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White v. Beaulieu Group, L.L.C.

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

May 23, 2017

ROGER WHITE, Plaintiff,
BEAULIEU GROUP, L.L.C., Defendant.



         Roger White alleges claims for discrimination and retaliation against his former employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1) (“ADEA”), and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended in 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-325, 122 Stat. 3553 (“ADAAA”). The court has for consideration Beaulieu Group, L.L.C.'s motion for summary judgment, doc. 37, which is fully briefed, docs. 38; 42; and 45, and ripe for review. For the reasons stated herein, the motion is due to be granted as to the age and disability discrimination claims (Counts I and II), and denied, in part, as to the retaliation claim (Count III).


         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.” “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) (alteration in original). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the non-moving party, who is required to go “beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal citations and 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 244 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). Any factual dispute will be resolved in the non-moving party's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports that party's version of the disputed facts. But see Pace v. Capobianco, 238 F.3d 1275, 1276-78 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of events is supported by insufficient evidence). 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) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that a 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).


         White, who was over age forty at all times relevant to this lawsuit, worked for Beaulieu Group for approximately two decades. He last worked as an Accumulator Technician in the Weaving Department of the Specialty Fabrics plant. Doc. 43-1 at 1. White's duties consisted of “maintaining and repairing accumulators, creel racks, comb holders, eyelets, weft brake systems, feeder grippers, left end grippers, sheers, control boxes, electrical systems, and circuit boards used in [Beaulieu Group's] weaving process.” Id.

         In October 2014, White's immediate supervisor, Ignaz Ackermann, informed White of Beaulieu Group's decision to create two new positions, entitled “Auxiliary Technician, ” by combining White's Accumulator Technician position with two Lubrication Technician positions. Id. at 3. Beaulieu Group “had replaced outdated accumulator equipment, ” which meant that “it was no longer necessary for two employees [i.e., Lubrication Technicians] to perform oil changes, maintain, and repair the accumulator on a full-time basis.” Doc. 43-8 at 2. In light of the change, Ackermann informed White that, to continue his employment, he had to successfully apply for one of the new Auxiliary Technician positions.

         White did not understand why he needed to apply for “a position [he] had been performing for 18 years, ” and asked Dennis Mason “why they were combining the positions.” Id. Mason purportedly replied that Beaulieu Group was “cutting back the fat and getting rid of old hands, ” see doc. 39-4 at 58, which White interpreted to mean “[p]eople that [had] been at [the company] any length of time.” See doc. 39-4 at 18. Concerned, White emailed Human Resources Manager Lamar Clark, stating, “[I] really don't understand this concept because of my long term employment [here] and I already currently do this job.” Doc. 39-12 at 2.

         Despite his disagreement with the decision, White applied for the new Auxiliary Technician positions and received an interview. Doc. 43-1 at 4. The Hiring Committee - comprised of Mason, Phillip Cooper (the Slit Film Department Manager), William Cronnon (the Spinning Manager), and Carlos Fraire (a member of “Employee Development”) - asked White “what stressed [him], ” “what motivated [him], ” and “whether [he] [would be] able to do the job.” Id.[2] White believes these questions were directed at his chronic depression, doc. 43-1 at 4-5, and maintains that the questions also evidence bias against him for being obese, because Cronnon “look[ed] [White] up and down” while inquiring about White's ability to perform the job, see doc. 39-4 at 15.

         In response to the questions, White stated that he “had been performing the job for 18 years and . . . there was no reason why [he] could not continue performing it.” Doc. 43-1 at 4. As to what “stress[ed] him, ” White responded that, “with [his] depression, [he] [is] always somewhat stressed, but that it [had] not been a problem with [his] medication.” Id. at 5. When asked if he believed two employees could perform the Auxiliary Technician job, White replied “not every day two people could not do [the job].” Doc. 39-4 at 22.

         After the interview, White called his wife immediately and relayed that the interview went poorly. See doc. 39-4 at 47 (“Q: So you called your wife and told her that the interview did not go good; is that right?”; A: Yes.”). The call caused White's wife to email Lamar Clark to plead for White's job. Doc. 39-36 at 2.[3]White's fears were confirmed a few days later when Beaulieu Group informed him that he was not one of the successful candidates. Doc. 43-1 at 5. Beaulieu Group also rejected the application of Jack Windsor, a 53-year old Lubrication Technician “with over sixteen (16) years of experience, ” and selected instead Josh Keef, age 35, and Brandon Blevins, age 24. Doc. 42 at 8. According to White, “Keef had less than three (3) years of experience as a Lubrication Technician and only a limited amount of training on Accumulator Technician duties that he received from White, ” and “Blevins had no prior work experience as either a Lubrication Technician or an Accumulator Technician.” Id.

         The reduction in force and White's unsuccessful application for one of the two new positions resulted in his discharge. As a result, White filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging age and disability discrimination. See doc. 16-1 at 2. White subsequently amended his charge to add claims for retaliation based on his unsuccessful attempts to obtain other positions. See docs. 16-3; 39-4 at 14.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The court examines each of White's claims separately below, beginning with age discrimination, followed by the disability discrimination in Part B, and finally, in Part C, the retaliation claim.

         A. Age Discrimination (Count I)

         White contends that Beaulieu Group engaged in age discrimination when it hired two individuals below the age of forty instead of White for the Auxiliary Technician positions. Doc. 42 at 14-15. The ADEA makes it unlawful to “discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). Where, as here, White is attempting to prove intentional discrimination through circumstantial evidence, the court utilizes the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), burden-shifting method of proof. See Horn v. UPS, 433 F. App'x 788, 792 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Chapman v. AI Transp., 229 F.3d 1012, 1024 (11th Cir. 2000)) (“[W]e apply the burden-shifting framework establish in [McDonnell Douglas] to analyze ADEA claims based on circumstantial evidence of discrimination.”).

         Under this method, White must first establish a prima facie case. See Walker v. Mortham, 158 F.3d 1177, 1183 (11th Cir. 1998). If White satisfies his initial burden, then Beaulieu Group must show a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its employment action. See Id. at 1184. If Beaulieu Group does so, then White must prove that the proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination. See Mulhall v. Advance Sec., 19 F.3d 586, 597 (11th Cir. 1994). However, “[t]he ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that [Beaulieu Group] intentionally discriminated against [White] remains at all times with [White].” See Springer v. Convergys Mgmt. Group, Inc., 509 F.3d 1344, 1347 (11th Cir. 2007).

         1. Beaulieu Group proffers a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for failing to hire White.

         Beaulieu Group concedes that White can establish a prima facie case. Doc. 38 at 24 n.34. Therefore, the next step in the McDonnell Douglas framework requires Beaulieu Group to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. See Walker, 158 F.3d at 1183. Beaulieu Group has met its burden through its contentions that White exhibited a negative attitude by his displeasure over needing to reapply for “his” job and that White verbalized doubts, during the interview, as to whether two people could complete all of the daily responsibilities called for by the job description. Docs. 38 at 25; 39-15 at 11; 39-16 at 23. White does not dispute that he made these statements.[4] Therefore, because “[a] subjective reason is a legally sufficient, legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason if the defendant articulates a clear and reasonably specific factual basis upon which it based its subjective opinion, ” Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1034, and Beaulieu Group has identified specific examples for why it maintains White exhibited a negative attitude, [5] Beaulieu Group has met its burden of articulating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.

         2. White cannot show that Beaulieu Group's proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason is mere ...

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