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Cochran v. Alabama Power Co.

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

May 19, 2017

MYRA PAUL COCHRAN, Plaintiff,
v.
ALABAMA POWER COMPANY[1], Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CALLIE V. S. GRANADE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on a motion for summary judgment and brief in support filed by Defendant Alabama Power Company (“APCo”). (Doc. 32; Doc. 33). Plaintiff Myra Paul Cochran (“Cochran”) filed a response in opposition (Doc. 42), to which APCo replied (Doc. 43). Based on the following, the Court GRANTS APCo's motion.

         I. NATURE OF THE CASE

         This cause of action arises from a pay dispute between Cochran and APCo, her employer. In her First Amended Complaint, Cochran alleges APCo required her to complete work substantially similar to male comparators but for significantly less pay in violation of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (“EPA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et sequentes. (Doc. 16, p. 2). Also, within the same count, Cochran contends APCo denied her the opportunity to earn additional income through out-of-town “storm work” but allowed her male comparators to “enjoy[ ] the lucrative assignments on a regular basis.” Id. APCo now moves for summary judgment on all counts. Cochran responds that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to the substantial similarity between her work and her comparator's work. Cochran, however, concedes that her claim based on out-of-town storm work “is due to be dismissed.” (Doc. 42, p. 4). Therefore, the Court GRANTS APCo's motion in as much as Count I alleges gender discrimination in assigning out-of-town storm work. The parties having fully briefed the remaining EPA issue, this matter is ripe for consideration.

         II. AGREED FACTS [2]

         APCo has employed Cochran since 1985. Cochran served as an office clerk for the first several years of her employment. As an office clerk, Cochran processed paperwork for various APCo engineers. In 1999, Cochran secured a position as a Technician I in the Mobile Division of APCo's Power Delivery Distribution Department. APCo promoted Cochran to Senior Technician in 2000, which is the position Cochran has held since that time. Since 2003, Cochran has worked in the Mobile-Hillcrest APCo office, one of several branches within the Mobile Division. From 2003 until June 2016, James (Jim) Dunning (“Supervisor Dunning”), the Engineering Supervisor for the Mobile-Hillcrest office, was Cochran's immediate supervisor. Additionally, Supervisor Dunning was the supervisor of Cochran's two male comparators: Joe Costa and Hank Anderson.

         A. Cochran's Duties as a Senior Technician

         Cochran describes her Senior Technician position as, “in layman's terms, I'm probably an engineering aide.” (Doc. 34-4, p. 5). Cochran's duties are geographically limited to the West Mobile section of the Wilmer community and part of the Town of Semmes. Wilmer is predominately rural; Semmes is slightly more urban. In servicing her territory, Cochran works to establish and maintain power delivery to new and existing APCo customers through electricity distribution systems, including the design, inventory, permitting, and cost estimates relating to said systems. The majority of Cochran's work focuses on establishing power for customers, “usually a mom-and-pop or some young people, ” who are seeking to establish power to a mobile home or some other type of building. (Doc. 34-4, p. 6). Additionally, Cochran responds to customer complaints, inspects outages, and performs other maintenance-type work for customers in her territory.

         Typically, Cochran submits a work estimate to her supervisor for approval once she has examined a customer's request for power, prepared an inventory, and diagrammed a plan. Occasionally, Cochran's supervisor spots an error in her work, thereupon corrections are made or changes to the estimate are discussed with Cochran before approving the project. Upon supervisor approval of the plan, APCo issues the plan to a crew foreman, who actually performs the work related to the power delivery project at issue.

         B. Background and the Duties of the Male Comparators

         Costa and Anderson, the male comparators mentioned above, are both Distribution Specialist I in the Mobile-Hillcrest office. Costa became a Senior Distribution Specialist at APCo in January 1994, then a Distribution Specialist I in October 2015. Before becoming a Distribution Specialist, Costa obtained field experience as a utility man, tree trimmer, and truck driver.

         Anderson became a Senior Technician in April 2003, a Distribution Specialist in March 2005, and then a Senior Distribution Specialist in December 2008. Like Costa, Anderson became a Distribution Specialist I in October 2015.[3] Before becoming a Senior Technician and Distribution Specialist, Anderson obtained field and line crew experience working as a truck driver and lineman for nearly seven years.

         Costa and Anderson are also responsible for engineering, designing, and maintaining electricity distribution systems across an assigned territory. But Costa and Anderson primarily work on jobs that are larger, more complicated, and often more commercial (i.e., more complex distribution systems, more connections, more equipment, and greater budget). For example, Costa and Anderson work underground subdivisions. Cochran testified she has never done such work. (Doc. 34-4, p. 15). Additionally, Anderson has completed large-scale commercial power setups, such as setting up power to a shopping center anchored by Gander Mountain outdoor stores.

         In order to qualify to complete such complex tasks, each Distribution Specialist candidate is required to reach two mandatory milestones, which are outlined in APCo literature provided to Cochran. First, each Distribution Specialist candidate must successfully complete Electric System Operation Procedure (“ESOP”) training[4] and pass a test signifying that the employee is qualified to perform switching work on the APCo electricity operating system (i.e., these employees know how and when to turn power on and off to a certain portion of a distribution line in coordination with line crews working a particular project). Second, a Distribution Specialist I is required to be on the Official Clearance List. This list is essentially those employees who have passed the ESOP. Supervisor Dunning explained that achieving these milestones demonstrates a Distribution Specialist I's knowledge and experience of what decisions to make, and when to make them, on complex issues, which enables the Distribution Specialist I to understand and complete larger, more complex projects. Moreover, a Distribution Specialist candidate must demonstrate through day-to-day observation a sufficient understanding of the APCo distribution system.

         Cochran acknowledged in testimony that in her job position, Senior Technician, she is not on the “switching list to give switching instructions to the line crew or whoever is opening and closing the switches out in the field, because there is a procedure for that. You have to pass the test and know all the ins and outs.” (Doc. 34-4, p. 14). Cochran further explained switching is, indeed, a “life and death” matter. Id. at 15. Because mistakes can be deadly, APCo strictly scrutinizes the capabilities of those tasked with switching work.

         Costa and Anderson have successfully completed ESOP training and are on the Clearance List. Both Costa and Anderson regularly perform switching work on APCo distribution lines in the performance of their jobs as Distribution Specialist I. Supervisor Dunning ...


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