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Evans v. EPC, Inc.

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

September 20, 2018

SONYA EVANS, Plaintiff,
v.
EPC, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          JOHN H. ENGLAND, III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sonya Evans (“Evans”) initiated this action against Defendant EPC, Inc. (“EPC”) alleging employment discrimination and retaliation claims pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Doc. 1). Prior to the close of discovery, on October 10, 2017, EPC moved for summary judgment. (Doc. 16). Evans filed a “Motion for Continuance Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d), ” requesting the deadline to respond to the summary judgment motion be extended to March 8, 2018 (after the close of discovery) because, inter alia, depositions had yet to be completed. (Doc. 19). EPC opposed Evans' motion. (Doc. 20). On October 25, 2017, finding the interests of justice required Evans have an opportunity to depose two individuals before a summary judgment motion is considered, the undersigned granted Evans' Rule 56(d) motion and denied EPC's motion for summary judgment without prejudice as premature. (Doc. 21).

         After completing the two outstanding depositions, EPC moved for summary judgment. (Doc. 24). Evans filed a response in opposition to summary judgment (doc. 27), and EPC replied (doc. 29). The renewed motion for summary judgment is ripe for review. Based on the foregoing, EPC's renewed motion for summary judgment (doc. 24) is GRANTED.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper “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.” Rule 56 “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 447 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The Court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). Any factual disputes will be resolved in Plaintiff's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports Plaintiff's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276-78 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of the events is supported by insufficient evidence). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mtn. Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 836 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         II. Summary Judgment Facts

         A. Evans' Employment with EPC

         EPC, or “Engineered Plastics Components, ” is a plastic injection molding company that produces interior automotive components and assemblies. (Doc. 26-1 at ¶ 3). On July 3, 2015, Plant Manager Ben Weber (“Weber”) and Human Resources Director Pam Gillard (“Gillard”) hired Evans as the third shift production supervisor for EPC. (Id. at ¶4; doc 26-2 at 23 (85:12-15, 86:4-12)). Evans went to work for EPC because she had previously worked with Gillard and because she was excited to go work for Gillard again. (Doc. 26-2 at 23 (86:16-23)). Evans and Gillard knew each other on a personal level and had been acquainted for approximately seventeen years, as they both worked together at a previous employer. (Id. at 4-5, 13 (10:15-17, 13:11-14:11, 47:19-22)).

         In her role as third shift production supervisor, Evans reported to Weber. (Doc. 26-2 at 23 (87:4-10)). From a management standpoint, Evans was the highest-ranking person in the facility on third shift. (Id. (87:4-10)). Her shift typically lasted from 10:30 PM to 7:00 AM. (Id. (86:4-12)). As third shift production supervisor, Evans was responsible for ensuring the presses were running on time, starting and stopping machinery, handling issues with the machines, making sure the material was accurate, and making sure the employees were doing what they were supposed to be doing. (Id. at 23-24 (88:10-89:1)).

         As part of the production process, paperwork is filled out for each mold produced at EPC. (Doc. 26-2 at 24 (91:9-92:23)). Five to six employees have a responsibility for filling out a different section of the paperwork and for signing their names to the section to verify the parts and materials. (Id.). Evans was familiar with company policies and procedures. (Id. (89:2-4)). In fact, it was Evans' responsibility to discipline employees on her shift when they were not doing their job properly, not signing their documents, or not following the proper process. (Id. (89:5-90:7)). Evans understood that, as a supervisor or manager, EPC was counting on her to enforce its policies and procedures. (Id. at 27 (103:4-7)).

         B. Evans' Relationship with Korey Mendenhall

         While working at EPC, Evans met Korey Mendenhall (“Mendenhall”). (Doc. 26-2 at 14 (51:13-19)). Mendenhall, who is African-American, [2] worked as a material handler (an hourly position); Evans supervised Mendenhall. (Id. at 10-11, 15 (54:2-4), 36:19-37:1)). According to Evans, she and Mendenhall began dating several months after she started working at EPC. (Id. at 14 (51:20-23)). Evans separated from her husband after beginning her relationship with Mendenhall. (Id. (51:17-52:7)). Evans and Mendenhall took breaks together and ate their lunches together, fixing each other's lunches, making each other's plates, and sitting down to eat together. (Id. at 10, 14-15 (36:14-18, 52-21-53)). Evans believes her co-workers knew they were dating based on these observations (id.), and because co-worker John Dodge (“Dodge”), [3] a mold changer, told Evans he couldn't believe she would date a “nigger” and that he “didn't like the fact a white person would date a nigger.” (Id. at 11-12 (40:14-41:16)). Evans and Mendenhall did not engage in romantic activities at work. (Doc. Id. at 14 52:11-17)).

