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Smith v. Metro Mechanical Inc.

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

February 27, 2018

AMBER SMITH Plaintiff,
v.
METRO MECHANICAL, INC. Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on Defendant Metro Heating and Cooling, Inc.'s “Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.” (Doc. 25). Plaintiff Amber Smith sued Metro, alleging gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42. U.S.C. Section 2000e et seq.; retaliation in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act; and denial of overtime pay in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. (Doc. 1 at 5-7). Metro moves for summary judgment on Smith's gender discrimination and retaliation claims, and partial summary judgment for unpaid wages under the FLSA. As explained more fully below, the court GRANTS the motion as to Amber Smith's gender discrimination and retaliation claims, but DENIES in part the motion regarding Amber Smith's unpaid overtime claim.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant Metro Heating and Cooling employs service technicians to provide maintenance, diagnostics, and repair of heating and cooling systems to its customers. Plaintiff Amber Smith was the first female to apply to be a service technician at Metro's Pelham, Alabama location, and Roy Smith, Metro's General Operations Manager, hired her for that position on July 9, 2015.

         During her application process, Amber Smith told Roy Smith that she gained extensive HVAC experience while working for her husband's HVAC business and misrepresented that she had received an associate's degree in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning from Bevill State. She also misrepresented to Roy Smith that she had graduated at the top of her class. (Doc. 26-1 at 30).

         As is typical with new Metro service technicians, Amber Smith spent the first two weeks of her employment riding with other service technicians for on-the-job training. With the exception of her first day, Amber Smith rode exclusively with Kevin Concord. After two weeks, Mr. Concord told Roy Smith that Amber Smith was ready to begin handling service calls on her own. Aside from the ride-along training, Metro also provides new service technicians with a 90-day probationary period, during which they are given more leniency “to get with the program.” (Doc. 26-1 at 19).

         Metro pays its technicians for time spent while driving between job sites, visiting the shop for supplies or training, waiting on customers to arrive, and performing actual work on heating or cooling units, but not for down time between job assignments or lunch breaks. During down time, Metro expects its technicians to be as “available as possible, ” meaning they should be “immediately” ready if needed for a job. (Doc. 26-1 at 16). The technicians keep track of their compensable time on time sheets, and then submit those time sheets to Michelle Wynn, Metro's office manager. Ms. Wynn handles payroll and decides the number of compensable hours for each service technician. The service technicians' work vehicles contain GPS devices, which Ms. Wynn depends on to confirm the technicians' purported departure and arrival times during each workday.

         Incident #1:

         On July 23, 2015, Amber Smith went to a customer's home to service a residential HVAC unit. After investigating the unit, Amber Smith determined the customer's breaker box had blown a fuse, and went to Home Depot to purchase a replacement. However, because it was raining heavily, she was soaking wet when she returned to the customer's home. Fearful to change the breaker while drenched in water, Amber Smith called Roy Smith and informed him of her predicament. So, Roy Smith went to the customer's house and changed the fuse for Amber Smith.

         Incident #2

         Eight days later, on July 31, 2015, Amber Smith traveled to a customer's house where she determined that a compressor on a new air conditioning unit was malfunctioning. Unable to reach Roy Smith on the phone, Amber Smith called her husband for advice. After speaking with her husband, Amber Smith concluded the customer needed a new compressor. She notified Roy Smith, who told her that he would order one. Roy Smith then received a complaint from the customer, and was concerned that Amber Smith did not adequately explain her rationale for deciding that the compressor was broken. Therefore, he sent another technician to inspect the unit. That technician discovered the compressor was not broken, but that a clogged water pump was causing it to malfunction. The technician unclogged the pump, which solved the problem.

         Incident #3

         Four days later, on August 4, 2015, Metro sent Amber Smith to service a leaking unit in a customer's attic. Because the attic had no floor, Amber Smith asked the customer, Ms. Hutto, for permission to place some plywood on the beams so she could safely walk across them without falling through the ceiling. Ms. Hutto agreed and Amber Smith went to retrieve the plywood from her van, which Metro kept for that purpose. However, before Amber Smith could reenter the home, the customer told Amber Smith “that she didn't feel comfortable with that and that she would rather - that there [were] men that had been coming in there, and they could do it.” (Doc. 26-2 at 15). She also said “that she would rather have a man come out, ” and that “she would just feel more comfortable with a man coming out there.” (Id.).

         Amber Smith alleges that she then called Roy Smith, relayed to him Ms. Hutto's preference for a man to perform the work, and explained to him that she disagreed with the customer's preference. Roy Smith responded that “the customers are always right.” (Id.). Amber Smith also alleges that Roy Smith became angry and raised his voice at her during that conversation, telling her that she was “not supposed to let the customers know when something is wrong or something like that.” (Doc. 26-2 at 15). Amber Smith testified that she understood Roy Smith's frustration to be directed toward her mentioning “something to the customer about putting the plywood” in the attic. (Id. at 15-16).

         Roy Smith testified that Amber Smith told him she did not feel comfortable walking across the ceiling joists in the attic, but did not tell him that the customer did not want a woman to do the job. (Doc. 26-1 at 31-32). He also testified that, after the incident with Amber Smith, Ms. Hutto would not allow any Metro technicians back into her home. (Doc. 26-1 at 31, 33).

         Roy Smith also alleges that he received reports from other Metro employees that Plaintiff was “struggling with diagnosing equipment” and uncomfortable using refrigerant gauges and checking electrical components. (Doc. 26-1 at 41). To address the concerns, Roy Smith organized a training module to refresh all service technicians on these issues. (Id.). However, Roy Smith testified that Amber Smith was “reluctant to get involved” with the module, was “standing about forty [feet] away from [him] by the back door smoking, ” and “would not get involved with things that she was having struggles with, ” like “put[ting] gauges on and set[ting] up equipment.” (Id.). Amber Smith admitted in her deposition that she still “get[s] a little confused on the superheat and subcooling, ” but testified that she was listening and “trying to learn about the superheat and subcooling and everything” during the training module. (Doc. 26-2 at 16).

         Plaintiff's Termination

         Metro terminated Amber Smith's employment on August 17, 2015, for “failure to meet performance expectations.” (Doc. 26-2 at 64). Roy Smith was the sole decision-maker regarding her termination, and he told her that he was worried about her safety, felt that she did not know what she was doing, and that he had to let her go. (Doc. 26-2 at 18). Roy Smith testified that he went over with Amber Smith the incidents in which she had been involved; the lack of progress in her performance; his concerns regarding her reluctance to work ...


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