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Payne v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

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

March 27, 2018

BENJAMIN W. PAYNE, Plaintiff,
v.
GOODYEAR TIRE AND RUBBER COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A. Summary of Mr. Payne's Claims

         On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff Benjamin W. Payne (“Mr. Payne”), who is representing himself, initiated this job discrimination lawsuit against Defendant Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (“Goodyear”). (Doc. 1). Mr. Payne filed an amended complaint (doc. 6) on June 29, 2016. On November 10, 2016, Mr. Payne filed a counseled Second Amended Complaint. (Doc. 24-1).[1] As amended, the lawsuit asserts violations of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Id.).[2] Mr. Payne asserts two wrongful discharge claims against Goodyear-one on the basis of race and the other on the basis of disability.

         B. Summary of Pending Motions

         Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. Mr. Payne's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 60) (the “Payne Motion”) was filed on August 28, 2017. Goodyear's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 61) the “Goodyear Motion”) was filed on August 29, 2017. On September 20, 2017, the Court entered its customary pro se summary judgment notice and scheduling order (doc. 67) that gave Mr. Payne special notice of his right to respond to the Goodyear Motion with affidavits or other opposing evidence and warned him about the consequences of not adequately responding to it. Both Motions have now been fully responded to and are ripe for submission.

         For the reasons stated below, the Payne Motion is due to be denied and the Goodyear Motion is due to be granted.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Summary Judgment Generally

         The Court may grant summary judgment only if the record shows “that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A factual issue is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A factual issue is material if resolving the factual issue might change the suit's outcome under the governing law. Id. The motion should be granted only if no rational fact finder could return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

         When ruling on the motion, the Court must view all the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all factual disputes in the non-moving party's favor. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). The moving party need not positively disprove the opponent's case; rather, the moving party must establish the lack of evidentiary support for the non-moving party's position. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If the moving party meets this initial burden, in order to survive summary judgment, the non-moving party must then present competent evidence beyond the pleadings to show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324-26, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The essential question is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

         The standard of review for cross-motions for summary judgment does not differ from the standard applied when only one party files a motion, but simply requires a determination of whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law on the facts that are not disputed. Am. Bankers Ins. Group v. United States, 408 F.3d 1328, 1331 (11th Cir.2005). The Court must consider each motion on its own merits, resolving all reasonable inferences against the party whose motion is under consideration. Id. The Eleventh Circuit has explained that “[c]ross-motions for summary judgment will not, in themselves, warrant the court in granting summary judgment unless one of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not genuinely disputed.” United States v. Oakley, 744 F.2d 1553, 1555 (11th Cir.1984). Cross-motions may, however, be probative of the absence of a factual dispute where they reflect general agreement by the parties as to the controlling legal theories and material facts. Id. at 1555-56.

         B. Employment Discrimination

         A plaintiff in an employment discrimination case maintains the ultimate burden of proving that the adverse employment decision was made because of intentional discrimination. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143 (2000) (“Although intermediate evidentiary burdens shift back and forth under this framework, ‘[t]he ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff.'” (quoting Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981))); Nix v. WLCY Radio/Rahall Comms., 738 F.2d 1181, 1184 (11th Cir. 1984) (“A Title VII disparate treatment plaintiff must prove that the defendant acted with discriminatory purpose.” (citing Clark v. Huntsville City Board of Education, 717 F.2d 525, 529 (11th Cir. 1983))).

         Although the Supreme Court has established the basic allocation of burdens and order of proof in a disparate treatment case, see, e.g., McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973); Burdine, supra; Desert Palace v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 99-100 (2003), that framework applies only in cases in which there is no direct evidence of discrimination. See Grigsby v. Reynolds Metals Co., 821 F.2d 590, 595 (11th Cir. 1987) (“The McDonnell Douglas-Burdine patterns of proof were designed to ease the evidentiary burdens on employment discrimin[a]tion plaintiffs, who rarely are fortunate enough to have access to direct evidence of intentional discrimination.” (citing Thornbrough v. Columbus and Greenville R.R., 760 F.2d 633, 638 (5th Cir. 1985), abrogated on other grounds by St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1993))).[3]