         Gillard began receiving complaints from employees about Evans and Mendenhall as well as complaints that people on Evans' shift took longer break times. (Doc. 26-2 at 41 (159:1-160-11)). Evans understood that employees were not supposed to take extended lunches or breaks. (Id. at 26-27 (100:19-101:8)). Evans testified that Gillard told her that, because she was a manager and Mendenhall was an hourly employee, they should not be dating.[4] (Id. at 12-13, 27 (43:21-44:4, 45:17-22, 101:9-13)). There was no written rule against dating at EPC. (Doc. 26-4 at 9 (31:1-7)). According to Evans, Gillard told Evans that people were complaining to her about Evans and Mendenhall's relationship on a daily basis, and Gillard did not say that these complaints had anything to do with race. (Doc. 26-2 at 12 (43:6-16)). EPC had an “open door policy” and Gillard had no control over what complaints were made. (Id. at 39 (151:3-8)). However, during this conversation Gillard also told Evans that Evans' parents would “not be proud” of her for dating Mendenhall, that her parents “would not agree [with] it.” (Id. at 13 (45:23-46:7)). Evans' testified, “our conversation was because he was black” (id. (46:20-21)), and that “[Gillard] said something about birds of a feather flock together.” (Id. (48:2-9)). Evans understood this comment to be referring to Mendenhall's race. (Id. (48:10-17)). Gillard testified that interracial dating is “not an issue' to her. (Doc. 26-4 at 10 (33:17-19)). Evans described the conversation as talking about how her parents would feel, then talking about Gillard's children and Gillard's feelings. (Id. (48:2-9)).

         According to Evans, no one made comments to Mendenhall about his relationship with Evans. (Doc. 26-2 at 14 (50:12-20)). And, Mendenhall was never disciplined or had any other issues at EPC. (Id. at 15 (54:9-19)).

         Evans alleges two other EPC employees, Paul Klem (“Klem”) and Bethany Cross (“Cross”), were in a relationship and that they were never disciplined for taking long lunches. (Doc. 26-2 at 27-28 (103:19-105:16)). Cross was a Quality Auditor who reported to Alisa Washington. (Doc. 26-1 at ¶ 18). Cross and Klem were in a romantic relationship, but Cross did not report to Klem. (Id.). EPC only prohibits involvement between a supervisor or manager and his or her direct reports. (Id.). Gillard spoke with Klem about his relationship with Cross and told him he must be professional with his behavior in the work place. (Id.). Klem was a first shift supervisor, an equivalent management position to Evans. (Doc. 26-2 at 10 (35:7-9)).

         C. Evans' Complaints About Race-Based Comments

         Evans' reported Dodge's comment to Weber on March 24, 2016. (Doc. 26-2 at 12, 31 (42:3-14, 118:3-120-22)). Evans and Mendenhall met with Weber and informed him that people were starting to make racial comments and were treating them differently, that it had been going on for several days, and that they were tired of it and wanted it stopped.[5] (Id. at 31 (118:10-22)). Evans told Weber that she and Mendenhall were coming to him because he was her direct supervisor and she didn't know how Gillard would take it if they were talking about racial discrimination. (Id.). Weber reminded Evans that she was a supervisor and had authority to discipline any employee on third shift who was causing problems.[6] (Doc. 26-3 at ¶ 10). Evans did not discipline any of her subordinate employees for problems of the type she was complaining about to Weber. (Id.). According to Evans, Weber also told her he would investigate the behavior and put a stop to it. (Doc. 26-2 at 31 (118:3-120:2)). Weber instructed Evans to write down her specific problems in a notebook for him, and Evans believed this would be used as part of Weber's investigation into her complaint. (Id. at 32 (121:20-122:19)). Evans testified she was satisfied with Weber's response and that she would “give him a few days, and then, if things didn't change[] that we would be readdressing it with both him and [Gillard].” (Id. at 31 (120:13-18)).

         According to Weber, he spoke with Gillard regarding Evans' complaints that employees were “mouthing back.” (Doc. 26-5 at 9 (34:15-23)). When he spoke to Evans the next day, Weber told her he and Gillard were addressing the issues. (Doc. 26-2 at 31 (120:3-12)).

         D. EPC's Training

         On March 24, 2016, Evans attended a pre-planned, plant-wide training that addressed the recurring problems of employees taking extended lunch and break times and of employees signing documents with another employee's number. (Doc. 26-2 at 26-27 (99:2-102:9), 58-60; doc. 26-1 at ¶ 8). The training made clear to all employees that signing documents with another employee's number is fraud and is cause for immediate termination. (Doc. 26-2 at 27 (102:7-17); doc. 26-1 at ¶ 8; doc. 26-3 at ¶ 4). Following this meeting, Evans understood she was not supposed to sign for other people and that she was not supposed to take or permit employees to take breaks for personal reasons. (Doc. 26-1 at 26 (97:17-98:1, 100:17-23); doc. 26-1 at ¶ 7).

         E. Evans' Termination

         Within four days after the training session that addressed the issues of extended breaks and falsification of documents, Evans falsified another employee's signature and took an extended lunch break. (Doc. 26-1 at ¶ 9). On March 25, 2016, Evans and Mendenhall took an extended lunch and left the facility to go to Wal-Mart and pick up a grill. (Doc. 26-1 at 32 (123:4-7)). Given the prior warning, EPC decided to discipline Evans. (Doc. 26-1 at ¶ 11). The written warning was prepared on March 28, 2016, but Evans was not available to meet until March 30, 2016. (Id. at ¶12).

         Meanwhile, on March 28, 2016, Evans signed Rudy Juran's (“Juran”) name on a company document. (Doc. 26-2 at 34-37 (129:4-131:23), 72). According to Evans, Juran was several hours behind on his work, and while he was standing on top of a machine, she asked him if he wanted her to sign off for him and he said yes. (Doc. 26-2 at 25 (94:5-95:21)). On March 29, 2016, Gillard interviewed Juran, ...


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