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Nunn v. City of Hunstville Alabama

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

March 27, 2018

QUENTON L. NUNN, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HUNSTVILLE ALABAMA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Quenton Nunn is a former employee of the City of Huntsville, Alabama and the Huntsville Madison County Mental Health Center. After working part-time for the City as a bus driver, Mr. Nunn worked for the Mental Health Center as a full-time bus driver pursuant to the terms of a contract between the Mental Health Center and the City of Huntsville. Under the agreement between the Mental Health Center and the City, Mr. Nunn transported Mental Health Center clients to and from the center, and he also drove City residents who participated in the City's Handi-Ride program.

         The Mental Health Center terminated Mr. Nunn's employment in July 2014 because Mr. Nunn did not get a leave request form signed before he took time off to attend a religious conference. According to Mr. Nunn, the City, as his joint-employer, failed to accommodate his request for time off to attend the conference and retaliated against him for attending the conference by terminating his employment or causing the Mental Health Center to do so. Mr. Nunn asserts claims against the City for failure to accommodate his religious beliefs under Title VII and § 1983, First Amendment retaliation under § 1983, and retaliatory discharge under Title VII.[1]

         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Mr. Nunn and the City have filed cross motions for summary judgment. (Doc. 67; Doc. 71). For the reasons explained below, the Court grants in part and denies in part both motions, and the Court asks the parties for supplemental briefing with respect to Mr. Nunn's Title VII retaliation claim.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “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). “In practice, cross motions for summary judgment may be probative of the nonexistence of a factual dispute, but this procedural posture does not automatically empower the court to dispense with the determination whether questions of material fact exist.” Georgia State Conference of NAACP v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Comm'rs, 775 F.3d 1336, 1345 (11th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted) (quoting Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Voigt, 700 F.2d 341, 349 (7th Cir. 1983)). “If both parties proceed on the same legal theory and rely on the same material facts . . . the case is ripe for summary judgment.” Georgia State Conference of NAACP, 775 F.3d at 1345 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Shook v. United States, 713 F.2d 662, 665 (11th Cir. 1983)).

         “If the movant bears the burden of proof on an issue, because, as a defendant, it is asserting an affirmative defense, it must establish that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to any element of that defense.” International Stamp Art, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, 456 F.3d 1270, 1274 (11th Cir. 2006).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Nunn is a Jehovah's Witness. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 17-18). He has been an elder at his Kingdom Hall for 10 years. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 18-19, 23). As an elder, Mr. Nunn has administrative responsibilities that require, for example, that he work as an attendant at district conventions. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 20-21). Annual district conventions take place in June or July. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 22, 81). Mr. Nunn has a “spiritual obligation” to participate in district conventions. (Doc. 66-7, p. 81).

         In 2009, the City of Huntsville hired Mr. Nunn as a part-timer driver for one of the City's Handi-Ride buses. (Doc. 66-7, p. 84; Doc. 66-8, p. 116). The City's Department of Parking and Public Transit operates the Hand-Ride paratransit program which is a public transportation service for individuals with disabilities who cannot use the City's traditional shuttle service. (Doc. 66-1, p. 39; Doc. 66-2, p. 23). In September 2011, pursuant to the terms of a contract that the Huntsville Madison County Mental Health Center entered with the City, the Mental Health Center hired Mr. Nunn as a full-time bus driver to transport center clients to and from daily treatments at the facility and to transport City Handi-Ride customers. (Doc. 66-5, pp. 29-30; Doc. 66-6, pp. 3-4; Doc. 66-7, pp. 50-52, 84).[2] The contract that was in effect when the Mental Health Center hired Mr. Nunn in 2011 is not in the record, but the 2012 and 2013 agreements are, and those agreements between the Mental Health Center and the City outline each party's responsibilities under the agreement and each party's relationship to and responsibilities for supervision of Mr. Nunn. (Doc. 66-2, pp. 6-23).[3]

         Under the contract between the Mental Health Center and the City, the City's Public Transit department provided Mr. Nunn with the bus that he drove. (Doc. 66-2, pp. 8, 17). The Mental Health Center agreed to employ Mr. Nunn and was “responsible for all withholding taxes, any health insurance, workmen's compensation insurance and any other employee benefits.” (Doc. 66-2, pp. 9, 18). The Mental Health Center also agreed that Mr. Nunn “will meet the same employment criteria established by the policies and procedures of Public Transit.” (Doc. 66-2, pp. 9, 18). The Mental Health Center agreed that the City's Paratransit Coordinator would supervise Mr. Nunn. (Doc. 66-2, pp. 9, 18) (stating that “the day-to-day management of the driver under this agreement will be the responsibility of Public Transit.”).

