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Williams v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

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

March 25, 2015



R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge

This case is before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25), filed August 28, 2014. This Motion (Doc. 25) has been fully briefed. (Docs. 33, 35). Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 1) alleges Defendant CSX Transportation, Inc. violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Doc. 1). In particular, Plaintiff asserts race discrimination claims (Counts One and Two) and retaliation claims (Counts One and Two). (Doc. 1). These claims are now before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25).

This case centers on two incidents that Plaintiff has admitted were his misconduct. Plaintiff is a locomotive engineer, running freight in Birmingham, Alabama for Defendant CSX Transportation. On more than one occasion, Defendant has found Plaintiff's performance lacking. In August 2012, Plaintiff left an unqualified person behind the controls of a moving train. For this violation of company policy and federal regulations, Plaintiff was given a ten-day suspension. Eight months later, Plaintiff's supervisors found Plaintiff's train on the wrong side of the tracks; Plaintiff parked his engine at the north end of a Birmingham area receiving yard in violation of a bulletin issued by Defendant. For this second transgression, Defendant suspended Plaintiff for twenty days. Plaintiff challenges Defendant's discipline of him, contending it was because of his race.

Again, Plaintiff readily admits that each incident was a work rule violation. His argument is that "everyone else was doing it, too." That is, although conceding his actions were in violation of Defendant's policy and federal law, Plaintiff claims his white coworkers were not similarly disciplined for their substantially similar misconduct. To the contrary, after a careful review of the undisputed facts in the Rule 56 record and the parties' respective arguments, the court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to identify a single appropriate comparator. Therefore, for the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion (Doc. 25) is due to be granted.

I. Standard of Review

Under Rule 56(c), summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(e) requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by his own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See id. at 324.

The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the nonmovant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See id. at 249. The Eleventh Circuit has "consistently held that conclusory allegations without specific supporting facts have no probative value." Leigh v. Warner Bros., Inc., 212 F.3d 1210, 1217 (11th Cir. 2000).

II. Facts[1]

A. Background

Plaintiff Fletcher Williams, an African-American, is employed as a Locomotive Engineer for Defendant CSX Transportation, Inc. (Doc. 28, Swafford Decl. ¶ 18). He has been employed with Defendant since June 23, 1997. ( Id. ). Defendant is a railroad company operating in the Eastern United States and Canada and headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. ( Id. at ¶ 4). Id. Defendant employs approximately 30, 000 employees, most of whom, like Plaintiff, are unionized members of collective bargaining units. ( Id. ). The terms of their employment are governed by collective bargaining agreements as well as the federal Railway Labor Act ("RLA"). ( Id. ).

Defendant maintains Operating Rules that govern conditions and actions on railroads operated by Defendant in the United States. ( Id. at ¶ 5). Plaintiff's violations of these Operating Rules and his subsequent discipline are at the heart of this controversy.

B. Defendant's Individual Development and Personal Accountability Policy ("IDPAP") and Investigations

Defendant addresses engineer discipline issues under its Individual Development and Personal Accountability Policy ("IDPAP"), which categorizes rule violations into minor offenses, serious offenses, and major offenses. ( See Doc. 31-3, IDPAP). Minor offenses are the result of "minor deviations, " which can result in informal corrective action, but if repeated, more formal corrective action may be appropriate. ( Id. at 2). Serious offenses under the IDPAP are those that are more serious than minor, but the commission of a single serious offense typically is insufficient to warrant dismissal. ( Id. at 3). Nevertheless, "suspension and/or retraining may be appropriate depending upon the circumstances." ( Id. ). The IDPAP lists examples of serious offenses, including but not limited to violations involving securing locomotives. ( Id. ). Major offenses under the IDPAP are those offenses that "warrant removal from service pending a formal hearing and possible dismissal from service for a single occurrence if proven responsible." ( Id. at 4).

