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Strong v. Blue Bell Creameries

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

February 2, 2018

JAMES STRONG, Plaintiff,
v.
BLUE BELL CREAMERIES, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This is a civil action filed by the Plaintiff, James Strong, against the Defendant, Blue Bell Creameries. In its original form, the Complaint alleged that the Defendant discriminated against Strong on the basis of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. Section 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Count One). The Plaintiff also alleged that the Defendant discriminated against him due to his disability, and failed to reasonably accommodate his disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12112, et seq. (the “ADA”), and the amendments thereto. (Count Two).[1] Both counts arose out of the Plaintiff's employment with the Defendant.

         On June 21, 2016, this Court held that “the Plaintiff has failed to properly allege facts which plausibly support a claim for wrongful discharge, ” and dismissed any such claim. (Doc. 29 at 13). The Plaintiff subsequently flied a motion to amend the Complaint (doc. 31), which this Court denied (doc. 33 at 11). The parties then agreed that the Complaint alleged only two claims-one for an alleged discriminatory demotion asserted under Title VII and Section 1981 (Count One), and one for constructive discharge asserted under the ADAAA (Count Two). Then, in response to an earlier Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 34), the Plaintiff admitted that the only remaining claim in this case was Count One, alleging race discrimination under Title VII and Section 1981, based upon his alleged demotion. (Doc. 35 at 3, ¶7; doc. 39 at 2, ¶7).

         On January 27, 2017, this case came before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Defendant. (Doc. 34). In its Memorandum Opinion and Order on that motion (doc. 41), this Court held as follows:

1. The Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in favor of the Defendant and against the Plaintiff as to Count One to the extent that Count One is based on anything other than the Plaintiff being placed into a position which did not pay him overtime.
2. The Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in favor of the Defendant and against the Plaintiff as to Count Two in its entirety. Count Two is DISMISSED with prejudice.
3. In all other respects, the motion for summary judgment is DENIED.

(Doc. 41 at 12) (emphasis in original).

         The case now comes before the Court on the Defendant's Second Motion for Summary Judgment (the “Motion”). (Doc. 52). For the reasons stated herein, the Motion will be GRANTED.

         II. STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (“[S]ummary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The party requesting summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(c) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings in answering the movant.[2] Id. at 324. By its own affidavits - or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file - it must designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.

         The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. If the evidence presented by the non-movant to rebut the moving party's evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may still be granted. Id. at 249.

         How the movant may satisfy its initial evidentiary burden depends on whether that party bears the burden of proof on the given legal issues at trial. Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). If the movant bears the burden of proof on the given issue or issues at trial, then it can only meet its burden on summary judgment by presenting affirmative evidence showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact - that is, facts that would entitle it to a directed verdict if not controverted at trial. Id. (citation omitted). Once the moving party makes such an affirmative showing, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce “significant, probative evidence demonstrating the existence of a triable issue of fact.” Id. (citation omitted) (emphasis added).

         For issues on which the movant does not bear the burden of proof at trial, it can satisfy its initial burden on summary judgment in either of two ways. Id. at 1115-16. First, the movant may simply show that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-movant's case on the particular issue at hand. Id. at 1116. In such an instance, the non-movant must rebut by either (1) showing that the record in fact contains supporting evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion, or (2) proffering evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency. Id. at 1116-17. When responding, the non-movant may no longer rest on mere allegations; instead, it must set forth evidence of specific facts. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 358 (1996). The second method a movant in this position may use to discharge its burden is to provide affirmative evidence demonstrating that the non-moving party will be unable to prove its case at trial. Fitzpatrick, 2 F.3d at 1116. When this occurs, the non-movant must rebut by offering evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict at trial on the material fact sought to be negated. Id.

