United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
BRIDGIT B. DAVIS-YOUNG, Plaintiff,
PROTECTIVE LIFE CORPORATION, Defendant.
R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.
This case is before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #18), filed on October 21, 2013. The Motion (Doc. #18) has been fully briefed. (Docs. #20, #23, #25). For the reasons stated below, the Motion (Doc. #18) is due to be granted.
I. Procedural History
Plaintiff Bridgit B. Davis-Young ("Plaintiff") initiated this lawsuit by filing a Complaint (Doc. #1) on August 31, 2012. Defendant Protective Life Corporation ("Defendant" or "Protective") responded by filing an Answer (Doc. #5) on September 26, 2012. On October 21, 2013, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #18), along with Evidentiary Materials (Doc. #19) and a Supporting Brief (Doc. #20). On November 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Response (Doc. #23) and Evidentiary Submissions (Doc. #24),  and Defendant filed a Reply (Doc. #25) on November 27, 2013, rendering Defendant's Motion (Doc. #18) properly under submission.
Plaintiff is a black female who began working at Protective in 1998. (Doc. #1 at 2; Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 39). Over the course of her time at Protective, Plaintiff occupied a variety of positions, including list bill representative (1998-2000), call center analyst (2000-07), and customer service associate (2008-11). (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 39).
Less than a year after Plaintiff began working as a list bill representative, she was issued a "Work Performance" memorandum from her supervisor, Tina Hill. (Doc. #19, Ex. 2 at 10-11). Ms. Hill, a black female, informed Plaintiff that her "performance [had] not improved as expected, and [was] not acceptable for someone who [had] been in [her] position for nearly a year." (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 310; Doc. #19, Ex. 2 at 10). As a result, Plaintiff was warned that she would be subject to probation and possible termination if she did not make an immediate and permanent improvement in her productivity and work habits. (Doc. #19, Ex. 2 at 10).
In 2008, Plaintiff joined the Special Processing Team, working as a customer service associate on the status team. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 39; Doc. #19, Ex. 5, Nichols Dep. at 13). Throughout her time on the Special Processing Team, Plaintiff's supervisor was Andrea Nichols ("Ms. Nichols"), a white female. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 112). Her initial trainer on the Special Processing Team was Alexis Poole, a black female, but Ms. Poole was later replaced by Camy Parks, a white female. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 71-73, 310). During her first year on the Special Processing Team, Plaintiff was counseled for lengthy personal phone calls, attendance issues, and failure to meet production standards. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 116-19, 126; Doc. #19, Ex. 2. at 55-57, 61).
In February 2009, Ms. Nichols counseled Plaintiff over her lack of productivity, memorializing the conversation in a memorandum. (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 3). While working overtime, Plaintiff processed only 3.07 items per hour (the average minimum by others being 12 items per hour), prompting Ms. Nichols' intervention. (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 3). Throughout the rest of 2009, Ms. Nichols and other Protective supervisors addressed a plethora of work-related issues with Plaintiff (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 6-14), culminating in the issuance of a Corrective Action Form ("Final Warning") in December of that year (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 21-22). The Final Warning stated that Plaintiff was not meeting expectations "in the areas of production and attendance, " and warned that failure to improve would result in further disciplinary action, "up to and including termination of [her] employment." (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 22). At a required follow-up meeting in January 2010, Plaintiff was informed by Ms. Nichols that her performance was improving. (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 25). However, Plaintiff's 2009 Year End Review, which she received in January 2010, still bore an overall rating of "Needs Improvement." (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 26-31).
In July 2010, Plaintiff received her Mid Year Review, in which her overall rating was listed as "Meets Expectations." (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 37-42). The Rule 56 record evidences, however, that Plaintiff's productivity regressed and Ms. Nichols was required to discuss the topic with her again in October 2010. (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 49). In January 2011, Ms. Nichols gave Plaintiff her 2010 Year End Review, which included an overall rating of "Needs Improvement" and advised that "substantial improvement is expected." (Doc. #19, Ex. 3 at 58-60; Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 1-6). Plaintiff added numerous comments to her Year End Review, stating her belief that she had "improved greatly from the previous annual review period" and resolving that "[i]n those areas where my manager and I have distinctly different perceptions I will work diligently to better understand her definition and perception of those things." (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 5).
In February 2011, Plaintiff received another Corrective Action Form ("Final Warning"), which demanded improvement in six areas: (1) "meet or exceed productivity measure of 103% and quality of 95%;" (2) "manage different tasks/responsibilities more effectively and with a sense of urgency, processing in date order, to achieve goals and process within department standards;" (3) "improve quality of work and documentation on Policy Tracker;" (4) "follow instructions more consistently;" (5) improve desk organization so that you can improve your own performance and others can locate work if you are out of the office;" and (6) "use PTO in the correct fashion, cease entering unnecessary transactions and improper verbiage as requested." (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 9-11). As in the past, the Final Warning threatened termination of employment for "[f]ailure to begin immediate improvement, to consistently meet these standards and to sustain acceptable performance." (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 11).
Feeling that her situation was being handled unfairly, Plaintiff "took the matter to human resources, " talking with Malaika Kattke (a black female) on March 1, 2011. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 210, 245, 309). On March 8, 2011, Plaintiff informed Ms. Kattke that white workers on her team were "allowed to do things differently" and that she felt Ms. Nichols treated her differently because her race. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 248-49). Ms. Kattke subsequently contacted Ms. Nichols about Plaintiff's complaint, but "race never came up." (Doc. #19, Ex. 5, Nichols Dep. at 29). Ms. Kattke also contacted Sally Bryant, a Second Vice President and Ms. Nichols' superior, about Plaintiff's complaint. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 232; Doc. #19, Ex. 5, Nichols Dep. at 29-30). Plaintiff met once with Ms. Bryant, and then a second time with both Ms. Bryant and Ms. Nichols. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 232). At this second meeting, it was discovered that Plaintiff was processing transactions differently than other team members. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 232). Subsequently, Plaintiff's production was re-calculated in accordance with the methods used by all team members and she was given credit for any discrepancies in productivity that may have existed. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 234). After the processing procedures were corrected, Plaintiff never raised the topic again with her supervisors. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 251-52).
