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Butler v. Mercedes Benz U.S. International, Inc.

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

March 26, 2018

CHARLIE FRANKIE BUTLER Plaintiff,
v.
MERCEDES-BENZ U.S. INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Charlie Butler works for defendant Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (“MBUSI”) as a team leader in MBUSI's paint shop in Vance, Alabama. According to Mr. Butler, MBUSI gave him unfavorable performance evaluations and failed to promote him because he is African-American. Mr. Butler asserts race discrimination claims against MBUSI under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, MBUSI asks the Court to enter judgment in its favor on Mr. Butler's discrimination claims. (Doc. 40). MBUSI also asks this Court to strike portions of the declaration Mr. Butler submitted in response to the company's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 52). For the reasons explained below, the Court grants in part and denies in part MBUSI's motion to strike, and the Court grants MBUSI's motion for summary judgment.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “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.P. 56(a). To demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact that precludes summary judgment, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must cite “to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). When considering a summary judgment motion, the Court must view the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. White v. Beltram Edge Tool Supply, Inc., 789 F.3d 1188, 1191 (11th Cir. 2015). The Court describes the evidence in the summary judgment record accordingly.

         II. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. MBUSI and its Evaluation and Promotion Policies

         MBUSI manufactures automobiles in Vance, Alabama. (See Doc. 39-6, ¶ 2). MBUSI's production facility includes a body shop, assembly shop, and paint shop. (Doc. 39-1, p. 60). To staff the shops, MBUSI employs hourly production workers who are organized into teams under a team leader. (See Doc. 39-11, ¶ 5). Team leaders are hourly workers who perform production work and monitor and direct team members to ensure team members perform their work in an efficient, safe, and satisfactory manner. (Doc. 39-3, p. 34; Doc. 39-4, pp. 18-19; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 5). MBUSI does not categorize team leaders as managers or supervisors, and team leaders do not have authority to evaluate or discipline team members. (Doc. 39-4, p. 19; Doc. 39-5, p. 17; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 5).

         MBUSI's teams of production workers are organized into groups supervised by a group leader. (See Doc. 39-5, pp. 21-23; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 4). Group leaders are MBUSI's front-line supervisors, and each group leader supervises several teams of production workers. (Doc. 39-11, ¶ 4). Group leaders perform supervisory and managerial duties such as counseling and evaluating team leaders and team members. (Doc. 39-4, pp. 19-20, 23-24; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 4).

         Every year, group leaders evaluate the team members and team leaders in their group and complete an evaluation form for each employee. (Doc. 39-3, p. 41; Doc. 39-4, pp. 23-24; see also Doc. 39-2, pp. 7-18; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 5). To ensure consistency, a MBUSI manager, senior manager, and human resources representative must review and sign off on each evaluation form completed by a group leader. (Doc. 39-3, p. 41).

         The evaluation and evaluation form for each team member or team leader consists of two parts: a performance evaluation and an appraisal regarding potential for promotion. (Doc. 39-7, ¶ 3; see also Doc. 39-2, pp. 20-21; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 5). For the performance evaluation, a group leader considers a team leader's job performance in ten specific areas and rates the team leader's performance in those areas as “S” for satisfactory or “N” for needs development or not satisfactory. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 7-17; Doc. 39-3, p. 24; Doc. 39-4, p. 33). The group leader then gives each team leader an overall performance rating of S or N. (Doc. 39-3, pp. 23-24). To earn an overall S rating, a team leader must receive fewer than two N's in the ten specific areas. (Doc. 39-2, p. 7). If a team leader receives two or more N's on a performance evaluation, then the team leader receives an overall rating of N. (Doc. 39-2, p. 7).[1]

         A team member “must have an overall ‘S' Performance Evaluation rating before a Potential Appraisal is completed.” (Doc. 39-2, pp. 8, 10, 12, 14). For the potential for promotion appraisal, a group leader rates each team leader as “needs development” if the employee is not ready for a promotion or “ready” if the employee is ready for promotion to the next level. A group leader must explain the reasons for the rating. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 8-18).

