United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
NATHAN L. ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
CON-WAY FREIGHT, INC., Defendant.
ABDUL K. KALLON, District Judge.
Nathan L. Robinson filed this lawsuit against his former employer Con-way Freight, Inc. ("Con-way"), alleging that Con-way discriminated against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), and § 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 ("§ 1981") when it discharged him in response to an alleged threat Robinson made against a co-worker. Doc. 1. Before the court is Con-way's motion for summary judgment, which is fully briefed and ripe for review. Docs. 15-17, 19-21. For the reasons set out fully below, Con-way's motion is due to be granted.
I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "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." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to "go beyond the pleadings" to establish that there is a "genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. However, "mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion." Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) ( per curiam ) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)).
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
A. Con-way's Policies
Con-way has various policies that address work place conduct. Relevant to this case, under the conduct policy, fighting or horseplay, including "physically or verbally attacking another person; or engaging in other disorderly conduct or verbal abuse which, although innocently done, may result in injury or insult to another; or causing or contributing to disruption of the workplace, " is "unacceptable" and may subject an employee to discipline including termination. Doc. 17-2 at 22. Con-way is "committed to providing a safe, violence-free workplace, " and has "adopted a No Threats or Violence in the Workplace Policy" that "strictly prohibits employees... on Company property... from behaving in a violent or threatening manner." Id. at 28. With respect to discipline, Con-way does not follow a rigid disciplinary system, noting that
[i]t is impossible to predict or list every situation that will require some form of corrective action or even termination. Each case involves its own particular facts and circumstances, and in every case the company must take the action that it considers appropriate. Such actions might include oral warnings, incident reports, written letters of instruction, disqualification from assignment, suspension or termination of employment.
Id. at 24. Importantly, "the disciplinary process may be initiated at any step depending on the seriousness of the offense and the appropriateness of the imposed disciplinary action." Id.
B. Robinson's employment history
Con-way re-hired Robinson as a supplemental driver/sales representative in May 2002, and subsequently promoted him to a regular position. Doc. 17-1 at 4-5; 17-5 at 4. During his employment, Robinson received multiple disciplinary actions, including two verbal counseling sessions and twenty-five letters of instruction. Doc. 17-2 at 35-77. Six of the letters of instruction were for performance violations, and the rest were for conduct or policy infractions. Id. at 45, 47, 48, 49, 54, 68, 73. The only performance evaluation in the record is from 2007. In it, Robinson received a satisfactory evaluation, which described him as "a good worker, " and awarded him scores of 4 (higher range) or 5 (outstanding) in all seven categories except dependability, in which he received a 2 (lower range). Doc. 20-4 at 2-5. The 2007 evaluation also indicated that Robinson's evaluations from the previous three years had ranged from average to satisfactory. Id. The next year, in 2008, Robinson was involved in "horseplay" with another employee that escalated to insults about each other's wives, but ended "before it became more than word[s]." Doc. 17-4 at 18. Apparently, Con-way took no corrective action.
C. The incident leading to Robinson's discharge
In September 2011, an employee reported to Timothy Grant, Service Center Manager, that Michael Thomas verbally assaulted him, and that Thomas was also involved in an altercation with Robinson in April 2011. Docs. 17-3 at 6; 17-1 at 64. An investigation ensued that involved Grant meeting with Thomas and Robinson to obtain statements about the incident. Doc. 17-3 at 7. For his part, Robinson said the incident started when Thomas jokingly asked Robinson where his "girl" was, and that when Robinson quipped back that she was "probably with the same person that's with [Thomas's], " Thomas became upset and approached Robinson with a Leatherman tool, which prompted Tim White to intervene and instruct them to return to work. Doc. 17-1 at 65, 66. According to Thomas and White, Robinson and Thomas made threatening gestures when they jumped off of their forklifts and approached each other, causing Thomas to feel threatened and pull out the Leatherman tool. Id. at 7-8, 9; docs. 17-2 at 78; 17-4 at 12-13; 17-5 at 15-16, 18.
Grant forwarded the results of his investigation to Jerry McGlown, a Human Resources Generalist, who instructed Grant to place Robinson and Thomas out of service. Docs. 17-3 at 11; 17-4 at 5. Thereafter, McGlown forwarded Grant's notes to the Human Resources Department with a recommendation that Con-way discharge Robinson and Thomas. Doc. 17-5 at 6. Human ...