         The contract contained a provision regarding Mr. Nunn's work schedule and leave. That portion of the agreement states:

The Center agrees that the driver will work the established Public Transit work schedule which may include some holidays that the Center may be closed. In the event the Center employed driver is unavailable because of scheduled leave, holiday approved off, alternate duty assignments required by the Center or during the interim between the termination of employment and hiring an acceptable replacement, Public Transit will assign a substitute driver in his or her place and will bill the Center at a substitute driver's established wage rate for the hours of service provided in place of the Center employed [d]river. The Paratransit Coordinator must be consulted and have prior concurrence with the approval of scheduled leave including Center holidays when the driver may normally be assigned to work. The Paratransit Coordinator must be notified as soon in advance as possible but at least two weeks in advance of any alternate duty assignments that will temporarily remove the driver from active participation [in his or her duties under the contract].

(Doc. 66-2, pp. 9, 18).

         Consistent with the terms of the contract, Mr. Nunn began his work day at the City garage where he picked up his bus and received information about his daily route. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 55-57). Public Transit provided Mr. Nunn with a daily manifest listing each Mental Health Center passenger and each City Handi-Ride passenger with a corresponding pick up and drop off time. (Doc. 66-2, ¶ 7; see Doc. 66-2, pp. 25-36; Doc. 66-7, pp. 56-57). Mr. Nunn dropped off Mental Health Center clients by 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. each morning. (Doc. 66-7, p. 58). Mr. Nunn then dropped off City Handi-Ride passengers at various locations, including a municipal gym, dialysis centers, and doctors' offices. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 60-61). Mr. Nunn returned to the Mental Health Center to take those passengers home. Then, Mr. Nunn transported other City riders. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 65-66). At the end of his shift, Mr. Nunn returned to the City garage where he parked his bus at 4:00 p.m. each day. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 66-67, 71).

         David Willige, the City's Paratransit Coordinator, was Mr. Nunn's supervisor with respect to the duties he performed for the City. (Doc. 66-1, p. 81; Doc. 66-3, p. 56; Doc. 66-7, p. 74). Maxie Kirk, the Mental Health Center's Recovery Services Program Manager, was Mr. Nunn's supervisor with respect to the duties he performed for the Mental Health Center. (Doc. 66-3, pp. 87-88; Doc. 66-5, pp. 18, 23; Doc. 66-7, p. 54).

         In May 2013, Ms. Kirk approved Mr. Nunn's request for time off the following month on June 20, June 21, and June 24. (Doc. 66-5, pp. 203-04, 262). Ms. Kirk told Mr. Willige that Mr. Nunn would be off on June 24, but she did not tell him that Mr. Nunn also would be off on June 20 and June 21. (Doc. 66-5, p. 262).

         On June 20, 2013, Mr. Willige emailed Ms. Kirk. The email reads, “Hi: Quenton did NOT come to work today, when we got him on the phone he told us he was on vacation! Do you know anything about this? I have no knowledge of this, the only thing I have is he is off on 6/24/2013.” (Doc. 66-5, p. 262). Ms. Kirk emailed Mr. Willige. Her message states:

I contacted my HR department concerning Quenton's time off. It was turned in on May 1st. When I sent the email to you, I failed to list all dates: 20th, 21st, and 24th. I apologize for failing to overlook dates as requested [sic].
I will be sure to discuss a new procedure with Quenton when requesting time off. Procedure will be:
1) fill out [Mental Health Center] leave request form
2) turn into [Mr. Willige] for approval and signature
3) turn into [Ms. Kirk] for approval and signature 4) turn into [Mental Health Center] HR department
I will coordinate transportation for Friday.
Again, I apologize for the confusion.

(Doc. 66-5, p. 262).

