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Coleman v. Hwashin America Corp.

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

January 4, 2019

VICKIE COLEMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
HWASHIN AMERICA CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          WALLACE CAPEL, JR. CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         On April 18, 2017, pro se Plaintiff filed a complaint against Hwashin America Corporation (“Hwashin” or “Defendant”).[1] Doc. 1. Plaintiff's complaint alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stemming from her termination, failure to promote, harassment, and failure to follow due process requirements set forth in the employee handbook. Id. at 1, ¶ 8. Plaintiff states that Defendant's conduct was discriminatory based upon race, sex, and age.[2] Id. at 1, ¶ 10. Plaintiff also seeks relief pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), “Alabama Breach of Employment Handbook Contract Alabama Law, ” and the Due Process Clause. Id. at 3, ¶ 19.

         On May 15, 2017, Defendant filed an answer. Doc. 11. On June 28, 2018, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment to which she attached declarations signed by Alexander Wilson and Brandon Lawson, as well as a document purporting to show the names, sexes, and “[p]robable [a]ges” of certain “Team Leaders” in Defendant's “stamp department” both before and after her termination. Doc. 54, 54-1-54-3. On July 2, 2018, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment and brief. Docs. 56, 57. On July 23, 2018, Defendant responded in opposition to Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. Doc. 62. On July 27, 2018, Plaintiff filed an “AFFIDAVIT Reply in Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ” to which she attached Defendant's initial disclosures and responses to interrogatories and requests for production. Doc. 67, 67-1- 67-3. On August 3, 2018, Defendant filed a reply in support of its motion for summary judgment. Doc. 69.

         In addition to the cross motions for summary judgment, pending before the court is Defendant's motion asking the court to strike certain portions of Plaintiff's evidentiary submissions in support of her motion for summary judgment. Doc. 63. On August 7, 2018, Plaintiff replied in objection to Defendant's motion to strike. Doc. 70.

         Also pending before the court is Plaintiff's motion for alternative dispute resolution filed July 18, 2018. Doc. 61. On August 7, 2018, Defendant responded in opposition, stating that it was “not currently interested in pursuing a settlement” based on its pending motion for summary judgment. Doc. 66 at 2.

         Because the matters before the court are fully briefed, they are ripe for resolution or recommendation to the United States District Judge.[3] Upon consideration of Defendant's motion to strike (Doc. 63), the undersigned will GRANT the motion. Upon consideration of the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, the evidentiary materials filed in support thereof, the pleadings, and for the reasons that follow, the undersigned Magistrate Judge RECOMMENDS that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 54) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 56) be GRANTED, and that this case be dismissed. Accordingly, the undersigned finds that Plaintiff's motion for alternative dispute resolution (Doc. 61) is DENIED as MOOT.

         II. Defendant's Motion to Strike

          The undersigned turns first to Defendant's pending motion to strike (Doc. 63), because such determination may be pertinent to the recommendation on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Defendant moves to strike Exhibit A to Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54-1), an evidentiary submission in which Plaintiff has compiled the names, sexes, and “[p]robable [a]ges” of Team Leaders in Defendant's “stamp department” both “before and after [Plaintiff's] termination.” Doc. 54-1 at 1. In indicating the alleged Team Leaders' ages, Plaintiff has described them in terms of decades, such as “20's, ” “30's, ” and “40's.” Id. Defendant objects that this evidentiary submission, which on its face contains only “probable ages, ” is “based solely upon Plaintiff's speculation” and lacks a foundation of personal knowledge. Doc. 63 at 2.

         The undersigned agrees. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c)(4) governs the form of affidavits in support of a motion for summary judgment and provides that such an affidavit “must be made on personal knowledge, set out facts that would be admissible in evidence, and show that the affiant or declarant is competent to testify on the matters stated.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4) (emphasis added). Similarly, Federal Rule of Evidence 602 states that “[a] witness may testify to a matter only if evidence is introduced sufficient to support a finding that the witness has personal knowledge of the matter.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 602. Consequently, when considering a motion for summary judgment, “a court does not accept testimony that is not based on personal knowledge.” Sullivan v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., No. 1:07-cv-0976-JEC-LTW, 2008 WL 11320143, at *5 (N.D.Ga. June 16, 2008) (citation omitted). A court is “bound to accept . . . as true” statements in an affidavit or declaration that is made on personal knowledge, “unless the context demonstrate[s] otherwise.” Martin v. Rumsfeld, 137 Fed.Appx. 324, 326 (11th Cir. 2005).

