her about her failure to participate, but after the party, Chandler believes that Elder treated her differently.

Plaintiff contends that Elder treated EFT clerk Cynthia Ford more favorably in terms of vacation usage, but plaintiff admits that she always was allowed to choose her vacation days before Ford, and that she was never denied the vacation time she selected. In 2011, plaintiff was terminated before using the vacation days she had selected. After plaintiff was terminated, Ford took vacation on the days that had been selected by plaintiff.

Plaintiff alleges that Elder treated non-EFT clerks Angela Gooden and Tekia (last name unknown) more favorably with regards to disciplinary actions for EFT errors, but she admits that Gooden and Tekia were cross-training in EFT when they made the errors. Plaintiff also admits that Elder did not issue a written disciplinary notice to her every time she had made an EFT error.

Plaintiff did not speak to anyone in Human Resources about the treatment she was receiving from Elder. Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on November 18, 2011. She filed ...


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