         Under the McDonnell Douglas/Burdine scheme, a plaintiff first has the burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence a prima facie case of discrimination. Second, once the plaintiff proves a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment decision. Finally, if the defendant carries its burden, the plaintiff must either prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant are merely a pretext for discrimination or present sufficient evidence, of any type, for a reasonable jury to conclude that discrimination was a “motivating factor” for the employment action, even though the defendant's legitimate reason may also be true or have played some role in the decision. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802-05; Burdine, 450 U.S. at 252-54; Desert Palace, 539 U.S. at 101-02.

         C. Pro Se Filings

         “Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys and will, therefore, be liberally construed.” Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998) (citing Fernandez v. United States, 941 F.2d 1488, 1491 (11th Cir. 1991)). Accordingly, Mr. Payne's allegations arising out of her former employment with Goodyear are not appropriately subject to dismissal simply because they lack procedural precision or completeness in the context of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         At the same time “if a [pro se] plaintiff pleads merely conclusory allegations [about his claims] and the defendant comes forward with affidavits setting out specific facts showing [why he cannot prevail on those claims], plaintiff cannot defeat summary judgment or dismissal for failure to state a claim by merely filing an affidavit that restates the conclusory statements asserted in the complaint.” Perry v. Thompson, 786 F.2d 1093, 1094 (11th Cir. 1986). Similarly, “[i]f material undisputed facts show no cause of action or that summary judgment should be granted as a matter of law, the case can be disposed of[, ] [and] [a] plaintiff may not frustrate this process by merely restating legal conclusions that he has alleged.” Id. at 1094-95. However, any “specific facts” pled in a pro se plaintiff's sworn complaint or affidavit must be considered in opposition to summary judgment.[4] Id. at 1095.

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[5], [6]

         Goodyear's tire manufacturing plant in Gadsden, Alabama.

         During the plaintiff's employment at Goodyear, the Human Resources Specialist for the Component Prep Business Center at the Gadsden plant was Michael Tucker. (Tucker Dec. ¶ 3). The Labor Relations Manager was Christopher Payne. (Christopher Payne Dec. ¶ 3).[7]

         New hires undergo a probationary period of employment before they are hired on as regular fulltime employees. (Tucker Dec. ¶5). The probationary period is 320 hours. (Mobley Dec. ¶ 6).

         New hires are evaluated on their performance by plant management during their probationary period of employment. (Tucker Dec. ¶6). Probationary employees who receive “unacceptable” ratings on their evaluations are discharged. (Id.).

         Goodyear has a Policy of Non-Discrimination in Employment, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability. (Id., at ¶8).

         The plaintiff received a copy of Goodyear's Policy of Non-6.Discrimination in Employment, and received training on it when he was hired. (Id., at ¶ 9; Tucker Dec. Ex. A - policy acknowledgment (D-0059)).

         The plaintiff's probationary employment at Goodyear

         The plaintiff was interviewed for a position at Goodyear's tire 8.manufacturing plant in Gadsden, Alabama on or around May 6, 2015. (Mobley Dec. ¶ 4). Training Manager Dustin Mobley interviewed the plaintiff. (Id.).[8]

         The plaintiff was medically cleared to work with no restrictions. 9. (Plaintiff “Plf.” Dep. p. 96 lns 4-7; Mobley Dec. ¶5; Tucker Dec. ¶ 12).

         The plaintiff was hired on July 13, 2015 on a probationary basis. 10. (Mobley Dec. ¶6). Mobley was involved in the decision to hire him. (Id. at ¶4).

         The plaintiff was hired into the position of Relief Operator on the Z Calendar Machine in Component Prep (Department 5330). (Tucker Dec. ¶11).

         The Relief Operator relieves the Z Calendar crew, which includes the 12.Calendar Operator, Windup Operator, Let-Off Operator, Mill Operator, and trucker.

(Id. at ¶13).

         The Relief Operator must be trained on and know how to perform all the jobs on the Z Calendar Machine. (Tucker Dec. ¶14).

