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Thomas v. Imerys Carbonates LLC

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

December 10, 2018

KENNETH THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
IMERYS CARBONATES, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In this disability discrimination case, two employees, one with diabetes and one without, refused the same instructions, yet only the diabetic employee suffered punishment for insubordination. A jury-not the court on a motion for summary judgment-must answer whether discrimination played a part.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendant Imerys Carbonates's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 39). In the motion, Imerys asks the court to enter summary judgment in its favor on Plaintiff Kenneth Thomas's ADA disability discrimination and retaliation claims because, according to Imerys, no genuine dispute exists that it terminated Mr. Thomas for insubordination, not because of Mr. Thomas's diabetes, and not in retaliation for Mr. Thomas requesting a reasonable accommodation for his diabetes.

         The court will DENY the motion for summary judgment because, as explained below, several genuine disputes of material fact exist as to both Mr. Thomas's disability discrimination and retaliation claims. Most notably, evidence that Imerys did not scrutinize an employee without a disability who engaged in the same conduct that led to Mr. Thomas's termination, and evidence that Mr. Thomas may not have been insubordinate or was insubordinate only to request an accommodation, creates a genuine question of the true reason for Mr. Thomas's termination.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A trial court can resolve a case on summary judgment only when the moving party establishes two essential elements: (1) no genuine disputes of material fact exist; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         Under the first element of the moving party's summary judgment burden, “‘[g]enuine disputes [of material fact] are those in which the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant.'” Evans v. Books-A-Million, 762 F.3d 1288, 1294 (11th Cir. 2014) (emphasis added) (quoting Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996)). And when considering whether any genuine disputes of material fact exist, 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).

         Pursuant to these rules, the court next presents the facts in the record in the light most favorable to Mr. Thomas.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Mr. Thomas's Employment and Diabetes

         Mr. Thomas worked as a bulk bag operator in the packaging and shipping department at Imerys's carbonate mines in Sylacauga, Alabama for 18 years until his termination on September 18, 2014. (Doc. 52-1 at 6). As a bulk bag operator, Mr. Thomas used a machine to fill bags with finished products and used a forklift to transfer the bags to a storage area.

         In February 2012, Mr. Thomas visited his physician for high blood pressure, weakness, poor balance, dizziness, significant weight loss, increased thirst, and frequent urination. The physician diagnosed him with diabetes. (Doc. 52-1 at 14-15).

         Mr. Thomas manages his diabetes by maintaining a strict diet, exercising regularly, checking his blood sugar level twice a day, and taking Metformin daily to stabilize his blood sugar. If his blood sugar is low, or if he feels jittery and weak, Mr. Thomas will eat a snack to raise his blood sugar to a normal level. (Doc. 52-1 at 15-16, 18, 20).

         Mr. Thomas took off work for a week after receiving his diagnosis. When he returned to work, he showed his doctor's excuse to his supervisor, Wayne Whitley, and the packaging and shipping department manager, Jack Holley, and told the two men that he was diabetic. Mr. Whitley and Mr. Holley told Mr. Thomas that if he was not feeling well he could “just go and do what you need to do.” (Doc. 52-1 at 18). Mr. Thomas had scheduled breaks at 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m., but if he felt bad or needed to check his blood sugar in between breaks, he could shut his machine down and go get a snack, check his blood sugar, or take his medicine. (Id.). Mr. Thomas only had to say “I need to eat” to let his supervisor know that he was having a diabetic episode and go eat. (Doc. 49-2 at ¶ 3).

         B. The September 12, 2014 Sweeper Inspection Incident

         On September 12, 2014, officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) visited Imerys's plant to perform an inspection. Mr. Thomas had previously experienced an MSHA inspection at Imerys's plant and understood that Imerys employees had to assist MSHA inspectors as a priority. (Doc. 52-1 at 26-27).