         According to MBUSI, “[p]romotions to group leader vacancies are highly competitive.” (Doc. 39-6, ¶ 11). Before January 2013, MBUSI posted group leader vacancies by shop. (Doc. 39-3, pp. 56, 59; Doc. 39-6, ¶ 5). For example, if the paint shop had a vacancy for a group leader position, MBUSI posted the position only in the paint shop. (See Doc. 39-3, pp. 54, 56, 59). An interested team leader could apply for a posted group leader position, and MBUSI's human resources group compiled a list of eligible applicants. (See Doc. 39-3, pp. 59-60). To be eligible for a promotion to a group leader position between January 2010 and January 2013, an applicant had to be an MBUSI team leader in the shop with the opening for at least six months, have an overall rating of S on his or her most recent evaluation, and not have a current disciplinary action. (Doc. 39-3, pp. 60-61; Doc. 39-6, ¶ 6; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 7). If a team leader received an overall rating of N on his or her evaluation preceding the opening, then he or she was not eligible for a promotion. (Doc. 39-2, p. 24; Doc. 39-4, pp. 33-34).

         Eligible applicants for a group leader position completed an assessment test for the position. (Doc. 39-3, pp. 57, 64-65; Doc. 39-6, ¶ 9). In addition, MBUSI interviewed the applicants, solicited peer input about them, and completed a group leader assessment for each applicant. (Doc. 39-6, ¶ 9). As with a team leader's potential appraisal, for his interview, peer input, and group leader assessment, an applicant for a group leader position received an appraisal of “ready” or “needs development.” (See Doc. 39-6, ¶ 6). If a team leader received two or more appraisals of “needs development” from those sources, then he or she could not be promoted. (Doc. 39-6, ¶ 6). A team leader could receive an appraisal of “needs development” on his or her most recent potential appraisal and still be eligible for promotion if the team leader received appraisals of “ready” in the interview, peer input, and group leader assessment. (See Doc. 39-6, ¶ 6). After evaluating the applicants for a group leader position, MBUSI placed the names of eligible applicants in a group leader candidate selection pool, and MBUSI's senior management would select an applicant from that pool to fill the vacant group leader position. (Doc. 39-6, ¶ 10).

         MBUSI changed its promotion process in 2013 and began advertising group leader vacancies across the entire production facility so that a team leader in one shop could learn about and apply for a group leader position in a different shop. (Doc. 39-3, pp. 23, 55-56, 59, 60; Doc. 39-6, ¶ 7; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 8). MBUSI made the change “to open up more opportunities for [its] team leaders.” (Doc. 39-3, pp. 55-56). Nevertheless, according to MBUSI, it generally only promoted team leaders to group leader positions within the shop or department in which they worked. (Doc. 39-6, ¶ 7; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 8).

         In 2013, MBUSI changed the requirements for team leader eligibility for promotion to a group leader position. (Doc. 39-6, ¶ 7). To be eligible for promotion, a team leader had to have been a team leader for at least six months, not have any current corrective action, and have an overall rating of S on his or her most recent performance evaluation. (Doc. 39-3, p. 60). In addition, beginning in 2013, a team leader had to have received a potential appraisal of “ready” on his or her most recent evaluation, and a team leader who had an appraisal of “needs development” could not be promoted to a group leader position. (Doc. 39-3, p. 62, 71). As before, eligible applicants for a group leader position had to complete an assessment test, and MBUSI evaluated applicants based on an interview, peer input, and group leader assessment. (See Doc. 39-6, ¶ 9).

         B. Mr. Butler's Employment History with MBUSI and Evaluations

         Mr. Butler began working at MBUSI in September 2001 as a production team member in the sealer group at MBUSI's paint shop. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 35-36, 59, 62; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 2). On June 6, 2005, MBUSI promoted Mr. Butler to a team leader position in the sealer group at the paint shop. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 61-62, 90; Doc. 39-2, p. 4). Mr. Butler remained in that position through the filing of this lawsuit. (Doc. 39-5, pp. 34-35; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 2). Mr. Butler has been in a team leader position longer than any other current team leader at MBUSI. (See Doc. 39-4, pp. 64-65; Doc. 48-1, ¶¶ 2, 23).

         Over the years, several Caucasian male group leaders supervised Mr. Butler's work, including Kevin McCurley, Jody Pinion, Danny Stamps, and Toby Hicks. (Doc. 48-1, ¶ 2). During the relevant time period, Tim Smith, a Caucasian male, was the manager or senior manager of the paint shop and Mark Selby, an African-American male, was the department manager or assistant manager in the shop. (Doc. 39-3, pp. 28-29; Doc. 39-10, ¶ 2; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 1).[2] As the senior managers of the paint shop, Mr. Smith and Mr. Selby had to review and approve Mr. Butler's annual evaluations. (Doc. 39-10, ¶ 3; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 6).