         Ms. Kirk also approved Mr. Nunn's request for leave on June 28, 2013, so that Mr. Nunn could attend his annual religious convention. (Doc. 66-7, pp. 86-87; Doc. 66-5, pp. 265-66). On June 27, 2013, Ms. Kirk asked a Public Transit employee for Mr. Nunn's June 28, 2013, manifest because she had “a staff member filling in for Quenton.” (Doc. 66-5, p. 266). When Mr. Willige learned that Ms. Kirk expected Mr. Nunn to be off on June 28, 2013, Mr. Willige emailed Ms. Kirk. (Doc. 66-5, p. 265). The email reads:

Quenton has NOT put in to be off for tomorrow!!! I am the one and only person that handles that, Quenton wants to be off tomorrow because of a convention, the same convention that I have 7 drivers off for!! If you are letting Quenton off you will have to cover what he is to be doing, for I don't have anyone to cover it, that is the Senior center [sic] also.

         (Doc. 66-5, p. 265).[4] Ms. Kirk responded to Mr. Willige. Her email states:

I have Quenton documented off and I remember a personal phone conversation with you approving Quenton's day off (it was several months ago). We will provide transportation to Day Treatment clients annotated on Quenton's manifest on tomorrow.
I apologize for the confusion and if I can assist you further please don't hesitate to contact me.

(Doc. 66-5, p. 265).

         To arrange other drivers to cover Mr. Nunn's routes on June 20, 2013 and June 28, 2013, Mr. Willige gave Mr. Nunn's manifests to Public Transit dispatchers who evaluated which other drivers had time in their schedules to pick up some of Mr. Nunn's riders. (Doc. 66-10, ¶ 12). The dispatchers then contacted the drivers to inform them of the changes, and the drivers evaluated their schedules to determine the most efficient way to complete their manifests. (Doc. 66-10, ¶ 12). Some drivers had to work involuntary overtime. (Doc. 66-10, ¶ 16).

         Mr. Nunn testified that no one told him about the new leave approval process that Ms. Kirk implemented in June 2013, but between July 2013 and October 2013, Mr. Nunn requested and received written approval for leave from both Mr. Willige and Ms. Kirk on at least six occasions. (Doc. 66-5, pp. 268-273; Doc. 66-7, pp. 94-95).

         According to the City, Public Transit approves leave requests based on a “first come, first serve” policy. (Doc. 66-1, 101; Doc. 66-10, ¶ 9). Mr. Willige testified that he can approve leave for only a certain number of drivers on a given day. This number fluctuates depending on the availability of part-time and fulltime drivers to cover all routes. (Doc. 66-10, ¶ 11).

         Between December 11, 2013, and January 10, 2014, Mr. Willige received leave requests for five drivers for July 3, 2014, and/or July 7, 2014. Mr. Willige granted these leave requests. (Doc. 66-10, ¶¶ 17-25; Doc. 66-10, pp. 9, 11, 13, 15, 17). Four of those five drivers were attending the Jehovah's Witness conference for which Mr. Nunn also requested leave. (Doc. 66-8, pp. 131-133). Mr. Willige allowed a sixth driver to change his work schedule to accommodate his attendance at the conference. (Doc. 66-10, ¶¶ 21-22).

         On January 13, 2014, Mr. Nunn presented a written leave request form to Mr. Willige in which Mr. Nunn requested approval for leave to attend the Jehovah's Witness annual religious conference in July 2014. (Doc. 66-7, p. 90; Doc. 70-7, p. 1; see also Doc. 70-6, p. 1). Mr. Nunn asked to be off on July 3, 2014 and July 7, 2014. (Doc. 70-6, p. 1; Doc. 70-7, p. 1). Mr. Willige did not approve Mr. Nunn's religious leave request for July 2014, and he did not sign Mr. Nunn's leave request form. (Doc. 70-2, pp. 158-59; Doc. 70-7, p. 1). According to Mr. Nunn, Mr. Willige told him that he could not sign the form “because if he did, that meant he was taking full responsibility for that route. But if Ms. Kirk and I could find a driver for the route, the same way we did the year prior to that, that he had no problem with [it].” (Doc. 66-7, p. 91).

         On January 15, 2014, Mr. Willige sent an email to Ms. Kirk. (Doc. 70-6). The email reads:

Hi Maxi: Quenton came to my office on 1/13/14 requesting off for 7/3/14-7/7/14. This is their annual church gathering that ...

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