         Clearly, in this case, the affidavit is not based on Plaintiff's personal knowledge with respect to the Team Leaders' ages. Plaintiff's submission openly acknowledges that it is based on her speculation, not personal knowledge, regarding the Team Leaders' ages. Therefore, Plaintiff's evidentiary submission fails to provide a foundation sufficient to show that the actual ages of the named Team Leaders are within her personal knowledge.

         Accordingly, the undersigned will GRANT Defendant's motion to strike (Doc. 63) to the extent that it will strike and exclude from consideration Plaintiff's statements regarding the probable ages of the Team Leaders. Because Defendant did not object to Plaintiff's statements regarding the names and sexes of the Team Leaders, the undersigned will not strike those portions of Plaintiff's evidentiary submission.

         III. Motions for Summary Judgment

         The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. Docs. 54, 56. Before addressing the motions, the undersigned will provide the applicable standard of review.

         A. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), a reviewing court “shall grant a motion for summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Only disputes about material facts will preclude the granting of summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). “An issue of fact is ‘genuine' if the record as a whole could lead a reasonable trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. An issue is ‘material' if it might affect the outcome of the case under the governing law.” Redwing Carriers, Inc. v. Saraland Apartments, 94 F.3d 1489, 1496 (11th Cir. 1996) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

         Under Rule 56, summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323. The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact, or by showing the non-moving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of her case on which she bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-23.

         Once the movant has satisfied this burden, the non-moving party must “go beyond the pleadings and by [her] own affidavits, or by the ‘depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324. In doing so, and to avoid summary judgment, the non-movant “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The parties must support their assertions “that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed” by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations[ ], admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A) and (B).

         If the nonmovant “fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact” as required by Rule 56(c), then the court may “consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion” and “grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials- including the facts considered undisputed-show that the movant is entitled to it.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2) and (3).

         In determining whether a genuine issue for trial exists, the court must view all the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. McCormick v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 333 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir. 2003). Likewise, the reviewing court must draw all justifiable inferences from the evidence in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. 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). Furthermore, “[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); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (“If the evidence [on which the nonmoving party relies] is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.”) (internal citations omitted). A reviewing court is restrained during summary judgment proceedings from making the sort of determinations ordinarily reserved for the finder of fact at a trial. See Strickland v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 692 F.3d at 1154 (citations and quotations omitted) (“Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge, whether he is ruling on a motion for summary judgment or for a directed verdict.”). After the nonmoving party has responded to the motion for summary judgment, the court must grant summary judgment if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

         B. Undisputed Facts

         The undersigned has carefully considered the pleadings in this case and the documents in support of the parties' motions for summary judgment. The parties' submissions establish the following relevant undisputed facts.[4]

         Defendant is an automotive manufacturer for Hyundai Motors Manufacturing of America. Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 2. Defendant has policies in place strictly prohibiting any form of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment on the basis of race, age, or sex in all terms and conditions of employment. Id. ¶ 5, Att. 1 Sec. 1.4. These policies are set forth in a “Team Member Handbook” which was distributed to[5] and applied to all employees. Id. ¶ 5. The Team Member Handbook states that employees who believe they have witnessed or been subjected to any unlawful conduct should report the conduct to their supervisor or to Defendant's human resources department. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 27:1-4; Doc. 58-2 Simmons Dec. ¶ 5, Att. 1, Section 1.4.