         III. FACTS[3]

         The Plaintiff, James Strong, began working for Blue Bell in the year 2000 and, in 2005, took the position of over-the-road Truck Driver. Jimmy L. Crace is the Warehouse/Distribution Manager of the Sylacauga, Alabama Blue Bell Plant out of which the Plaintiff was based. (Doc. 53-1 at 2, ¶1). On May 14, 2014, Crace moved the Plaintiff from his driving job to a palletizer position. In his new position, the Plaintiff received the same hourly rate of pay he received as a Truck Driver. However, Strong claims that he was denied the opportunity to earn overtime wages in this new position-something he had been able to do as a truck driver.[4]

         In his deposition, the Plaintiff testified that when Crace told him that he was moving him to the palletizer position, “he said . . . he was going to either demote me or he was going to fire me. He told me to take some vacation days until they made a decision whether they were going to fire me. He was going to call me back whether they were going to demote me or they were going to fire me.” (Doc. 53-2 at 8(28)-9(29)). Eventually, Crace called the Plaintiff back and told him that he was being moved to the palletizer position. In his deposition, the Plaintiff first stated that he could not remember Crace having any discussions with him about overtime. (Doc. 53-2 at 19(70)). Later in his deposition, the Plaintiff stated that Crace told him “he was going to put me in palletizer and that I wasn't going to get nothing [sic] but eight hours a day, and if I got any more than that he was going to fire me.” (Doc. 53-2 at 15(56); see also, doc. 53-2 at 17(64)-18(65)).

         Crace denies that he told the Plaintiff he could not work overtime. In his declaration he states:

I did not tell him he could not work overtime. The Palletizer position is scheduled for nine hours every day and can have more hours depending on the work load. When Strong was transferred to the Palletizer position, I gave him a schedule to work. That schedule provided Strong at least nine hours every day. Attached as Exhibit 28 is a true and correct copy of the schedules I made for Strong when he was transferred to the Palletizer position. The schedules all provide nine hours every day for five work days.

(Doc. 53-1 at 9, ¶12). Indeed, the record contains a schedule showing that Strong was scheduled to work: four nine-hour shifts for the week ending May 31, 2014 (doc. 53-1 at 72); five nine-hour shifts for the week ending June 6, 2014 (doc. 53-1 at 73); five nine-hour shifts for the week ending June 14, 2014 (doc. 53-1 at 74); and five nine-hour shifts for the week ending June 21, 2014 (doc. 53-1 at 75).[5] In addition, the Plaintiff does not dispute that employees who worked as palletizers regularly received overtime. Some of the employees in the warehouse received as much as 18 to 23 hours in one week for overtime. (Doc. 53-1 at 9, doc. 53-1 at 78).

         Crace states that “Strong was removed from driving duties in May 2014 primarily because of problems related to time management. Blue Bell also had complaints about him from its wholesale facilities and members of the public.” (Doc. 53-1 at 3, ¶5).[6] In his deposition, the Plaintiff agreed that he was transferred to the palletizer position “because of the alleged difference in [his] actual time versus [his] scheduled time.” (Doc. 53-2 at 7(22); see also doc. 53-2 at 9 (30-31) (“Q: Was it during that [first] conversation that he told you that he was thinking about either demoting or firing you because of your difference between your actual driving time and the scheduled time? A. Yes, sir. And he said that's what the reason was for my getting demoted.”); doc. 53-2 at 50(195) (“Q. When he told you that they were - I'm trying to remember what you told me earlier today. I guess this is when he first talked to you and told you about that you were going to be demoted or fired, didn't he tell you the reason why that -- at least this morning what you told me was the reason why that was being done was because your actual drive times were greater than your scheduled time? A. That would be true.”)).

         Blue Bell's records support the stated reasons for his transfer. The company began tracking scheduled delivery time as compared to actual delivery time in 2009, and since that time, Plaintiff has ranked last or next to last among all Sylacauga-based drivers. Plaintiff's excess delivery time numbers and his ranking is as follows:

Year

SDT Variance

Ranking

2009

�.26 hours

Last

2010

힭.21 hours

Last

2011

ힾ.90 hours

Last

2012

흮.31 hours

Next to last

2013

흯.81 hours

Next to last

2014

.22 hours

Next to last (partial year)

(Doc. 53-1 at 3-4, ¶7; and doc. 53-1 at 12-26).[7] The individual who was last in 2012, 2013, and for the full year 2014 was also an African-American individual named Tim McGregor. Regarding the Plaintiff's performance as a truck driver, the following exchange took place in the Plaintiff's deposition:

Q. Do you know of any other drivers whose difference was equal to or worse than yours?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. All right. Tell me who.
A. Tim McGregor.
* * *
Q. Tim McGregor. Now, he is another ...

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