         Mr. Butler routinely filled in for his group leader when the group leader was absent. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 118, 130-33; Doc. 39-5, p. 38; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 3). In particular, Mr. Butler filled in as a group leader for Mr. Stamps and Mr. McCurley on numerous occasions.[3] Mr. Stamps testified that he approached Mr. Butler about filling in for him as group leader because “he could do the job.” (Doc. 39-5, pp. 39-40; Doc. 48-1, ¶ 3). Mr. McCurley admitted that Mr. Butler did a good job when he filled in as group leader. (Doc. 39-4, p. 58).

         Mr. McCurley became Mr. Butler's group leader in 2009. (See Doc. 39-1, p. 85; Doc. 39-1, ¶ 4). On September 16, 2009, Mr. McCurley evaluated Mr. Butler. (Doc. 39-2, p. 13-14). Mr. McCurley rated Mr. Butler's performance as satisfactory in all areas, and he appraised Mr. Butler as ready for promotion. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 13-14). After receiving the appraisal rating him as ready for promotion, Mr. Butler applied for an open group leader position in July 2010, and he completed the group leader assessment test for the position. (See Doc. 39-1, pp. 217-18; Doc. 39-2, p. 34; Doc. 39-6, ¶ 3(d)). Ultimately, MBUSI did not fill the open group leader position in July 2010. (Doc. 39-6, ¶ 3(d)).[4]

         Jody Pinion became Mr. Butler's group leader in 2010, and Mr. Pinion evaluated Mr. Butler on September 23, 2010. (Doc. 39-13). Mr. Pinion rated Mr. Butler's performance as satisfactory in all areas, and he appraised Mr. Butler as ready for promotion. (Doc. 39-13, pp. 1-2). Mr. Stamps then became Mr. Butler's group leader, and he evaluated Mr. Butler on September 27, 2011. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 15-16). In the 2011 evaluation, Mr. Stamps rated Mr. Butler's job performance as satisfactory in all areas, and he appraised Mr. Butler as ready for promotion. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 15-16).

         Although Mr. Butler received appraisals of ready for promotion in September 2010 and 2011, MBUSI did not have any openings for a group leader position in the paint shop during that time. Accordingly, Mr. Butler did not apply for a group leader position after his September 2010 and 2011 evaluations, and MBUSI did not promote any team leaders to a group leader position in the paint shop during that period. (See Doc. 48-1, ¶ 9).

         Mr. Stamps evaluated Mr. Butler's performance again on September 29, 2012. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 17-18). In Mr. Butler's 2012 evaluation, Mr. Stamps rated Mr. Butler's job performance as satisfactory in all ten areas, but he noted that problem solving “is one area [Mr. Butler] needs to continue to develop . . . .” (Doc. 39-2, p. 17). Also, unlike in Mr. Butler's three prior evaluations, Mr. Stamps gave Mr. Butler a potential appraisal of “needs development, ” noting as follows:

[Mr. Butler] needs to develop problem solving methods for issues that arise in his area [and] needs to develop a win-win attitude for issues that occur with other shift and operators in his area. [Mr. Butler] has the tools to be a group leader in the paint shop, but there are a few minor issues I would like [him] to work on over the next few months. I will develop a training plan and conduct another eval[uation] in Jan[uary] ¶ 2013.

(Doc. 39-2, p. 18).[5] Mr. Selby, Mr. Smith, and Octave Roberts, an African-American team relations representative in MBUSI's human resources department, reviewed and approved of Mr. Butler's 2012 evaluation, including the “needs development” appraisal. (Doc. 39-9, ¶¶ 1, 4; Doc. 39-10, ¶ 3; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 6).

         Mr. Stamps testified that he appraised Mr. Butler as not ready for a promotion in part because of a note Mr. Butler wrote on August 20, 2102 and left for paint robot operators on a prior shift. (Doc. 39-5, pp. 50-52).[6] Mr. Butler wrote the note to the robot operators on a weekend shift stating that their work was “very ugly” and also stating in part:

The car was looking good Friday. Why is it every time y'all operators come and do path work, the car end up worse than what it was??? Their short cuts kills [sic] us.

(Doc. 39-1, p. 164; Doc. 39-2, p. 19).

