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Smitherman v. Decatur Plastics Products, Inc.

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

August 24, 2017

NATASHA L. SMITHERMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
DECATUR PLASTICS PRODUCTS, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN E. OTT CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         In this action, Natasha L. Smitherman (“Plaintiff”) claims that her former employer, Decatur Plastics Products, Inc. (“Defendant”), discharged her because of race and in retaliation for complaining about race discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”). (Doc.[1] 1, Complaint). The cause now comes to be heard on Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 26). Upon consideration, the court[2] concludes that the motion is due to be granted.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, party is authorized to move for summary judgment on all or part of a claim or defense asserted either by or against the movant. Under that rule, the “court shall grant summary judgment 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. Proc. 56(a). The party moving for summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, ” relying on submissions “which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); see also Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144 (1970). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings” and show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

         Both the party “asserting that a fact cannot be, ” and a party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed, must support their assertions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, ” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 56(c)(1)(A), (B). In its review of the evidence, a court must credit the evidence of the non-movant and draw all justifiable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Stewart v. Booker T. Washington Ins., 232 F.3d 844, 848 (11th Cir. 2000). At summary judgment, “the 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.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         II. BACKGROUND [3]

         Plaintiff is African-American. She was hired on August 5, 2013, by Defendant, which manufactures injection-molded plastic products at its plant in Gadsden, Alabama. Plaintiff started out working on the second shift as an end-of-the-line operator, a Grade II position on Defendant's pay scale. Her starting pay was $7.50 per hour, which included a twenty-five cent shift premium paid to employees on the second shift.

         Upon her hire, Plaintiff received a copy of Defendant's policy handbook. (See Doc. 30-7 at 8; 30-8 at 3, 6). Included therein is a policy providing that new employees are to receive performance evaluations every three months during the first year of employment, and with each evaluation they are eligible for a pay raise of up to fifty cents per hour. (Doc. 30-16 at 47, Policy 13.0, ¶ C). Generally consistent with that, Plaintiff's supervisor, Marie Varnon, who is white, told Plaintiff early in her employment that she would be receive an evaluation and a pay raise every 90 days for her first year. Accordingly, Plaintiff's first evaluation would have been scheduled for about November 5, 2013, ninety days after she was hired.

         A few weeks before that day arrived, however, on or about October 14, 2013, Defendant promoted Plaintiff to a “flocker” position, a more skilled, more physically demanding Grade IV job on Defendant's pay scale. Plaintiff immediately received a fifty-cent raise, bringing her to $8.00 per hour. Because that increase was the result of a promotion, however, Plaintiff did not consider it to have been extended pursuant to Defendant's 90-day review-and-raise policy as she understood it. Rather, she believed she was still due for a performance review and another raise in the first week of November 2013 based on her hire date. In point of fact, though, under Defendant's policies expressed in its handbook, Plaintiff's promotion and raise meant she would not due be for a review, and potentially another raise, until three months from the date of her promotion, i.e., on or about January 14, 2014. (See Doc. 30-16 at 48, Policy 13.0, ¶ D (“When you move to a different job through the bidding process ... [y]ou will then be reviewed at 3 months ....”)).

         In any event, Plaintiff says that as of “latter January of 2014” she had not received a performance review or a further pay increase. (Doc. 31-1, Plaintiff's Declaration (“Pl. Decl.”) ¶ 4; see also Doc. 30-2, Plaintiff's Deposition (“Pl. Dep.”) at 25). That prompted her to ask Varnon why she had been there for going on six months and had still not been given an evaluation. Plaintiff also suggested to Varnon that she was being treated less favorably than another employee on the second shift, Leshie “Le-Le” Parmer. Parmer, who is white, had been hired on November 4, 2013, at which time she became an end-of-the line operator, the same job Plaintiff had before her promotion, starting out, also like Plaintiff, at $7.50 per hour. On this occasion, Plaintiff complained to Varnon that, while she, Plaintiff, had not yet had a performance review, Parmer had been hired after Plaintiff but she said she had already received a review and a fifty-cent-per-hour raise. However, while Plaintiff and Parmer were of different races, something Varnon knew as she supervised them both, Plaintiff acknowledges she did not bring up the issue of race in that conversation. (Doc. 30-2, Plaintiff's Deposition (“Pl. Dep.”) at 23-25). In response to Plaintiff's inquiry, Varnon said she would check on why Plaintiff had not received her performance review. The next day, Plaintiff says, Varnon told her she had been evaluated and that, as a result, she was getting a thirty-cent raise, to $8.30 per hour.[4] (See Doc. 30-7 at 6). Plaintiff's pay records reveal that increase to have taken effect on January 20, 2014, and that it was first reflected in Plaintiff's paycheck dated January 31, 2014. (Doc. 30-6 at 1).

         On April 13, 2014, Plaintiff was given another performance evaluation. She acknowledges receiving a review form and being told at that time that she would be receiving a raise of forty cents, which would have brought her pay to $8.70 per hour. (Pl. Decl. ¶ 5; Doc. 30-7 at 7; Pl. Dep. at 104). However, it is undisputed that such a raise was not implemented in her ensuing paychecks at that time; rather, her actual pay remained at $8.30 per hour. (See Doc. 30-6 at 10-14; Doc. 30-7). In early June 2014, Plaintiff went to Varnon and said that she had not received the forty-cent raise promised for her April evaluation. Plaintiff also complained that Parmer had said she had gotten another performance review and another fifty-cent-per-hour raise. Varnon responded by telling Plaintiff that she would contact Karen Cook, Defendant's Human Resources Manager, to find out why Plaintiff had not received her raise from April.