Where appropriate, Defendant sends a charge letter to the employee and sets an investigation hearing. (Doc. 32, Ex. B-1, Holtz Dep. 23:17-19; see, e.g., Doc. 31-4, Charge Letter, May 28, 2013). Defendant's IDPAP follows a progressive discipline approach, in which any discipline imposed depends on "the nature of the offense, the employee's record, and taking into consideration the employee's willingness to accept responsibility." (Doc. 31-3, IDPAP, at 4-5; Doc. 32, Ex. B-1, Holtz Decl. ¶ 13). For the first serious offense in a three-year period, the IDPAP prescribes discipline of five to fifteen days actual suspension. An employee may face up to thirty days actual suspension for a second such offense, and up to dismissal for a third serious offense. (Doc. 31-3, IDPAP, at 5).

Pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"), hearings are held to determine whether an employee is responsible for the charged offense(s). (Doc. 32, Ex. B-1, Holtz Decl. ¶ 17; see also Doc. 31-3, IDPAP, at 4). The investigation consists of a formal hearing where the charged employee is afforded union representation and given the opportunity to confront witnesses, present evidence, and testify on his or her own behalf. (Doc. 32, Ex. B-1, Holtz Decl. ¶ 18; see also Doc. 31-3, IDPAP, at 4-5). The hearing is presided over by a Conducting Officer who is responsible for overseeing a fair and impartial hearing. (Doc. 32, Ex. B-1, Holtz Decl. ¶ 19).

C. The Work Rule Violations

As noted above, at issue in this case are the circumstances surrounding two discrete work rule violations attributable to Plaintiff. The court discusses the Rule 56 evidence related to each of these violations, in turn.

1. The August 28, 2012, Incident - Plaintiff's Violation of Operating Rule C-1

In this case, the first relevant disciplinary event involving Plaintiff occurred in August 2012 when he left a moving train in the control of an unsupervised, unqualified trainee engineer. The material facts surrounding this incident are largely undisputed.

On August 28, 2012, Trainmaster James Jackson performed an Operational Test on Plaintiff's train, which required Plaintiff to bring the train to a stop at the display of an electronic signal on a banner. (Doc. 26, Pl. Dep. 117:10-118:1). While performing this "banner test, " Jackson observed Plaintiff's train coming quickly into the control point. (Doc. 30, Jackson Decl. ¶ 10). Over the radio system, Jackson heard Plaintiff giving trainee D.D. Crook instructions, telling Crook to reduce the speed of the train. ( Id. ¶ 11). Plaintiff was not in the locomotive cab when giving these instructions. (Doc. 26, Pl. Dep. 103:23-104:3).

When the train stopped, Jackson boarded the train with fellow trainmasters Russell Weeks and Byrl McCoy. (Doc. 30, Jackson Decl. ¶ 13). Jackson saw that Crook "was sitting at the controls of the locomotive" and that Plaintiff was not with Crook. ( Id. ). After Crook informed Jackson that Plaintiff was not in the cab, Jackson walked towards the back of the train to locate Plaintiff. ( Id. at ¶ 13). Jackson found Plaintiff on the front porch of the third locomotive. ( Id. at ¶¶ 13-14). Plaintiff had left the cab to turn off an alarm that was ringing elsewhere in the train. (Doc. 26, Pl. Dep. 96:11-19). Plaintiff's violated Operating Rule C-1 because he left an unqualified trainee engineer in control of a moving train without direct supervision as required by federal regulations. ( See Doc. 30, Jackson Decl. ¶ 14; Doc. 31-1, CSX Operating Rules). However, at the time of the violation, Jackson praised Plaintiff for stopping for the banner test. ( See Doc. 26, Pl. Dep. 122:3-23). Jackson allegedly told Plaintiff, "y'all did a good job." ( Id. at 122:22). Nonetheless, Plaintiff admits that Jackson instructed him not to leave the locomotive cab to turn off the alarm while the train was still moving. ( Id. at 122:8-21). Instead, he indicated Plaintiff should "let the alarm go off." ( Id. ). Jackson discussed the incident with Weeks and McCoy, and because Plaintiff reported directly to Jackson, Jackson was the one who entered Plaintiff's Operational Test failure. (Doc. 30, Jackson Decl. ¶ 15). Plaintiff quarrels with (1) Jackson's reaction immediately after the incident and (2) Jackson thereafter documenting the work rule violation. However, this dispute is not material as it relates to Plaintiff's claim of discrimination. Plaintiff's claim is based on disparate discipline; he does not contend that he was falsely accused of a work rule violation.[2]

