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Hope v. Alabama Department of Transportation

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

July 11, 2018

RONALD HOPE, Plaintiff,
v.
ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Ronald Hope filed this lawsuit on March 3, 2017, alleging discrimination on the basis of his race during the course of his employment with the Alabama Department of Transportation (“ALDOT”). Doc. 1. Now pending before the court is Defendant ALDOT's Motion for Summary Judgment. Doc. 28. After careful consideration of the parties' submissions, the applicable law, and the record as a whole, it is ORDERED that the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 28) is GRANTED, and the claim asserted by Plaintiff Ronald Hope is DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3) and 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court finds adequate allegations to support both.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Ronald Hope is a 58-year-old black male and a resident of Montgomery, Alabama, who has been employed at ALDOT since 1982. Docs. 13 at 2 & 29-1 at 2. He is currently employed as a materials engineer in the Southeast Region, Montgomery Area office, at the level of Professional Civil Engineer II (“PCE II”). Docs. 13 at 2 & 29-1 at 5-6. As a PCE II, Hope is “responsible for the supervision and management” of the Southeast Region's materials section, which includes “pavement design, materials testing and the control of asphalt and concrete for 10 counties.” Doc. 13 at 2.

         In 1998, Hope was promoted to the position of Transportation Administrator (“TA”). Doc. 29-1 at 3. In this position, Hope became the materials engineer “responsible for the administrative work in the planning, maintenance, and/or construction of highway facilities and other structures, ” which included “the production of asphalt, concrete and also geo-text styles.” Docs. 29-1 at 4-6 & 29-4 at 2. Hope did not need a Professional Engineer (“PE”) license for this position. Doc. 29-4 at 2. However, on December 15, 2011, Hope earned his PE license by passing an examination. Doc. 29-4 at 2. This enabled Hope to transfer laterally into the PCE II classification, which does require a PE license. Doc. 29-4 at 2. Prior to December 2015, the salary for TAs and PCE IIs was equivalent, so whenever TAs obtained their PE licenses, they were eligible to be classified as PCE IIs. Doc. 29-4 at 2 & 4-5. Hope was not eligible for an increase in pay with the transfer because of an Alabama State Personnel Board rule prohibiting salary increases for lateral transfers. Doc. 29-4 at 2 & 7.

         According to ALDOT's records, Hope received a “mid-appraisal” on November 21, 2011; December 19, 2012; November 21, 2013; May 8, 2015; July 7, 2016;[1] and February 22, 2018. Doc. 45-2 at 2. Mid-appraisals are mid-year performance evaluations designed to provide documented feedback on an employee's performance and to suggest opportunities for improvement. See Docs. 13 at 3-4, 16 at 2 & 36-1. The evaluations should take place “[m]idway through the appraisal year” and involve a “discussion of strengths, development needs, and action plans.” Doc. 36-1 at 1.

         On July 5, 2016, Hope received both a mid-appraisal and annual appraisal (for the June 1, 2015 through June 1, 2016 time period) demonstrating inadequate performance. Doc. 14-1 at 1. Specifically, Hope received an overall performance score of 24.40, which fell within the “Meets Standards” range, but earned an unsatisfactory grade in the category of “Cooperation with Coworkers.” Doc. 29-1 at 34. He also earned a 1 (“Partially Meets Standards”) on a 0-4 scale for “communicates with individuals both orally and written” and “attends and participates in area meetings, etc.” Doc. 29-1 at 35. The appraisal form indicated that no disciplinary actions were taken against Hope during this time period and included two additional “tasks” as part of a Performance Improvement Plan. Doc. 29-1 at 35-36. Hope received annual raises each year from 2014 to 2017, but was downgraded from a two-step raise to a one-step raise. Docs. 29-1 at 22 & 29-2 at 2-11.

         In February 2017, Hope recommended to David Bohannon, his supervisor, that ALDOT hire Derek Lovett to fill an open Civil Engineer Graduate (“CEG”) position in the Montgomery Area office. Doc. 29-1 at 37. Bohannon is a PCE II, Senior with the authority to make final personnel decisions. Doc. 29-1 at 7-8. Though Hope has no ultimate authority to hire or promote employees, he has the ability to make personnel recommendations to Bohannon. Doc. 29-1 at 20. Hope admitted in his deposition that his authority to recommend--but not hire or promote--is no different from any other ALDOT employee in a PCE II position. Doc. 29-1 at 21. Bohannon did not hire Lovett because Lovett's name did not appear on the Certificate of Eligibles (“COE”), a list published by the State Personnel Department of all candidates eligible to be hired or promoted to a certain position. Doc. 29-1 at 26-27 & 37. In an email, Bohannon informed Hope that he could not select Lovett and directed Hope to “contact all candidates . . . for availability to interview for the Materials CEG vacancy.” Doc. 29-1 at 37. Hope also had recommended Patricia Greene and Cedric Trawick for the position, neither of whom was ultimately chosen.[2] Doc. 29-1 at 10-12 & 25.

         In the amended complaint, Hope alleges that he received his mid-appraisals late, which negatively affected his salary by depriving him of the time necessary to “correct any deficiencies with work performance.” Doc. 13 at 3. Hope alleges that white PCE II coworkers received their mid-appraisals in a timely manner. Doc. 13 at 3. He also asserts that his annual appraisal scores have been “systematically lowered” since he obtained his PE license in 2011. Doc. 13 at 4. His supervisors “resorted to extremely late” mid-appraisals because they “could not down grade [sic] [Hope] fast enough on the Annual Appraisals.” Doc. 13 at 4. This “greatly diminished” his opportunity for a promotion, even though he alleges that he qualified for a promotion to the position of PCE II, Senior. Doc. 13 at 4. “Moreover, [w]hite engineers received adjustments in salary after obtaining” their PE licenses. Doc. 13 at 4.

         Hope further claims that from October 2013 to the date he filed suit he was prevented from hiring or promoting any black employees, while white PCE II coworkers had been permitted to promote or hire “based on their recommendations or the results of their interview process.” Doc. 13 at 3. According to Hope, ALDOT hired or promoted white employees in his section without his consent on three occasions: (1) “by forging [his] signature on a legal document at the request of [his supervisor] Mr. Graben”; (2) when he was “demanded” to promote a white employee “without a choice”; and (3) when a white employee “was promoted in my Section without [Hope] having any prior knowledge.” Doc. 13 at 3-4.

         Hope filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on August 1, 2016. Doc. 14-1. The EEOC could not conclusively determine whether Hope's claim had merit, and it issued a right-to-sue letter in December 2016. Doc. 1-1. Hope then filed suit on March 3, 2017. Doc. 1. After Hope filed his amended complaint, ALDOT filed a motion to dismiss on May 9, 2017. Docs. 13 & 14. The court denied ALDOT's motion, and ALDOT subsequently moved for summary judgment. Docs. 17, 18 & 28.

         In the wake of ALDOT's summary-judgment submission, Hope argued that he could not adequately respond to the motion because certain of ALDOT's discovery responses were inadequate. Docs. 31 & 32. The court held a hearing on this issue, after which it court ordered ALDOT to supplement its responses to two of Hope's interrogatories, and ordered both parties to supplement their briefing on the summary-judgment motion. Doc. 39. In response, Hope again asserted that ALDOT's interrogatory responses were inadequate. Doc. 41. ALDOT replied that, with the exception of an inadvertent omission, [3] it has complied with the court's order and responded satisfactorily to Hope's discovery requests. Doc. 45. To date, Hope has not ...


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