United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.
Relying on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981a & 2000e through 2000e-17, plaintiff Joshua Griffin has sued his former employer, defendant Neptune Technology Group, claiming that he suffered illegal retaliation for opposition to discrimination. Relying on the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1986 ("COBRA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1132, Griffin also claims that Neptune illegally failed to provide appropriate notice that he could continue his health-insurance coverage after his termination.
The court has original jurisdiction over these claims under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(f) (COBRA), and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3) (Title VII).
This cause is before the court on Neptune's motion for summary judgment in its favor. For the following reasons, the motion will be granted on the Title VII claim and denied on the COBRA claim.
I. SUMMARY-JUDGMENT STANDARD
"A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment 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 court must view the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
Griffin makes two types of claims. First, he claims that, in violation of Title VII, Neptune retaliated against him for his complaints to management about harassment and retaliation by his supervisor. Second, he claims that Neptune failed to give him proper notice of his right to elect COBRA coverage. The court begins by discussing the relevant facts, which are drawn from the evidence taken in the light most favorable to Griffin.
Griffin, who is an American of African descent, started worked for Neptune, a water-meter manufacturer. His job duties included assembling, testing, and packaging meters. Under the company's policy, employees are eligible for a merit-based pay increase every four months until they reach the top of their position's pay range; supervisors complete performance reviews of their supervisees every four months, and positive reviews result in raises. For the first nine months of his employment, Griffin received positive reviews and raises every four months.
In August 2011, shortly after Frank Pierce, who is white, became Griffin's direct supervisor, Griffin began to feel that Pierce was singling him out for unfair treatment. Pierce talked to Griffin in a negative and harsh tone and frequently criticized him when Griffin believed he was doing nothing wrong. On one occasion, Pierce told Griffin he was "looking stupid" for doing something that Pierce did not criticize a white employee for doing. Evidentiary Submission in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 39-1), Deposition of Joshua Griffin, 63:16 through 64:4. On another occasion, Pierce approached Griffin and purposefully kicked a large metal cart that Griffin was leaning on, potentially causing him to fall. Griffin observed that Pierce was also hard on two of Griffin's black coworkers and started to be hard on a white coworker after Griffin and the coworker became good friends. However, Griffin admits Pierce's "favorites" included several black female employees. (Evidentiary Submission in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, Doc. No. 39-1, Deposition of Joshua Griffin, 114:19 through 115:2.)
A. November 2011 Complaint
Soon after Pierce became his supervisor, Griffin began making complaints to various members of management about Pierce's harassment of him, in accordance with the procedure laid out in the employee handbook. However, he vocalized concern that Pierce was motivated by race on only one occasion, in November 2011. That time, Griffin approached Pierce's direct supervisor, Ricky Morgan, to complain that Pierce was harassing him unfairly and stated that Pierce's behavior "had something to do with" Griffin's race. Evidentiary Submission in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 39-1), Deposition of Joshua Griffin, 220:4-7.
Griffin says that, from that point until August 2012, Pierce continued to pick on him and talk negatively to him, but the evidence contained little in the way of specifics. On one occasion, in January 2012, Pierce denied Griffin's request for vacation pay for the shift during the National Championship football game, which Pierce had granted to all other employees who requested it except one other black male employee. Griffin complained to Human Resources about Pierce's conduct in this incident but did not say that he believed Pierce's behavior was motivated by race.
Pierce gave Griffin two positive performance reviews and merit raises during this nine-month period.
B. August 2012 Complaints
Around August 1, 2012, Pierce gave Griffin his first negative-performance review and denied him a raise. That day, Griffin complained to the Human Resources Department about Pierce but did not mention racial motivation in his complaint. He asked Human Resources to arrange for a meeting with him, Pierce, Morgan, and Human Resources personnel present to address the problems between Griffin and Pierce. Human Resources never set up the meeting.
In the week following this complaint, Griffin became the focus of a series of troubling events documented in a series of emails and other materials. Essentially, over the following week or so, Pierce reported to Human Resources that he suspected Griffin had been smoking-a terminable offense. He and a Human Resources employee spied on Griffin to try to catch him in the act, but saw nothing. After learning of Pierce's suspicions, Morgan and Human Resources Director Jill Samuelson spoke about ways to find evidence, and Samuelson talked with the head of security about training a camera on the courtyard to try to catch Griffin smoking. Shortly thereafter, Pierce tried to find an old disciplinary warning he had issued to Griffin, and, after realizing that he had not submitted it to Human Resources, issued a new disciplinary warning to Griffin for allegedly using his phone on the work floor the prior day. However, there was no reason for Pierce to wait a day before writing up Griffin, and Griffin denies the accusation. The warning, reduced to writing, was the first step in Neptune's four-step disciplinary policy leading to termination.
On August 9, 2012, the day after receiving this write-up, Griffin made a new complaint of harassment and retaliation against Pierce to Roper Industries, Neptune's parent company, through its ethics complaint hotline. During this call, Griffin did not claim that he was being harassed on the basis of race or that he was suffering retaliation due to a complaint of racial discrimination.
The next morning Human Resources Director Samuelson received an email from Roper Industries, instructing her to investigate and make a report on Griffin's complaint to the ethics hotline, and she began contacting management about the complaint.
Later that day, after being informed of the hotline complaint, Morgan issued Griffin a written warning alleging that, on the previous day, he had held up the production line for 10 minutes. While admitting that he was not at his station, Griffin disputes that his actions had been improper and said he had been trying to get guidance from a supervisor. There was no reason for the delay in issuing the warning. Under Neptune's progressive-discipline policy, a written warning was the second step in the four-step process leading to termination.
On the following work day, Human Resources Director Samuelson wrote to a Roper Industries employee to update him on the status of her investigation and to notify him of the disciplinary actions taken against Griffin by Pierce and Morgan that week. In the email, she attempted to head off any potential concern about the two disciplinary actions coming so close on the heels of Griffin's complaint, claiming the discipline was "in no way retaliation." Evidentiary Submission in Response to Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 53-33).
Samuelson never interviewed Griffin or any of his co-workers on the production line about Pierce's alleged harassment and retaliation, and instead spoke only with the supervisors and managers to whom Griffin said he had complained. Based on this limited investigation, she decided there was no merit to Griffin's complaints.
About a month later, in accordance with company policy requiring a second performance review one month after a negative one, Pierce gave Griffin a positive review, rating him above average' in several areas and approving him for a raise. Two days later, Samuelson emailed Morgan to notify him of the positive review and warned: "[B]ased on this, the warnings received a few weeks ago will not be applicable if we have to move forward with any type of discipline in the future." Evidentiary Submission in Response to Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 53-16). Morgan forwarded this email to Pierce and reminded him that Griffin had received two disciplinary actions, which Pierce should have considered against Griffin when completing his most recent review. In the future, Morgan warned, Pierce would ...