         The next day, Plaintiff received a call from Cook on her cell phone. Plaintiff again complained to Cook that, while she had not gotten her raise from her April evaluation, Parmer had told her that she, Parmer, had received two reviews and two raises of fifty-cents each since being hired. Plaintiff concedes that, as with her discussions with Varnon, she did not explicitly link any allegation of disparate treatment to race when speaking with Cook about Parmer, although Cook, who is white, knew that Plaintiff is African-American and that Parmer is white. Cook apologized to Plaintiff that she had not received her raise from April, explaining that, due to a payroll error, her raise had accidentally been applied to the paycheck of a different employee, also named “Natasha, ” who worked on the first shift. Cook assured Plaintiff that the raise would be on her next paycheck and that she would also be paid what she was owed for the raise going back to her April evaluation.

         Plaintiff's received her next paycheck on June 19, 2014, which covered the workweek from June 9 to 15, 2014. (Doc. 30-4 at 1). As Cook had promised, it showed a forty-cent raise to $8.70 per hour, as well as a lump sum giving Plaintiff the benefit of that raise retroactively for all hours she had worked since her April evaluation. (Id.) Nevertheless, Plaintiff remained unsatisfied, believing her “pay was still not right.” (Pl. Decl. ¶ 8). That was so because, in her mind, she was still owed an additional raise for the performance evaluation she thought she was due to have received in early November 2013, ninety days following her hire date, but which had not occurred. Upon receiving her paycheck, Plaintiff went to Varnon and the first-shift supervisor, Julian Juarez, and complained that Parmer had received two regular three-month evaluations and two raises that had resulted, Plaintiff thought, in Parmer being paid more than she was despite having been hired later and working an easier job. Frustrated with the situation, Plaintiff quit.

         A few hours later, Juarez called Plaintiff and asked her to come back to work on the first shift. Plaintiff agreed, and, on June 21, 2014, she returned to that shift as a flocker. In so doing, Plaintiff was no longer be eligible for the twenty-five-cent-per-hour shift premium paid to employees on the second shift. Thus, her hourly pay was reduced from $8.70 to $8.45.

         Soon afterwards, the owner of the plant called a meeting with all the employees working as flockers and “sprayers, ” including Plaintiff. (Pl. Decl. ¶ 9). According to Plaintiff, the owner told them that they were all getting a raise of seventy-five cents per hour as of the Fourth of July. (Id.; Pl. Dep. at 44-45). At that meeting, Plaintiff saw Cook, who told Plaintiff that she could come see her afterwards if she wanted a further explanation of what was being discussed. Plaintiff took Cook up on that invitation and went to her office. Once there, Plaintiff complained that her “pay was not right” and that Parmer had gotten two raises while she, Plaintiff, had been there longer and gotten only one. Cook told Plaintiff that her supervisor was going to get her another raise soon.

         When Plaintiff received her next paycheck, the seventy-five cent raise she thought she was due was not included. (Pl. Decl. ¶ 10). She went to Cook and complained about it. Cook assured Plaintiff that her supervisor would be getting with her during July for an evaluation and a raise. (Id.; Pl. Dep. at 48-49). Indeed, under Defendant's three-month review policy, since Plaintiff's most recent review had been on April 13, 2014, her next one was due on or about July 13, 2014.

         The last day that Plaintiff worked for Defendant, however, was July 10, 2014. Shortly after eight o'clock that morning, she went on her first break to Cook's office. According to Plaintiff, she asked Cook whether, if she were to go back to her original job as an operator at the end of the line, she would lose the fifty-cent raise she had received with her promotion to flocker in October 2013. (Pl. Dep. at 50, 52). Cook answered that Plaintiff would “more than likely” lose it. (Id. at 52, 57). Plaintiff replied by asking Cook what new hires were being paid, and Cook allegedly told her $8.25 per hour. (Id. at 52-53). Plaintiff expressed frustration, stating: “The new hires are making more than me and you're going to drop fifty cents from me if I go to the end of the line. I don't feel that's ... correct and I'm going to call the EEOC and let them figure out what my pay should be.” (Id. at 55; see also Id. at 131-33, 142; Doc. 30-16 at 1-30, Deposition of Karen Cook (“Cook Dep.”) at 56, 58-59, 70-71, 74). According to Plaintiff, Cook stopped typing on her computer, looked up at Plaintiff and asked, “Who?” (Pl. Dep. at 55). Plaintiff answered, “the Equal Opportunity Commission.” (Id.) According to Plaintiff, Cook angrily stated, “[I don't] give a fuck who you call[ ]” (Pl. Dep. at 142) and ordered Plaintiff to “get the fuck out.” (Id. at 131, 132). Plaintiff started to open the door to Cook's office leading back to the manufacturing floor. Cook immediately stopped her, however, and ordered her to leave through a side door to her office that led directly to the parking lot. (Id.) At that point, Plaintiff considered her employment to have been terminated.[5]

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Racially ...


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