(a) Investigation of Plaintiff's Operating Rule C-1 Charge

On September 5, 2012, Defendant charged Plaintiff with failing to ensure that his train was operating safely. This action was taken because Plaintiff left the cab of a moving train and allowed an unqualified trainee engineer to operate the moving train without supervision - a "serious" violation under the IDPAP. (Doc. 28-5, Charge Letter, Sept. 5, 2012). Plaintiff's formal investigation hearing was held on October 11, 2012, and he was represented by his local union chairman, Mike Stone. (Doc. 26, Pl. Dep. 130:13-14; Doc. 28, Swafford Decl. ¶ 21; Doc. 30, Jackson Decl. ¶ 18). At the hearing, Jackson testified that he saw Plaintiff's train coming into the terminal at a fast rate of speed, and he heard Plaintiff giving Crook instructions using the internal radio system (including telling Crook to reduce the speed of the train). After the train stopped, Jackson boarded with Weeks and McCoy and saw Crook "sitting at the controls of the locomotive, " but Plaintiff was not in the cab with Crook, as required by rule. (Doc. 28-6, Hr'g Tr., Oct. 11, 2012, at 27:28-29:25; see also Doc. 30, Jackson Decl. ¶ 19). At the hearing, Plaintiff conceded that he had left Crook in control of the moving train and was in another area giving Crook directions over the radio. (Doc. 28-6, Hr'g Tr., Oct. 11, 2012, at 68:1-39).

(b) Plaintiff Suspension for Violating Operating Rule C-1

Division Manager Jermaine Swafford determined that Plaintiff should be disciplined for violating Operating Rule C-1 because he left an unsupervised, unqualified trainee in control of a moving train. (Doc. 28, Swafford Decl. ¶ 22). Swafford is African-American. ( Id. at ¶ 3). On November 9, 2012, Plaintiff was notified by letter that he was being suspended for ten days for violating Operating Rule C-1. (Doc. 28-7, Discipline Letter, Nov. 9, 2012). Plaintiff evidently first learned of the suspension on November 12, 2012, after reporting to work.[3] (Doc. 1-1, EEOC Charge, Dec. 18, 2012, at 1).

There is no dispute that, when Jackson assessed the infraction against Plaintiff on November 9, 2012, Jackson was unaware that Plaintiff had previously filed an EEOC charge against Defendant over two years earlier, in June 2010.[4] (Doc. 30, Jackson Decl. ¶ 20). Similarly, when he assessed the ten-day suspension against Plaintiff in November 2012, Swafford was unaware that Plaintiff had filed an EEOC charge against Defendant. (Doc. 28, Swafford Decl. ¶ 24).

(c) The December 2012 EEOC Charge Related to the Operating Rule C-1 Incident

On December 18, 2012, Plaintiff filed a second charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") claiming racially discriminatory discipline and retaliation related to the August 28 work rule violation. (Doc. 1-1, EEOC Charge, Dec. 18, 2012, at 1). On June 3, 2013, the EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Right to Sue. (Doc. 1-1, EEOC Dismissal and Notice of Rights, June 3, 2013, at 2).

2. The May 23, 2013, Incident - Violation of Bulletin 505

The second relevant disciplinary event involved in this case occurred on May 23, 2013, when Plaintiff failed to secure his train on the correct end of the receiving station. Plaintiff was suspended for twenty days for this incident for violating West District Bulletin 505 Item 1-A ("Bulletin 505"). The details surrounding his suspension are not seriously disputed.

On May 23, 2013, Terminal Superintendent Robert Holtz observed Plaintiff and his conductor, C.E. Bolton, secure their equipment on the north end of a receiving yard. (Doc. 32, Ex. B-1, Holtz Dep. 10:5-13:5). This securement was in violation of Bulletin 505, which required that equipment be secured on the south end of the receiving track, with hand brakes placed on the south end.[5] ( Id. at 12:19-13:5). Bulletin 505 was issued by the Atlanta Division on ...

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