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Carroll v. Office Depot, Inc.

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

March 30, 2015

DEWAYNE CARROLL, Plaintiff,
v.
OFFICE DEPOT, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ABDUL K. KALLON, District Judge.

DeWayne Carroll, an African-American who suffers from a disability, claims that his former employer, Office Depot, Inc., discharged him because of his race and disability and in retaliation for complaining about the alleged discrimination, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq. Doc. 1. The issues in this case center primarily on a new manager's decision to place Carroll on a "Performance Improvement Plan, " or a "PIP." See generally docs. 29, 37, 40. Prior to working with this new manager, Carroll had worked with Office Depot for 18 years, primarily without any major performance issues. Doc. 28-2 at 30. When the new manager arrived, he transferred Carroll laterally to a different department-an assignment Carroll hated-and purportedly started "nit-picking" Carroll's performance. Id. at 5, 10, 34. Ultimately, the new manager placed Carroll on a PIP that required Carroll, among other things, to submit an "action plan" and identify areas in which he needed additional training-which Carroll admitted he failed to do, in part because he did not feel his performance was deficient. Docs. 28-2 at 27-28; 35-5. Eventually, because of Carroll's purported failure to meet the metrics outlined in the PIP, Office Depot discharged Carroll based on the recommendation of the new manager. Docs. 28-10 at 21; 28-12 at 68.

Before the court is Office Depot's motion for summary judgment.[1] Doc. 27. Having reviewed the parties' arguments and the evidence submitted, with respect to the retaliation claims, based in part on the temporal proximity between Carroll's August 24, 2011 lawsuit in a different case and the PIP issued one week later on September 1, 2011 (which led to Carroll's discharge on January 18, 2012), the court concludes that a jury should decide whether retaliatory animus (rather than Carroll's failure to comply with the PIP) purportedly motivated the decision to discharge Carroll. Therefore, the motion for summary judgment on the retaliation claim is due to be denied. As to the race discrimination claims, for the reasons outlined below, the court concludes that summary judgment is proper.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 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." To support a summary judgment motion, the parties must cite to "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). Moreover, "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. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). 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)). Furthermore, "[a] mere scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party." Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Office Depot is a retail provider of office products and services. See doc. 28-3 at 65. Carroll, an African-American who suffers from a vision impairment that renders him legally blind, joined Office Depot in 1993 as a part-time stocker, and worked for Office Depot until his termination on January 18, 2012. Doc. 28-2 at 3. Carroll became a full-time employee in 1999, earned a promotion to department manager six years later in 2005, and ultimately hoped to become an assistant manager. Id. at 4, 18, 32. Between 2005 and 2010, Carroll asked Office Depot to consider him for two assistant manager positions, but both times the company selected other candidates, one of whom was a Caucasian male with no disability. Id. at 6, 15-16. Because Carroll believed that discriminatory animus motivated the selection decisions, [2] he filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on October 25, 2010 alleging race and disability discrimination, and a lawsuit on August 24, 2011.[3] Docs. 35-1 at 2; 28-21 at 4-15.

In the meantime, Carroll continued working as a technology department manager. In April 2011, shortly before Carroll entered a twelve week period of family leave for the birth of his child, Office Depot hired a new store manager, Rodney Williams, who ultimately recommended Carroll's termination on January 18, 2012 due to performance and insubordination issues (which the court will describe more fully below). Docs. 28-2 at 21; 28-12 at 28, 68. The events that transpired once Williams became store manager culminated in Carroll filing this present action. The essence of Carroll's claim is that when he returned from family leave, Williams began "nit-picking" Carroll's performance and "setting Carroll up to fail... because of his race and disability." See doc. 37 at 44. As detailed below, Carroll describes certain events that he believes demonstrate Williams's discriminatory intent, and maintains that the disciplinary actions that Williams initiated and that ultimately led to Carroll's discharge were unfair and discriminatory.

