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Witherspoon v. WTI Transport, Inc.

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

July 12, 2017




Plaintiff John Anthony Witherspoon initiated this action against his former employer Defendant WTI Transport, Inc. (“WTI”) asserting claims for disability discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seq., as amended, (“ADA”), based on his termination. (Doc. 1). WTI moves for summary judgment. (Doc. 29). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for review. (Docs. 30, 33, 35, 38). For the reasons stated below, WTI's motion for summary judgment, (doc. 29), is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, the discovery, and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits “show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” “Rule 56[] 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, 447 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. (citation and internal 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 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). Any factual disputes will be resolved in Plaintiff's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports Plaintiff's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 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 the 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) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mtn. Park, Ltd. V. Oliver, 836 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 the 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).

         II. Summary Judgment Facts[2]

A. Witherspoon's Position and Job Duties

         WTI is a trucking company that provides flatbed carrier service to manufacturers to deliver their products. (Doc. 31-1 at ¶2). WTI sends its trucks to customer locations for loading, transport, and unloading. (Id. at ¶3). WTI contends that, depending on the size of its customer and the number of loads it ships, the loading is performed in one of three ways. (Id.). Some large customers have their own personnel on0si8te who perform the loading onto WTI trailers. (Id.). For other customers who do not have frequent loads, the over-the-road (“OTR”) drivers may perform the loading. (Id.). And, according to WTI, for customers with a significant number of loads but without their own loading personnel, WTI provides a Loader, a WTI employee who drives the truck to the customer's facility, performs the loading, and leaves the loaded trailer at the customer's facility where the OTR Driver takes the load to its ultimate destination. (Id.).

         WTI hired Plaintiff John Anthony Witherspoon (“Witherspoon”) on May 18, 2001. (Id. at ¶4). WTI contends it hired Witherspoon to deliver loads to TAMKO, a local manufacturing customer and that his job included securing the load for TAMKO, requiring him to throw tarps and straps over the load to secure it on both sides of the truck. (Doc. 31-1 at ¶4). Witherspoon disputes this characterization, contending that he was hired, continually employed, and performed work for WTI as a “Loader” or a “Tuscaloosa Loader.” (Doc. 34 at ¶3). In addition to an affidavit attesting to his position, Witherspoon provides payroll documentation that lists his position as “Loader, ” “Loader Tuscaloosa, ” and “Tuscaloosa Loader.” (Doc. 34 at 9-11).

         In April 2004, Witherspoon sustained a lower back injury and was restricted by his physician from throwing straps and tarps, which WTI accommodated.[3] (Doc. 31-1 at ¶5). According to WTI, in July 2005, its business with TAMKO ended, and WTI transferred Witherspoon to work as a Loader at GAF, another manufacturer approximately one-half mile from Witherspoon's reporting location. (Doc. 31-1 at ¶6). WTI contends Witherspoon drove a truck with an empty trailer from WTI to GAF, had the trailer loaded at GAF, and then drove it back to the WTI facility for an OTR Driver to transport it to its ultimate destination. (Id.). WTI further contends that, because of the short distance between WTI and GAF, Witherspoon was not required to secure the load with straps. (Id.).

         Witherspoon disputes this characterization, first pointing to payroll documents dated June 9, 2005 and September 7, 2005, listing his position as “Loader” and “Loader Tuscaloosa, ” and not as a Loader for any particular client. (Doc. 34 at 9-10). Witherspoon attests that he performed, among other duties, load securement work for multiple WTI customers, and not as a dedicated loader just for any one customer. (Id.). Specifically, Witherspoon states that, along with another WTI Loader, he performed work for multiple WTI customers, including GAF, Tamko, Nucor Steel, U.S. Pipe, ASIPCO, GAF, Atlas Roofing, Scott's Turf, and more. (Id. at ¶4). Disputing WTI characterization of his duties, Witherspoon attests that, along with another WTI Loader, he performed load securement work using various securing methods for multiple companies and performed other job duties, including short haul driving, truck recovery when drivers left trucks for various reasons, giving road tests for drivers, etc. (Id. at ¶¶5=6).

         Witherspoon also offers an affidavit from Nakia Steele (“Steele”), who was employed as a driver for WTI in Tuscaloosa for over ten years, including during Witherspoon's employment. (Doc. 34 at 7-8). Steele attests that, including during the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, she observed Witherspoon load and secure trailers for WTI at Nucor, GAF, and TAMKO. (Id. at ¶4). Steel further attests that Witherspoon accomplished these duties without “throwing chains” “by walking into the loaded trailers from a loading platform and securing the appropriate straps or chains onto each side of the trailer from above, rather than standing on one side of the trailer and throwing chains across the trailers[]” and that this is the same methods she and numerous other WTI drivers and loaders used to secure loaded trailers at Nucor and TAMKO (Id. at ¶¶5-6).

         B. WTI's Reduction-in-Force/Witherspoon's Termination

         According to WTI, in May 2014, GAF notified WTI that it was reducing the number of loads WTI would ship. (Doc. 31-1 at ¶7). WTI contends that, based on the reduction in loads from the customer, it concluded that GAF business did not justify having an assigned Loader. (Id. at ¶8). WTI states it eliminated the GAF Loader position and assigned the OTR Drivers to perform the loading for remaining GAF loads. (Id.). Therefore, WTI asserts, it had only one other Loader position, which was occupied at the time and remains ...

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