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Washington v. Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co.

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

March 8, 2017

HENNIS WASHINGTON, FREDRICK GREEN, TODD HOOKS, KELEEN FARRIER, LAWRENCE SILAR, DARYL LINDSEY, ROBERT EDWARDS, JOHNNY BALDWIN, BOBBY TERRY, TIMOTHY CALDWELL, NICK WHITFIELD, and JIMMY CURRY, Plaintiffs,
v.
UTILITY TRAILER MANUFACTURING COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the court are twelve motions for summary judgment filed by Defendant Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company (UTM)--one as to each of the twelve Plaintiffs, all current or former employees of UTM. (Docs. # 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 66, 68, 70, 72, 74, 76.)[1] Plaintiffs, who are black, bring this lawsuit alleging a racially hostile work environment under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and state law causes of action. Every Plaintiff has conceded summary judgment as to all state law claims. (Docs. # 87-96, 98-99.) And UTM does not request summary judgment on the § 1981 claims of Plaintiffs Hennis Washington, Daryl Lindsey, and Nick Whitfield. (Docs. # 72, 74, 76.) Thus, the court will examine the federal claims of nine Plaintiffs only: Johnny Baldwin, Robert Edwards, Fredrick Green, Lawrence Silar, Bobby Terry, Keleen Farrier, Todd Hooks, Jimmy Curry, and Timothy Caldwell. Upon consideration of the parties' arguments, the evidence, and the relevant law, all twelve of UTM's motions are due to be granted on the state-law claims, and, as to the § 1981 claims, seven of UTM's motions are due to be granted, while two are due to be denied.

         II. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court exercises subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To succeed on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate 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 views the evidence, and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 820 (11th Cir. 2010). However, such inferences are drawn only to the extent supportable by the record. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 381 n.8 (2007).

         IV. BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         UTM is one of the oldest and largest over-the-road trailer manufacturing companies in the United States. It has been in business since 1914 and currently operates five plants across the United States. In 1981, UTM opened a factory in Enterprise, Alabama, which typically employs hundreds of workers. The events giving rise to this action occurred at the Enterprise factory. Plaintiffs, employees of UTM's Enterprise factory, filed this lawsuit against UTM on August 27, 2013, alleging a racially hostile work environment under § 1981 and asserting a host of state law claims.

         The original complaint failed to allege facts specific to each Plaintiff, opting instead to list affected parties and make generalized allegations. When UTM moved to dismiss the claims or, in the alternative, for a more definite statement (Doc. # 12), the court noted that “Plaintiffs' complaint is poorly pled” and expressed its “confusion as to what this case is about” (Doc. # 14, at 1-2). The court ordered Plaintiffs to file a more definite statement “to allege how the work environment was racially hostile to each plaintiff” but declined to dismiss any of the claims. (Doc. # 14, at 2-3.)

         On October 18, 2013, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint (Doc. # 16), which contained a section for each Plaintiff, listing what appeared to be specific allegations beneath each Plaintiff's name. But the sections all turned out to be virtually identical. UTM moved for dismissal a second time. (Doc. # 18.) Ruling on the motion, the court observed that, although “the First Amended Complaint alleges facts for each plaintiff individually[, ] . . . the individual allegations are, for the most part, identical for each plaintiff and are simply copied and pasted twelve times.” (Doc. # 25, at 3.) Nevertheless, the court gave Plaintiffs another shot, declining once again to dismiss the claims and instead ordering them to “file a Second Amended Complaint addressing the deficiencies noted [in the court's order].” (Doc. # 25, at 16.) This was Plaintiffs' “final opportunity.” (Doc. # 25, at 10.)

         A Second Amended Complaint was filed on July 14, 2014. (Doc. # 26.) This time, UTM moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' state law claims only and did not challenge the federal law claims. (Doc. # 29.) On December 15, 2014, the court denied the motion, noting that, although it was a “close call, ” the court was “reluctant to dismiss the claims at the pleading stage.” (Doc. # 39, at 8.) This was the final set of dispositive motions prior to the pending motions for summary judgment.[2]

         The proposed evidence of racial hostility varies. Some of Plaintiffs' evidence focuses on the hiring and/or promotional practices of UTM.[3] For example, at least since 1999, UTM has not hired a black employee to a senior management position. (Docs. # 90, at 5; 102, at 8-9.) Plaintiffs also point out that UTM failed to promulgate a harassment policy expressly prohibiting racial harassment until 2012.[4](Doc. # 90, at 5-6.) And Plaintiffs suggest that the lack of reporting procedures prior to 2012 effectively made UTM blind to workplace harassment against its black employees.[5] (Doc. # 90, 5-6.)

