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Tolbert v. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc.

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

November 19, 2018

REPONSA TOLBERT, pro se, Plaintiff,
v.
MERCEDES-BENZ U.S. INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Reponsa Tolbert (“Tolbert” or “Plaintiff”) filed this action against Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (“MBUSI”) asserting claims for race, sex, and age discrimination with respect to promotions and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981a (“§ 1981”). Before the Court is MBUSI's motion for summary judgment (doc. 25).[1] The motion has been briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, MBUSI's motion for summary judgment (doc. 25) is due to be granted.

         I. Background[2]

         MBUSI hired Tolbert as a logistics Team Member in October 1996. MBUSI then promoted Tolbert to a logistics Team Leader position in June 1998. In 2012, Tolbert began applying for promotion to a Group Leader position. However, Tolbert claims that while she was seeking promotion, positions were not being posted and Caucasians and/or younger individuals were being selected for promotion instead of her. Because she believed these decisions were discriminatory, Tolbert filed an EEOC charge in September 2013.

         In November 2014, Tolbert suffered a fall at work and was injured. MBUSI safety personnel and a paramedic responded to the incident. Tolbert was then taken to MBUSI's on-site medical office. Once at the office, Tolbert's injuries were evaluated by the paramedic. The paramedic told Tolbert her elbow was broken. The paramedic then iced Tolbert's elbow and placed it in a sling. MBUSI's medical staff then asked Tolbert to wait for the plant doctor to arrive for further assessment. However, MBUSI's plant doctor was not scheduled to arrive for another two hours. Tolbert did not want to wait for the plant doctor to arrive, so she requested to leave and drive herself to the hospital. When Tolbert was asked to sign a statement acknowledging that she was refusing treatment, she refused to sign it and elected instead to stay at MBUSI to receive treatment. Approximately 50 minutes after she was injured, given an initial diagnosis, and limited treatment, Tolbert was taken to Druid City Hospital (“DCH”) in one of MBUSI's security trucks. Although MBUSI initially called an ambulance for Tolbert, it cancelled the ambulance because Tolbert's injuries were not deemed life threatening. Due to traffic conditions, it took MBUSI's security trucks a little over 40 minutes to make the approximately 20 mile drive to DCH.

         After her accident, Tolbert received short term disability (“STD”) benefits and leave from MBUSI for her injuries. Although Tolbert received these benefits, her workers' compensation request was denied because her injury was not considered an on the job injury. However, Tolbert's STD benefits and leave were set to expire before she was capable of returning to work. Therefore, Tolbert contacted MBUSI in December 2014 about extending her STD leave and benefits. Tolbert's request for an extension of STD benefits was denied because her paperwork was incomplete. Consequently, Tolbert's STD benefits lapsed on January 6, 2015. On January 20, 2015, Tolbert filed a second charge with the EEOC alleging that MBUSI's failure to transport her in an ambulance and request for her to sign a statement acknowledging she was refusing treatment were retaliatory acts. In February 2015, Tolbert's STD benefits were restored because her doctor provided the required paperwork.

         Although Tolbert continued to work for MBUSI, she filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy on August 2, 2016, as a result of her medical bills from the fall. (Doc. 26 Ex. A at 18-19). In her bankruptcy petition, Tolbert disclosed that she “may have a workman's comp action against Mercedes for injury to her arm.” (Id. at 137.) Tolbert did not disclose her EEOC charges.

         In 2017, Tolbert began to experience symptoms indicating carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Although she was initially misdiagnosed by an occupational therapist employed by MBUSI, MBUSI's doctor correctly diagnosed Tolbert with CTS a few weeks later. Tolbert filed this action in May 2017. Even though Tolbert's bankruptcy was ongoing, Tolbert did not update her assets schedule to disclose this action or disclose her EEOC charges. Despite the ongoing litigation, Tolbert continued to receive positive ratings for her work at MBUSI and was granted additional STD leave and benefits in March 2018 for treatment of her CTS. Tolbert's request for workers' compensation benefits for her CTS was denied.

         II. Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact[3] and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine if “the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Id. A genuine dispute as to a material fact exists “if the nonmoving party has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict in its favor.” Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001)). The trial judge should not weigh the evidence, but determine whether there are any genuine issues of fact that should be resolved at trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, trial courts must give deference to the non-moving party by “view[ing] the materials presented and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206, 1213-14 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). Although “pro se complaints are entitled to a liberal interpretation by the courts, ... a pro se litigant does not escape the essential burden under summary judgment standards of establishing that there is a genuine issue as to a fact material to his case in order to avert summary judgment.” Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 670 (11th Cir. 1990) (emphasis added). “[U]nsubstantiated assertions alone are not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment, ” Rollins v. TechSouth, Inc., 833 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1987), as the Court can rely only on facts which are properly supported by the evidence, and “set forth by affidavit or otherwise.” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 358 (1996). Therefore, Conclusory allegations and “mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1220 (11th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, Fla., 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         In making a motion for summary judgment, “the moving party has the burden of either negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case or showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the nonmoving party's case.” McGee v. Sentinel Offender Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2013). Although the trial courts must use caution when granting motions for summary judgment, “[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).

         III. Discussion

         A. Retaliation under Title VII and § 1981

         i. Administrative exhaustion

         Valid claims under Title VII must meet all requirements for administrative exhaustion. Sanchez v. Standard Brands, Inc., 431 F.2d 455, 460 (5th Cir. 1970). Administrative exhaustion under Title VII requires filing a timely charge with the EEOC. Id. If, as in this case, the EEOC declines to bring its own civil action against the employer, it will issue a Notice of Right to Sue to the employee. 29 C.F.R. § 1601.28(b)(1). Upon receipt of this notice, the employee has a period of ninety days to bring suit against the employer. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1). The Eleventh Circuit has held that a judicial complaint is limited by claims that are “like or related to, or grew out of, the administrative allegations.” Basel v. Sec'y of Defense, 507 Fed. App' x. 873, 876 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Gregory v. Georgia Dept. of Human Resources, 355 F.3d 1277, 1280 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Circuit has also “noted that judicial claims are allowed if they ‘amplify, clarify, or more clearly focus' the allegations in the EEOC complaint, but has cautioned that allegations of new acts of discrimination are inappropriate.” Gregory, 355 F.3d at 1279-80 (citing Wu v. Thomas, 863 F.2d 1543, 1547 (11th Cir. 1989)). Although a plaintiff cannot add new acts of discrimination, acts of retaliation that “grow[] out of an administrative charge that is properly before the court” are not barred. See Gupta v. East Texas State Univ., 654 F.2d 411 (5th Cir. Unit A Aug. 1981)[4]

         MBUSI argues that many of Tolbert's allegations of retaliation are untimely and are due to be dismissed because of Tolbert's failure to exhaust her administrative remedies in regard to these actions. MBUSI specifically claims that the following allegations are not properly before this Court because Tolbert did not include them in her EEOC charges: (1) Tolbert's 2012 Informal Complaint, (2) MBUSI's denial of Tolbert's STD benefits extension after her November 2014 fall, (3) MBUSI's alleged denials of Tolbert's workers' compensation claims, and (4) MBUSI's initial misdiagnosis of Tolbert's CTS.

         Even though Tolbert's EEOC charges do not list the aforementioned actions, they nonetheless relate to and grow out of the charges in Tolbert's administrative filings because they would have likely been included in the EEOC's investigation into Tolbert's allegations of discrimination.[5]See Sanchez, 431 F.2d at 466 (noting that “the ‘scope' of the judicial complaint is limited to the ‘scope' of the EEOC investigation which can reasonably be expected to ...


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