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Singleton v. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama

March 28, 2017

BRENDA SINGLETON, Plaintiff,
v.
MERCEDES-BENZ U.S. INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This cause is before the court on the motion for summary judgment filed by the defendant, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. ("MBUSI"). Defendant seeks dismissal of plaintiff Brenda Singleton's claim that she was discriminated against based on her age, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), when her employment was terminated in January 2013. This matter has been fully briefed, and the court has considered the evidence and arguments set forth by both parties. The parties have consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party asking for summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, ' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact, or by showing that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. There is no requirement, however, "that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim." Id. at 323.

         Once the moving party has met his burden, Rule 56 "requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the 'depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file, ' designate 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324 (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. "[T]he plain language of 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." Id. at 322.

         After the plaintiff has properly responded to a proper motion for summary judgment, the court must grant the motion if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. "[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 249. His guide is the same standard necessary to direct a verdict: "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Id. at 251-52; see also Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 461 U.S. 731, 745 n.11 (1983). However, the nonmoving party "must do more than show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); accord Spence v. Zimmerman, 873 F.2d 256 (11th Cir. 1989). Furthermore, the court must "view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, " so there must be sufficient evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Communication, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Nevertheless, credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury, and therefore the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The non-movant need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference. Brown v. City of Clewiston, 848 F.2d 1534, 1540 n.12 (11th Cir. 1988).

         FACTS

         Viewing the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, in this case the plaintiff, the following facts are relevant to the instant motion.

         The plaintiff was 53 years old when she was terminated from MBUSI in January 2013. Singleton worked for MBUSI for more than 16 years at its manufacturing facility near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Over the course of her employment, she worked as an HRIS specialist, providing support to MBUSI's human resources and payroll departments, eventually transitioning to a position as an IT specialitst. She was the designated project manager for several IT-related projects. She was a salaried, exempt employee at all times relevant to this action. She was required to work 80 hours during each two-week pay period, and had a start time of 8:30 a.m., but she had flexibility about working remotely or adjusting her hours. She often worked more than 40 hours in a week.

         Beginning in 2011, the IT functions at the plant were divided between "direct" and "indirect" applications, depending upon whether the IT application was involved directly with the manufacture of automobiles, or the application was involved in some function other than the manufacture of automobiles, such as human resources. Plaintiff was assigned to the "Indirect Applications" group, where she was supervised by Ron Luster, who was 39 or 41 years old when Singleton was fired.[1] Singleton did not want to be supervised by Luster, because she had heard "gossip" that he was "unreasonable, " "doesn't treat people fairly, " and always "wanted to be an expert." An employee, who was "about" Singleton's age, told Singleton that Luster did not properly value experienced employees.[2] She testified that she was reluctant to work for him because he had a reputation for "managing people out." (Pl.'s Depo. p.31, lines 18-22). Singleton asserts that Luster made age-biased statements about her when he introduced her to interns, saying she had been there longer than anyone.

         Before working for Luster, Singleton had never been disciplined and had never been given a negative review. She reported to Lisa Evans for about six months before transferring to Luster's IT group, and Evans gave Singleton a "successful" ranking in her 2011 evaluation. Despite her good evaluations of Singleton, Evans told Luster, when Singleton transferred to his group, that Singleton was an under-performing employee who had trouble accomplishing tasks that required problem-solving. In a 2012 review prepared by Luster, Singleton was described as an employee who "struggled to complete her work without dependency on others, failed to secure required approval before beginning new projects, executed job duties in an inconsistent fashion, and did not adequately address or solve problems as they arose." She was ranked as "inconsistent" in the 2012 evaluation.

         Employees at MBUSI who received a ranking of "inconsistent" or below were placed on a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP"). Singleton spoke with Archie Craft, the vice president of human resources at MBUSI, who explained that, if she failed to successfully complete the PIP, she might be terminated. Craft, at the time, was 60 years old. He offered Singleton a buyout, which she considered but ultimately turned down. She asked to be given an early retirement package, about which Craft inquired with MBSUI. He then told her MBSUI could not offer her an early retirement.

         Singleton began the process of the PIP in August of 2012, which involved a series of seven meetings with Luster and, on some occasions, Dawn Burton, a team relations specialist at MBUSI. Her progress during the PIP meetings was deemed "unsatisfactory" by Luster. Singleton felt that she was not treated fairly during the PIP meetings, because Luster would change her goals or expectations, a process she described as a "shell game." Burton described Singleton's attitude at PIP meetings as defensive and angry, but Singleton said her behavior was caused by "great concern" and "distrust." Singleton admits that she felt that the purpose of the PIP meetings was not to improve her performance but to lead to her firing. Burton offered to meet with Singleton in additional sessions to counsel with her about improvements, but Singleton refused the additional help because she felt Burton was biased and would not maintain confidentiality. The last PIP meeting with Luster was held before Thanksgiving of 2012. Luster asked Singleton why she had not accepted the buyout offer, and told her that "he could not see how he could not fire" her.

         The PIP sessions were not continued after Thanksgiving, and Singleton was told to undergo communication skills training. Burton met with human resources senior manager, David Olive, age 49, and they agreed that the communication training should go forward before any further PIP meetings, but they did not tell Singleton that the reason for the communication skills training was to improve the efficacy of the PIP sessions. Burton described the PIP meetings with Singleton as the "worst experience" she has ever had in implementing a PIP.

         On January 10, 2013, Singleton was scheduled to lead a 10:30 a.m. conference call with two external contractors. Singleton was the lead project manager for the project. Singleton was not on the conference call when it began. Luster texted Singleton during the conference call, at 10:36 a.m., to remind her about it and that she was scheduled to lead it. About five minutes later, Singleton joined the call via her cell phone, apologized for her tardiness, and said she had been "running around like a chicken." After the conference call ended, Luster went to the IT Department to talk to Singleton about the call. She was not there. Luster had the gate records pulled to show when employees came in and out of the plant gates, and determined that Singleton had not been on the MBUSI premises during the call.[3]

         The next day, on January 11, 2013, Singleton was not at her work area at 8:40 a.m. Luster sent her a text asking if she was okay. Singleton sent a text response three hours later, telling Luster that she was in the building. Luster again checked the gate information, and determined that she was not on the premises at 8:40. Singleton did arrive at work just a few minutes after the text was sent, but did not see the text and did not respond until 11:40. She explained that her response was meant to indicate to Luster where she was at ...


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