         Most of what Plaintiffs offer to support their hostile work environment claims involves harassment perpetrated by coworkers. Plaintiffs report essentially three kinds of harassment that allegedly contributed to the hostile environment: racial graffiti and other suggestive images; overtly racist slurs; and racial comments or innuendos. In assessing any particular plaintiff's claim, the court does not consider inadmissible hearsay, Macuba v. DeBoer, 193 F.3d 1316, 1322 (11th Cir. 1999), or conduct to which the plaintiff was oblivious, Adams v. Austal, U.S.A., L.L.C., 754 F.3d 1240, 1245 (11th Cir. 2014). Thus, specific allegations are plaintiff-dependent and will be explained in detail. Generally, if one Plaintiff's claim is merely copied and pasted into another Plaintiff's brief, without an explanation as to how or why it pertains to the claims of the proffering Plaintiff, the court does not consider it.

         V. DISCUSSION

         To establish a hostile work environment claim under § 1981[6], an employee must prove that “the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993) (quotation marks and citations omitted). When the harassment claim is based on race, the employee must prove five elements:

(1) that he is a member of a protected class; (2) that he was subjected to unwelcome racial harassment; (3) that the harassment was based on his race; (4) that the harassment was severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of his employment and create a discriminatorily abusive working environment; and (5) that the employer is responsible for the environment under a theory of either vicarious or direct liability.

Adams, 754 F.3d at 1248-49.

         UTM challenges the fourth element only. The fourth element requires a plaintiff to show that his work environment was subjectively and objectively hostile. Mendoza v. Borden, Inc., 195 F.3d 1238, 1246 (11th Cir. 1999). In other words, “[t]he employee must ‘subjectively perceive' the harassment as sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the terms or conditions of employment, and this subjective perception must be objectively reasonable.” Id. (quoting Harris, 510 U.S. at 21- 22). The U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized “that the objective severity of harassment should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position, considering all the circumstances.” Onscale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 81 (1998). The “mere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet, ” even where directly aimed at the plaintiff, is not sufficient. Rogers v. E.E.O.C., 454 F.2d 234, 238 (5th Cir. 1971). Conversely, “environments so heavily polluted with discrimination as to destroy completely the emotional and psychological stability of minority group workers” can create the requisite level of hostility, even where the plaintiff is not the direct subject of the harassment. Id. “The fact that many of the epithets were not directed at [the plaintiff] is not determinative.” Walker v. Ford Motor Co., 684 F.2d 1355, 1359 n.2 (11th Cir. 1982). But the plaintiff must have been aware of the epithet during his or her employment. See Adams, 754 F.3d at 1245, 1257-58 (setting forth the requirements for the admissibility of “me too” evidence to prove that a work environment is objectively hostile). In other words, the totality of the plaintiff's circumstances does not include instances of racial abuse of which the plaintiff “learned only after [his or her] employment ended or what discovery later revealed.” Id. at 1245 (“[A]n employee alleging a hostile work environment cannot complain about conduct of which he was oblivious for purposes of proving that his work environment was objectively hostile.”).

         Notwithstanding Onscale's totality-of-the-circumstances approach, four factors have emerged as particularly relevant to the inquiry of whether the harassment is objectively severe: “(1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the severity of the conduct; (3) whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee's job performance.” Mendoza, 195 F.3d at 1246 (citing Harris, 510 U.S. at 23). Because UTM's motions for summary judgment specifically challenge the objective hostility element of plaintiffs' claims[7], the Harris factors will control.