         As a team leader, Mr. Butler had to ensure that team members performed their job duties according to MBUSI's policies and procedures and not take short cuts, so the advice that Mr. Butler provided fell within the scope of his duties. (Doc. 39-5, p. 48). Even so, Mr. Stamps thought that the “tone and tenor” of the comments in Mr. Butler's note were not appropriate and were “not reflective of the leadership ability necessary to be a group leader.” (Doc. 39-8, ¶ 7; see also Doc. 39-5, p. 50). Mr. Stamps talked with Mr. Butler about the note immediately after Mr. Butler wrote it, and Mr. Stamps told Mr. Butler he should not have written the note even though it was true. (Doc. 39-1, p. 169).

         According to Mr. Stamps, on a broader level, “Mr. Butler's interactions with co-workers had deteriorated” between 2011 and 2012. (Doc. 39-8, ¶ 6). In particular, Mr. Stamps contends that Mr. Butler did not communicate effectively with the paint robot operators, and the robot operators complained to Mr. Stamps “about the negative way Mr. Butler spoke to them.” (Doc. 39-8, ¶ 6). For his part, Mr. Butler admitted that he and the robot operator on his team did not “see eye to eye.” (Doc. 39-1, pp. 129-30).

         Mr. Butler testified that Mr. Stamps did not explain to him why he thought Mr. Butler was not ready for promotion. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 151-52). During an evaluation meeting, Mr. Stamps told Mr. Butler that because of his appraisal, if MBUSI had an open group leader position, the position would go to Jeremy Miller or Nate Long, two Caucasian team leaders, instead of Mr. Butler. (Doc. 39-1, p. 153). In addition, Mr. Stamps told Mr. Butler that he (Mr. Stamps), Mr. McCurley, and Mr. Pinion did not want T.J. Tripp, an African-American, in a group leader position, so they “got rid of him.” (Doc. 39-1, p. 155).[7] Mr. Butler interpreted Mr. Stamps's comment about Mr. Tripp as a threat. (Doc. 39-1, p. 155).

         Mr. Butler talked with Mr. Selby after receiving his 2012 evaluation and expressed his disagreement with Mr. Stamps's appraisal of his readiness for promotion. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 170-71; Doc. 39-10, ¶ 4). Mr. Selby then spoke with Mr. Stamps about Mr. Butler's 2012 evaluation. (Doc. 39-10, ¶ 4). According to Mr. Selby, Mr. Stamps explained that he appraised Mr. Butler as “needs development” because “Mr. Butler did not effectively communicate with the paint robot operators and others, ” and Mr. Stamps's explanation satisfied Mr. Selby. (Doc. 39-10, ¶ 4).

         After receiving his 2012 evaluation, Mr. Butler also met with Mr. Roberts. (Doc. 39-1, ¶ 157; Doc. 39-9, ¶ 5). During the meeting, Mr. Butler told Mr. Roberts that he disagreed with Mr. Stamps's appraisal rating, and he did not like how Mr. Stamps spoke to him about the evaluation. (Doc. 39-9, ¶ 5). Based on what Mr. Butler told him, Mr. Roberts believed that Mr. Stamps acted appropriately with regards to Mr. Butler's 2012 evaluation. (Doc. 39-9, ¶ 5).

         Although Mr. Stamps stated in his 2012 evaluation of Mr. Butler that he would develop a training plan for Mr. Butler and conduct another evaluation in January 2013, he did not do so. (Doc. 39-1, p. 152; Doc. 39-5, p. 46). Mr. Stamps rotated to a new group leader position in February 2013, and Mr. McCurley became Mr. Butler's group leader again. (Doc. 39-8, ¶ 12).[8]

         Mr. McCurley evaluated Mr. Butler in September 2013. (Doc. 32-2, pp. 20-21; see also Doc. 39-8, ¶ 12). Mr. McCurley gave Mr. Butler a rating of N in job progress and development and interpersonal skills and, therefore, gave Mr. Butler an overall rating of N. (Doc. 39-2, p. 20). In the 2013 evaluation, Mr. McCurley also gave Mr. Butler a potential appraisal of “needs development.” (Doc. 39-2, p. 21). Mr. Selby, Mr. Smith, and Emerson Gore, an African-American team relations representative, reviewed and approved of Mr. Butler's 2013 evaluation. (Doc. 39-10, ¶ 5; Doc. 39-11, ¶ 6; Doc. 39-12, ¶¶ 1, 4).[9]

         Mr. McCurley contends that Mr. Butler “regressed” from what he observed in 2009 and that “it was like [Mr. Butler] had shut down.” (Doc. 39-4, p. 53; Doc. 39-7 ¶ 6).[10] In particular, Mr. McCurley asserts that “Mr. Butler was reluctant to step up to act as the group leader when [Mr. McCurley] was out, would displace other team members on the line so that [he] could work on the easiest position, and would fail to timely answer his radio, address part shortages, and resolve equipment issues.” (Doc. 39-7 ¶ 6; see also Doc. 39-4, pp. 52, 54-55). Mr. McCurley also asserts that “Mr. Butler did not consistently communicate work issues effectively with team members, ” and he had “difficulty getting along with the paint robot operators.” (Doc. 39-7, ¶¶ 7-8).