         That morning, the packaging and shipping crew consisted of Mr. Thomas, Marcus McGhee, Marcellus Jackson, Eric Dark, and Woodrow McKenzie. (Doc. 52-1 at 26). As usual, Mr. Whitley supervised the crew that day, but Terry Ingram served as the “Lead Man.” (Id.). As Lead Man, Mr. Ingram coordinated MSHA inspectors' access to equipment they wanted to inspect. (Doc. 53-1 at 19, 28).

         Mr. Whitley told Mr. Ingram that an MSHA inspector wanted to inspect each crew member's forklift. (Doc. 53-1 at 19-20). So Mr. Ingram told the crew, “you got to get your forklift inspected.” (Id. at 21). The crew did not have a firm time limit for the inspection, but Mr. Ingram testified that “you ain't going to leave the MSHA inspector out there no 30 to 40 minutes, ” that his men “know what to do” when informed of an inspection, and that “[w]hen the man comes and says you need the forklift inspected, do what the man said.” (Id.). Each crew member, including Mr. Thomas, then drove his forklift up for inspection at the “first free moment.” (Doc. 52-1 at 27; Doc. 53-1 at 21).

         The MSHA inspector also wanted to inspect the crew's sweeper. Like a forklift, a sweeper is a drivable piece of heavy equipment. (Doc. 53-1 at 9).

         Around the crew's scheduled 9:00 a.m. break, Mr. Ingram asked Mr. McGhee to drive the sweeper to the MSHA inspector. Mr. McGhee declined. At his deposition, Mr. McGhee testified that Mr. Ingram knew that he could not drive the sweeper because he has a disability involving his left eye, and he cannot see his surroundings when driving the sweeper because it does not have mirrors. (Doc. 53-2 at 13-14).

         Mr. Ingram then asked Mr. Jackson, who does not have a disability, to drive the sweeper to the MSHA inspector. Mr. Jackson responded “no.” (Doc. 54-1 at 9, 13). At his deposition, Mr. Jackson testified that he “was just messing with” Mr. Ingram and would have moved the sweeper if Mr. Ingram asked him again. (Doc. 54-1 at 13).

         Mr. Ingram then approached Mr. Thomas as he entered the break room for the scheduled 9:00 a.m. break. Mr. Ingram told Mr. Thomas to take the sweeper to the MSHA inspector. Mr. Thomas said, “I need[] to eat something. I need[] to get something to eat.” (Doc. 52-1 at 30). Mr. Ingram responded, “[y]ou're not going to take your break until you take that sweeper off.” (Id.). Mr. Thomas responded, “[m]an, I need to eat me something, I really need to eat something, ” and walked into the break room. (Id.). At his deposition, Mr. Thomas testified that he planned to drive the sweeper to the inspector after he ate a snack to raise his blood sugar level. (Id.).

         Mr. Ingram immediately reported Mr. Thomas's refusal to Mr. Whitley. Mr. Whitley then went into the break room and asked Mr. Thomas to take the sweeper to the inspector. Mr. Thomas said, “I need to eat something then I'll take it out.” (Doc. 52-1 at 156). Mr. Whitley said, “no you're going to do it now.” (Id.). Mr. Thomas said, “can't you let your [Lead Man] do it? I'm sure MSHA will wait until after I take my break. . . . I'm asking you to let me eat my food.” (Id.). Mr. Whitley then told Mr. Thomas to clock out and go home. (Doc. 52-3 at 32). Mr. Jackson eventually moved the sweeper.

         C. Investigation and Termination

         The same day, September 12, 2014, Mr. Whitley reported the incident to Mr. Holley and the human resources specialist, Anessa Osborn, who investigated the incident.

         Ms. Osborn interviewed Mr. Jackson on September 15, 2014. Mr. Jackson informed Ms. Osborn that Mr. Ingram first asked him to move the sweeper before Mr. Ingram asked Mr. Thomas, and that Mr. Thomas said he ...


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