         A. Harassment Experienced by Plaintiffs in Adams v. Austal

         In a case remarkably similar to this one, the Eleventh Circuit applied the Harris factors to the claims of multiple employees. See Adams v. Austal, U.S.A., L.L.C., 754 F.3d at 1250-57. In Adams, the Eleventh Circuit reviewed thirteen district court orders granting summary judgment against plaintiffs who had all brought hostile work environment claims but had been exposed to varying degrees of racial harassment in the workplace-affirming some and vacating others. Adams is the perfect analogue for the case at bar.[8] Racial graffiti and a series of firsthand and secondhand comments predominate the claims there as they do here. And, like the Plaintiffs in this case, some of the Adams plaintiffs experienced racial harassment that was much more frequent, severe, and direct than others. The Adams court's meticulous and individualized factual analysis helps delineate the threshold requirements of a hostile work environment claim. The court thus relies heavily on the Eleventh Circuit's analysis in Adams in parsing Plaintiffs' claims here.

         A closer look at the facts in Adams is worthwhile. The racial graffiti noted by the Adams court was extensive and vulgar. The following phrases were written or inscribed on bathroom walls at the Adams plaintiffs' workplace:

“see, niggers travel in packs just like monkeys”; “[t]he only people wearing union shirts are the lazy-ass niggers”; “[h]ow do you keep ten niggers from raping your wife, give them a basketball”; “white is right”; “why don't niggers use aspirin? Because they don't want to pick the cotton off the top”; “I'm not a full-fledged white man until I split the raw, black oak”; “KKK is getting bigger”; “[h]ow do you starve a nigger to death? Hide his food stamp card in his work boots.”

754 F.3d at 1246. The plaintiffs in Adams also alleged that they saw white supervisors and coworkers calling them or other black employees “boy, ” “monkey, ” or “Jeffrey.” Id. Several employees displayed Confederate flag paraphernalia and used the slur “nigger” on occasion, though usually not directed at the plaintiffs. Id. at 1246, 1253-55.

         At times, the harassment became physically threatening. While the Adams plaintiffs worked at Austal, employees found a total of eight nooses left around the workplace. Id. at 1246. One plaintiff heard a white coworker say that “where he [is] from, they hang . . . niggers, ” id. at 1253, and another plaintiff overheard a white employee say to a comrade that “h[e] and a nigger got into it” and that he would “hang that nigger, and shoot that nigger, ” id. at 1255. When one of the plaintiffs complained about his supervisor carving the slur “porch monkey” into the side of a ship they were working on, the supervisor “got in [his] face, less than an inch from [his] lips, screaming and hollering, ” and told him that “he [the supervisor] wasn't a goddamn racist.” Id. at 1253-54.

         Terrible as this harassment was, the court affirmed summary judgment against several plaintiffs who did not directly experience some of the more severe harassment. Although each Adams plaintiff saw the graffiti and was present for other harassing incidents, many of them were not direct victims of racial harassment themselves. The court distinguished those against whom summary judgment was appropriate by singling out the plaintiffs whose experiences were less frequent and less severe than the others. For example, although Robert Adams and Rahman Pratt both “frequently saw the racist graffiti in the men's restroom and frequently saw the Confederate flag, ” their experiences were not “directly humiliating or threatening, ” and were thus less severe than the experiences of others. Id. at 1254-55. Cf., e.g., Id. at 1251-52 (vacating summary judgment where black female plaintiff saw racist and sexually suggestive graffiti on the bathroom wall that was directed at her and personally found a noose in the breakroom). Adams heard the slur “nigger” several times during his time at Austal, and Pratt was the plaintiff who overheard a coworker say he would “hang that nigger, and shoot that nigger.” Id. But the conduct in both instances was infrequent, not perpetrated by a supervisor, and not directed specifically at either plaintiff. Id. The other conduct that plaintiffs heard about, but did not experience firsthand, was not severe enough to create a hostile work environment for those who were not direct victims. See Id. at 1253 (noting, in reference to another plaintiff, that “his experience was less severe because he did not see [the racist incident] firsthand”). Thus, as to the plaintiffs mentioned above and several others, the court affirmed summary judgment, noting in each case that “a reasonable jury would not find that his work environment was hostile.” See, e.g., Id. at 1254.

         Applying the Harris factors and comparing the harassment experienced by the employees at UTM to that of the plaintiffs in Adams, the court concludes that some Plaintiffs have presented sufficient evidence of an objectively hostile work environment to survive summary judgment, while others have not.