On March 2, 2011, Ms. Nichols counseled Plaintiff by email about her disorganized desk. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 13). On March 31, 2011, Ms. Nichols emailed Plaintiff in regards to a clocking-in error that incorrectly inflated Plaintiff's productivity numbers. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 18-20). On April 1, 2011 and April 6, 2011, Ms. Nichols met with Plaintiff to follow up on her most recent Final Warning. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 13-15). At these meetings, Ms. Nichols informed Plaintiff that her performance and conduct were still not meeting expectations. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 13-15). Ms. Nichols also met with Plaintiff on May 4, 2011 and May 20, 2011, at which times Plaintiff was still not meeting expectations. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 21-22, 26-27). Ms. Nichols met with Plaintiff again on June 2, 2011. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 30-31). On a form used to memorialize the meeting, Ms. Nichols addressed Plaintiff by writing:
Bridgit, you have made improvement in some areas but overall your performance continues to not meet expectations. This level of performance has a direct impact on the quality of service provided to our customers. Immediate improvement is expected by June 7, 2011. You should be able to process independently, with a greater sense of urgency while providing quality results. Failure to meet these standards and to sustain acceptable performance by June 7, 2011 and after will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.
(Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 31). By June 7, 2011, Plaintiff's work was still not meeting expectations, but Ms. Nichols gave her an extension, setting June 21, 2011 as Plaintiff's deadline for meeting expectations. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 35-36).
On June 21, 2011, Plaintiff was terminated because of job performance issues. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 37-38). The decision to terminate Plaintiff was made by Ms. Nichols, who first consulted with Patrick West, her direct supervisor, and Ms. Kattke in Human Resources. (Doc. #19, Ex. 5, Nichols Dep. at 48-49). Ms. Nichols and Crystal Lent, a Human Resources Partner in Birmingham, were present for the termination meeting, while Ms. Kattke listened in by speakerphone. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 207, 246; Doc. #19, Ex. 5, Nichols Dep. at 50).
Plaintiff is not aware of any white members of the Special Processing Team who had a similar number of counselings, warnings, and final warnings and escaped termination. However, Plaintiff does believe that three white, female co-workers (Amanda Merriman, Debra Waldrep, and Mary Jean Brantley) had similar performance issues, but were not disciplined in same manner by Ms. Nichols. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 371-73). Ms. Merriman worked on the complex team within the Special Processing Team, while Ms. Waldrep and Ms. Brantley worked with Plaintiff on the status team. (Doc. #19, Ex. 5, Nichols Dep. at 57-58, 32; Doc. #19, Ex. 6, Nichols Dec. at ¶ 11). In regard to Ms. Waldrep, Ms. Nichols recalled, "To my recollection, I have not had to counsel or issue any warnings (including any final warnings) to Ms. Waldrep. Ms. Waldrep received Meets Expectations on both her 2009 and 2010 Annual Reviews." (Doc. #19, Ex. 6, Nichols Dec. at ¶ 12). As to Ms. Brantley, Ms. Nichols stated:
Ms. Brantley had some performance issues on the Special Processing Team. When performance issues arose, I issued counseling, discipline and warnings to Ms. Brantley. When needed, I emailed Ms. Brantley about following procedures and limiting her personal phone calls. I also sent memorandums to Ms. Brantley outlining her performance problems. On occasion, I issued verbal and written warnings to Ms. Brantley about the quality and accuracy of her work and her excessive phone calls. Despite some performance problems (and resulting counselings and warnings), Ms. Brantley received Meets Expectations on her 2010 Annual Review. She did not receive Needs Improvement or Does Not Meet in any areas.
(Doc. #19, Ex. 6, Nichols Dec. at ¶ 14). Despite her sense that white employees were treated more favorably, Plaintiff never heard any racially derogatory statements during her time at Protective. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 78, 228-29, 286-87).
Attendance-related issues did not play a role in Plaintiff's dismissal (Doc. #19, Ex. 6, Nichols Dec. at ¶ 8), but her attendance was at times irregular, a reality that seems to have resulted from a serious health condition. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 297-98). In November 2008, for instance, Plaintiff submitted FMLA medical certification forms and requested FMLA leave, which was granted for a period spanning late 2008 and early 2009. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 297-98). Plaintiff did not submit any further medical certification forms after 2008. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 298). On March 23, 2011, Plaintiff requested by email that Priscilla Dempsey, a HR specialist, classify a recent absence as FMLA qualified leave. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 42-43). Ms. Dempsey responded that Plaintiff needed to provide updated certification forms before any leave could be classified as FMLA leave. (Doc. #19, Ex. 4 at 42). Plaintiff is not sure whether she turned in the requested forms. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 299). Notwithstanding these issues related to leave requests, Plaintiff does not recall a time during her employment at Protective when she was ever denied leave or an instance when a manager or HR representative ever said anything negative about her FMLA leave. (Doc. #19, Ex. 1, Pl. Dep. at 304-05).
Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC on September 22, 2011. (Doc. #1, Ex. 1). The EEOC issued a finding of "No Cause" on May 30, 2012. (Doc. #1, Ex. 1). Plaintiff initiated her ...