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Lavender v. Protective Life Corp.

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

October 31, 2017

KIMBERLY LAVENDER, Plaintiff,
v.
PROTECTIVE LIFE CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Kimberly Lavender sued her former employer, Protective Life Corporation, alleging that it discharged her because she is an African American, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. Doc. 1. Protective moved for summary judgment, arguing that Lavender cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination, or, alternatively, cannot demonstrate that the proffered reason for her termination is pretextual. Doc. 104. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for decision. Docs. 108 & 110. After reading the briefs, viewing the evidence, and considering the relevant law, the court grants the motion and dismisses the case in its entirety.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 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. “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, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (alteration in original). 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 that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal quotations 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).

         At summary judgment, 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. Any factual disputes will be resolved in the non-moving party's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports the non-moving party's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276, 1278 (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) (per curiam) (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 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. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Lavender, an African American woman, began her employment with Protective Life in December 1999 and was eventually assigned to the Life and Annuities Marketing Department in 2010. Docs. 1; 104 at 4-5; 108 at 2. The relevant events here occurred in 2012 and 2013, beginning in March 2012 with Teri Schultz's appointment as Vice President of Marketing. Docs. 1; 104 at 4-5; 108 at 2.

         After her appointment, Schultz restructured the department, which entailed, in part, giving many of the employees under her supervision, including Lavender, new job descriptions. Docs. 104 at 5; 108 at 2. As part of the restructuring, Schultz met with employees to discuss their new roles. Docs. 104 at 5; 108 at 2. When Schultz met with Lavender, she discussed Lavender's new position, “Marketing Communications Specialist, ” which involved the support of both life insurance and annuities. Docs. 104 at 6; 108 at 2. Schultz and Lavender also met on other occasions where Lavender had the opportunity to discuss her ongoing work and interests. Docs. 104 at 7; 108 at 3.

         Lavender's annual performance reviews reflect that she performed well in 2009, 2010, and 2011.[1] Doc. 105-1 at 108-28. Over time, however, Protective grew increasingly frustrated with Lavender's performance. In January 2013, Schultz gave Lavender an overall rating of “does not meet expectations” for the 2012 performance review period. Docs. 104 at 9; 108 at 4; 105-1 at 158-61. When Schultz discussed the review with Lavender, she outlined the specific areas where Lavender needed to improve[2] and instructed Lavender to create a development plan. Docs. 104 at 9-10; 108 at 4-5. Despite Schultz's warning, problems with Lavender's performance persisted. For example, the accounts team reported that they found Lavender's marketing monthly update “more confusing than helpful.” Doc. 105-1 at 162-63. Also, Lavender disregarded specific instructions from Schultz and worked on the Church Life project.[3] Doc. 105-1 at 41.

         A month after Schultz initially provided the directive for a development plan, she reiterated the request that Lavender build out a plan to “close the gaps in her performance . . . in order to sufficiently fulfill” her duties. Doc. 105-1 at 166. When Lavender finally complied, Schultz expressed her disappointment, explaining that Lavender's “plan” consisted “simply [of] some generic goals” and that it failed to address the performance deficiencies that Schultz had raised. Doc. 105-1 at 167.

         Around the same time, Schultz hired Dan Sheehan as 2nd Vice President of Marketing Communications. Docs. 104 at 6; 108 at 2. In this capacity, Sheehan directly supervised Lavender. Docs. 104 at 6, 11; 108 at 2, 6. At Schultz's instruction, Sheehan began working with Lavender on her development plan. Docs. 104 at 11; 108 at 6. On April 15, 2013, Schultz had Sheehan deliver to Lavender a written warning which detailed multiple performance deficiencies and placed Lavender on notice that failure to improve would result in further disciplinary action, including termination. Docs. 104 at 11; 105-1 at 44; 108 at 6; 110 at 4. Lavender understood after meeting with Sheehan and receiving the written warning what Protective expected of her and knew that her job was in jeopardy. Docs. 104 at 12; 108 at 6. Thereafter, Sheehan met with Lavender weekly until he resigned in July 2013. Docs. 104 at 12; 108 at 6.

         Based on her belief that Lavender had failed to improve, Schultz issued Lavender a final warning in late July. Docs. 105-1 at 50-53, 180-92; 105-1 at 193-94. The warning detailed performance deficiencies, outlining fourteen specific problems with examples of each. Doc. 105-1 at 193-94. Schultz gave Lavender a month to improve. Doc. 105-1 at 193-94. Schultz met with Lavender approximately a week later and discussed Lavender's performance problems, explaining that Lavender reverted too easily to administrative tasks, demonstrated a lack of urgency, did not maintain good office hours, did not write well, and demonstrated a lack of critical thinking. Docs. 104 at 13; 108 at 7.

         Lavender's final infraction occurred about a month later when she falsely informed Select Quote, a major client of Protective, that Protective no longer sold term insurance policies. Docs. 105-3 at 21; 105-1 at 55-56, 96. When Aaron Seurkamp, Protective's Senior Vice President of Life Sales, received Lavender's inaccurate communication from Select Quote, he forwarded it to Schultz. Docs. 104 at 14; 105-1 at 95; 108 at 7. Schultz, in turn, reported the incident to Mark Huffman, one of Protective's human resources partners, stating that “[t]his is a situation where [Lavender] used very poor judgment that could impact this relationship and our business.” Docs. 104 at 14; 105-1 at 95; 108 at 7; 105-2 at 3-5. Based on this incident and the issues outlined in the final warning, Schultz and Huffman discharged Lavender. The termination resulted in this lawsuit, in which Lavender asserts a single claim of race discrimination.[4] Doc. 1.

         III. ...


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