         After Mr. Butler received his 2013 evaluation, he had a meeting with Mr. McCurley, Mr. Selby, and Mr. Roberts, to discuss his evaluation. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 191-92; Doc. 39-7, ¶¶ 10-11; Doc. 39-9, ¶ 6; Doc. 39-10, ¶ 5). During the meeting, Mr. McCurley told Mr. Butler what he needed to do to become a group leader, and he specifically discussed Mr. Butler's communication skills and problem solving skills. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 192-93; Doc. 39-10, ¶ 5). Mr. Butler disagreed with Mr. McCurley's comments and with his evaluation. (Doc. 39-1, p. 193; Doc. 39-7, ¶ 10; Doc. 39-9, ¶ 6). At the meeting, Mr. Butler asked Mc. McCurley how he would feel if he had been in a position for a long time, had trained a person of a different race how to do the job, and the person he trained was promoted over him. (Doc. 39-1, p. 194; Doc. 39-7, ¶ 11). Mr. McCurley did not respond to Mr. Butler's question, and neither did anyone else at the meeting. (Doc. 39-1, p. 194).[11] According to Mr. Butler, after the meeting, Mr. Selby said that he felt that MBUSI had discriminated against him (Mr. Selby) with regards to promotion to a senior manager position. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 194-96).[12]

         C. Mr. Butler's EEOC Charge

         Mr. Butler wrote to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on March 5, 2013 to inform the EEOC that he wanted to file a charge of discrimination against MBUSI. (Doc. 39-2, pp. 50-51). Mr. Butler filed his charge of discrimination with the EEOC on April 23, 2013, alleging that MBUSI discriminated against him because of his race and retaliated against him. (Doc. 39-2, p. 52). Mr. Butler asserted that Mr. Stamps gave him an unfair performance evaluation in 2012 because he (Mr. Butler) is African-American and in retaliation for the note that he (Mr. Butler) wrote to the robot operators. (Doc. 39-2, p. 52). In his EEOC charge, Mr. Butler also asserted that two similarly situated Caucasian employees, Nate Long and Jeremy Miller, were appraised as ready for promotion and promoted to the next level. (Doc. 39-2, p. 52). The EEOC investigated Mr. Butler's allegation and issued a right to sue letter to him on July 2, 2014. (Doc. 39-2, p. 65). This action followed.

         D. Evidence of Racially-Motivated Conduct at MBUSI

         Mr. Butler testified that Mr. Stamps treated African-American and Caucasian employees differently, and Mr. Butler confronted Mr. Stamps about how Mr. Stamps favored Caucasian employees. (Doc. 48-1, ¶ 22). Specifically, Mr. Butler testified that Mr. Stamps showed favoritism towards Greg Adkins, a Caucasian paint robot operator and that Mr. Stamps distributed overtime unfairly. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 104-08, 125-29, 269).[13]

         With regards to overtime, an African-American employee on Mr. Butler's team requested overtime during a Thanksgiving holiday, and Mr. Stamps told the employee that he could not work overtime because a Caucasian temporary employee was going to work overtime during the holiday. (Doc. 39-1, p. 125-26). Mr. Butler confronted Mr. Stamps about the situation, and Mr. Stamps then let the African-American team member work overtime. (Doc. 39-1, pp. 126-27). According to Mr. Butler, Mr. Stamps did not get upset when Mr. Butler discussed the overtime issue with him. (Doc. 39-1, p. 127). But, Mr. Butler attests that Mr. Stamps's attitude towards him changed after he confronted him about his treatment of African-American employees. (Doc. 48-1, ¶ 22).

         In addition, in July 2013, MBUSI promoted a Caucasian team leader, Jeremy Miller, to a group leader position instead of an African-American team leader, Brian Avery. (Doc. 48-1, ¶ 39). According to Mr. Butler, Mr. Avery “had become so discouraged with not being promoted in 2012 and 2013, that on his 2015 evaluation [], he marked he was not interested in moving to the next level [], and on June 8 2015, [Mr. ...


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