A. Discriminatory intent

On April 12, 2011, just a few days after working with Carroll, Williams filled out a Manager's Record of Discussion form ("MRD") in which he summarized two incidences that day where Carroll mistakenly sold the wrong product to a customer and misquoted the price of a product to another customer. Doc. 35-18 at 3. In the MRD, Williams noted that Carroll "has a habit of holding everything he reads very close to his eyes" and that "both issues should have been avoided by thoroughly reading the labels" on the products. Id. While a manager typically completes an MRD after a verbal discussion with an employee about work performance to document the conversation, see doc. 28-12 at 16, Williams "did not confront" Carroll because he wanted to wait to speak with someone in higher management to "see if [they] were already aware of the disability, " doc. 35-18 at 3. Carroll believes that Williams's mention of his vision impairment in this MRD demonstrates discriminatory animus. Doc. 37 at 43.

When Carroll returned from medical leave in July 2011, Carroll repeatedly had encounters with Williams which Carroll believes demonstrate discriminatory intent. For example, Williams transferred Carroll laterally with no loss in pay from the technology department to the supplies department. Doc. 28-2 at 5. Carroll viewed the transfer as a less desirable assignment because he preferred the technology department. Id. According to Williams, he transferred Carroll because he believed Carroll's tenure with the company "made him flexible" and "capable of [managing]... any department, " whereas Carroll's replacement in the technology department, Adam Price, was "brand new" and more comfortable with technology sales. Doc. 28-12 at 34. Carroll disagrees and contends that Price actually had very little technology experience, and that Williams's claim that Price was "more comfortable" with technology is therefore suspect. See doc. 37 at 44. Carroll believes instead that Office Depot hired Price because they wanted "to have somebody in place... when they... [got] rid of [Carroll]." Doc. 28-2 at 6.

Additionally, Carroll describes that Williams began assigning Carroll to more difficult overnight shifts, which kept Carroll from seeing his family, [4] and that Williams would "watch" him in a way that Carroll believed "singled" him out and made him feel "picked on." Doc. 28-2 at 10, 34. Carroll recounts one particular instance that he described as "just ridiculous" and that he "would probably never forget": During a night shift assignment, Williams told Carroll that he had "missed something" while "straightening the store." Id. at 34. Apparently, Williams took a photo of the item-a "little piece of cellophane, probably half an inch square round"-printed the image out, and drew a red circle around the cellophane to show Carroll. Id. Carroll and his coworker looked for the cellophane and could only see it when Carroll "literally got down on [his] hands" and ran his hands across the floor. Id. Carroll also describes another incident where Williams had a "little smirk on his face" when he handed Carroll a document and asked him to read it, stating "I know it's small, it's hard for you to see." Id. at 19.

B. Disciplinary actions

Carroll also maintains that Williams subjected him to a series of unfair disciplinary actions related to "new" performance standards without offering proper training or counseling. See doc. 37 at 45. These disciplinary actions occurred on July 15, 2011, August 1, 2011, August 15, 2011, August 16, 2011, and August 17, 2011, when Williams spoke with Carroll and completed MRDs regarding Carroll's failure to follow company procedures for "working the store stock balancing reports" and for failing to close the store properly by leaving products out and leaving trash in the store aisles. Doc. 28-13 at 14-24. Based on these infractions, on September 1, 2011, Williams initiated a formal disciplinary "write up, " i.e., a PIP, which summarized the issues that Williams observed related to the stock balancing reports and required that Carroll follow the proper procedures or risk "further disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment." Doc. 35-5 at 2. As part of the PIP, Williams required Carroll to submit an "action plan" by September 5, 2011 identifying the steps Carroll would take toward improving his performance.[5] Id. Carroll admittedly failed to do so by the deadline and instead, one month later and after two discussions with Williams about the action plan, Carroll wrote a letter to Williams and Human Resources acknowledging that the "write [up] stated that [he] should do an action plan" but asserting, "I do not feel that I was wrong due to the way I was trained and because of these actions ...


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