         The Z Calendar Relief Operator position is covered by the collective bargaining agreement, which contains a 320 hour probationary period. (Id. at ¶ 15).

         The plaintiff has Lupus; it does not interfere with his ability to perform the Relief Operator position on the Z Calendar machine. (Plf. Dep. 86 lns 22-23, p. 87 lns 1-17, p. 93 lns 12-22, p. 133 lns 2-11).

         The plaintiff had kidney failure; he underwent a successful kidney 16.transplant in 2012. (Plf. Dep. 86 lns 22-23, p. 87 lns 1-17).

         The plaintiff is physically able to work; his medical conditions do not interfere with or restrict his ability to perform the job of Relief Operator on the Z Calendar machine. (Id.).

         When the plaintiff was hired, he attended new-hire orientation and training along with eight other new hires. (Mobley Dec. ¶7). Six out of the eight new hires in the plaintiff's training class were also African American. (Id. at ¶8)

         Lateshia Collins, Lucille Wiley, and Britney Higgins were in the plaintiff's new hire training class. (Id. at ¶9). Collins, Wiley and Higgins are African American. (Id. at ¶10).

         The plaintiff attended new hire orientation and training which began on July 13, 2015 and lasted for about a week. (Id. at ¶12). Mobley was in charge of the plaintiff's new hire orientation and training. (Id. at ¶11).

         Employees at the plant must wear steel or composite toed safety shoes at all times at work. (Id. at ¶13). The plaintiff and the other new hires were given vouchers to purchase safety shoes on July 14, and were instructed to purchase the safety shoes prior to July 20, 2015. (Id.)

         The plaintiff failed to acquire the safety shoes by the deadline. (Id. at 21.¶14).

         The plaintiff was the only new employee who management was aware of who failed to purchase his safety shoes by the deadline and did not notify the training department in advance of his inability to purchase the safety shoes by the deadline. (Id., at ¶15).

         The plaintiff was sent home to purchase his safety shoes; he purchased them on July 21, 2015. (Mobley Dec. ¶16; Payne Dec. ¶9).

         He was not terminated for failing to purchase his safety shoes by the deadline. (Mobley Dec. ¶18).

         The plaintiff claims he was not the only one who failed to have safety shoes by the deadline, but was the only one sent home. (Plf. Dep. p. 147 lns 17-22). He believes this was race discrimination. (Plf. Dep. p. 47 lns 10-11, p. 147 lns 17-22). He claims Britney Higgins (who is African American) failed to have her safety shoes by the deadline, but she was not sent home. (Id., at p. 147 lns 17-22).

         Management did not know Higgins failed to purchase her safety 25.shoes by the deadline. (Mobley Dec. ¶17; Payne Dec. ¶10).

         During a plant tour the plaintiff asked an excessive number of questions to employees in the lab about how the lab was run; the questions were irrelevant and distracting. (Plf. Dep. p. 48 lns 8-23, p. 49 lns 1-9; Payne Dec. ¶11).

         The plaintiff testified that Chris Payne told him he was exhibiting bullying behavior in questioning the lab employees. (Plf. Dep. p. 48 lns 8-23, p. 49 lns 1-23, p. 50 lns 1-23). The plaintiff believes this is evidence that he was singled out because of his race. (Id.).

         During the plaintiff's new hire training and orientation, he and the other new hires were required to take their lunch breaks at the plant. (Mobley Dec. ¶19). Leaving the plant for lunch breaks during new hire orientation and training was not allowed. (Id.).

         The plaintiff, Lateshia Collins, Britney Higgins, and Lucille Wiley ordered pizza for lunch during new-hire training one day. (Lateshia Collins Dep. p. 7 lns 5-17, p. 28 lns 22-23, p. 29 lns 1-2). The plaintiff left the plant to pick up the pizza, which was delivered to the guard shack. (Plf. Dep. p. 45 lns 11-16; Collins Dep. p. 7 lns 5-17).

         The plaintiff was the only employee who left the plant to pick up the pizza. (Plf. Dep. p. 45, lns 10-16; Collins ...


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