         B. Harassment Experienced by Plaintiffs in this Case

         1. Johnny Baldwin

         The record does not present a genuine dispute of material fact concerning Plaintiff Johnny Baldwin's work environment. Baldwin has worked at UTM since December 1992. Like many of the plaintiffs in this case, Baldwin predicates his claim on three types of racial harassment: (1) graffiti found in the workplace; (2) isolated incidents involving racially charged comments; and (3) a long list of comments that he “became aware” of through secondhand (or, in some instances, third-hand) accounts. Baldwin's narrative describes a workplace that falls far short of the ideal and a pattern of behavior that the court condemns unequivocally; however, the experiences he proffers do not provide enough evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that his work environment was racially hostile according to this circuit's standard. Because the other Plaintiffs rely primarily on the same events to establish their claims, Baldwin's case will act as the paradigm for the rest of the claims going forward.

         a. Graffiti

         Baldwin relies in part on racial graffiti found in work bathrooms to show that his work environment was objectively hostile. There were four instances of graffiti Baldwin could remember seeing: an illustration of a “hangman's noose” that had been etched into a bathroom door; the acronym “KKK” written in black permanent marker on a bathroom wall; the words “Brotherhood strikes the first blow” in pen or pencil on a bathroom wall; and a drawing of a Confederate flag, which was also in pen or pencil on a wall or door in the bathroom. (Doc. # 78-8, at 37-40.) Moreover, Baldwin reports seeing the word “brotherhood” and images of confederate flags on t-shirts and/or bumper stickers. (Doc. # 78-8, at 39-40.)

         The Adams court affirmed summary judgment against several plaintiffs who saw much worse. Unlike the graffiti in Adams-which displayed explicit racial slurs, derisive phrases directed at blacks, and messages that the average person could interpret to be physically threatening-the graffiti here was less pervasive and less severe. Not only did the graffiti in Adams contain highly offensive slurs and messages, whereas the graffiti here was suggestive, it also contained a far greater number of messages that occurred at a much higher frequency. The Adams plaintiffs on eight different occasions found ropes, looped-and-knotted to look like nooses, left throughout their workplace, whereas Plaintiffs in this case found a crudely carved illustration of a noose on the bathroom wall. Adams, 754 F.3d at 1246. The former is clearly more threatening and severe. Yet, despite dealing with much more severe conditions in the way of graffiti, the court in Adams affirmed summary judgment against several plaintiffs, establishing that graffiti-even very severe graffiti-is not enough to establish a genuine dispute of material fact that a plaintiff's work environment was objectively hostile. The court held that certain plaintiffs who had seen the graffiti, but had been exposed only sporadically to slurs and other racist comments, did not make a sufficient showing. See, e.g., id. at 1254 (explaining that one plaintiff “heard about the noose in the breakroom, ” “frequently saw the racist graffiti . . . [and] Confederate flag, ” heard “the slur ‘nigger'. . . a few times, ” but lacked the pervasiveness and severity required to support a claim for hostile environment). Assessed next to the graffiti to which these plaintiffs were exposed, the graffiti Baldwin relies on is mild. To be successful, Baldwin's hostile work environment claim would have to include other conduct that, when considered in the totality of the circumstances, is both more severe and more direct than the graffiti mentioned above.

         b. Firsthand Comments

         Factoring in the comments Baldwin heard (and heard about) does not bring his claim up to par. Baldwin admits that no racist comments or slurs were ever directed at him during the relevant period.[9] (Doc. # 78-8, at 35.) And, when asked how many times he witnessed a racist comment firsthand, Baldwin can list only two occasions. (Doc. # 78-8, at 35-36.) In the first, he heard a white female coworker continuously refer to a black coworker as a “little boy.” (Doc. # 78-8, at 36.) According to Baldwin, she said, “[Y]ou should have heard that little boy, the way he was cursing out there. You should have heard that little boy. He just kept going on and on. That little ole boy. He's something else.” (Doc. # 78-8, at 36.) In the second instance, Baldwin heard an unidentified voice over the radio say, “monkey in the ring.” (Doc. # 78-8, at 54-55.) Judging from the voice, a coworker ...


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