         Defendant also had in effect “Team Member Conduct and Work Rules, ” which were distributed to and applied to all employees, and which outlined and described specific requirements and expectations for employee conduct. Doc. 58-2 Simmons Dec. ¶ 15, Att. 1, Section 3.1. These rules include a list of “major offenses that would almost always result in discharge, ” including “[u]ndermining the authority of upper management.” Id. Defendant's Team Member Handbook also states that, “[t]his handbook is not a contract nor offer to contract” and that team members are employed at will, unless they “have a written employment contract signed by the president of Hwashin . . . and approved by the designated Hwashin America Corporation Management Team by written resolution.” Id., Att. 1, Sec. 1.1.

         Plaintiff began working with Defendant as an operator in the Stamping Department on March 21, 2005. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 23:3-11; 27:18-20, Att. Ex. 3. In 2008, Plaintiff was promoted to “Team Leader” in the Stamping Department. Id. at 30:13-22; 32:2-7; 33:3-9, Att. Ex. 4. Team Leaders are hourly workers who perform production work and also help monitor team members in the course of their work. Doc. 58-2 Simmons Dec. ¶ 7; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 3. Team Leader is not a management role, but team Lead Leaders help convey management's directives and implement company goals. Id.

         In 2013, Plaintiff was transferred to a new supervisor, Terry Sedan, after Plaintiff's supervisor at the time complained that she was not getting along with other employees. Doc. 58-1, Pl. Depo 35:12-13; 43:16-20; 50:16-17; Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 9; Doc. 58- 3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 3. Between 2012 and 2015, Plaintiff received annual pay increases, partially because of performance evaluations completed by Mr. Sedan. Doc. 58-1, Pl. Depo 43:1-5, Att. Ex. 8. In April 2015, Plaintiff reached the top of Defendant's pay scale for Team Leaders, which does not provide for pay increases based on length of employment beyond ten years. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 37:21-38:12; 74:1-5; 87:15-18; Att. Ex. 8.

         The crux of Plaintiff's complaint involves two incidents that occurred in 2016.[6] In June 2016, Mr. Sedan directed Alexander Wilson, an African American male, to stay after his shift to finish counting parts. Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 4; Doc. 58-5, Wilson Dec. ¶ 3. Mr. Wilson's sister, Alexis Wilson, an African American female, also stayed to help count parts. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 51:20-52:14; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 4; Doc. 58-5, Wilson Dec. ¶ 3. Plaintiff disagreed with Mr. Sedan's decision to let employees stay after the end of the shift to count parts and told Mr. Alexander and Ms. Wilson that she had clocked them out and to go home. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 51:20-52:16; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 4, Doc. 58-5, Wilson Dec. ¶ 3. Plaintiff did not consult with her supervisor, Mr. Sedan, as she was required to do, before sending Mr. Alexander and Ms. Wilson home. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 51:20-52:16; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 4; Doc. 58-5, Wilson Dec. ¶3. Following this incident, Plaintiff complained to Kista Hinson, a human resources assistant manager, about Mr. Sedan letting Mr. Wilson and Ms. Wilson work late. Doc. 58-4, Hinson Dec. ¶ 4; Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 50:8-51:9. The following day, Mr. Sedan met with Plaintiff and Mr. Wilson to discuss the incident. Plaintiff did not make any complaints during this meeting. Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 5; Doc. 58-5, Wilson Dec. ¶ 4.

         The second incident involves an incentive program in which Defendant provided gift cards to production workers if a line had met its production targets. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 56:15-17; Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 10; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 7. The gift cards were typically distributed to supervisors who, in turn, distributed the gift cards to team members. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 56:18-57:2; 58:12; Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 10; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 7. Mr. Sedan always distributed the gift cards to team members who worked on the line or press, but not to the team leader. Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 10; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶9. In June 2016, Mr. Sedan distributed gift cards to four workers in the Stamping Department who had met their production target for the previous month. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 58:18-20; 59:4-15; Doc. 58-2, Sedan Dec. ¶ 9; Doc. 58-5, Wilson Dec. ¶ 6; Doc. 58-6, Lawson Dec. ¶ 4. One of these workers was Brandon Lawson. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 60:2-3; Doc. 58-2, Sedan Dec. ¶ 9; Doc. 58-5, Wilson Dec. ¶ 6; Doc. 58-6, Lawson Dec. ¶ 4. Mr. Lawson had been working for approximately three weeks, but Mr. Sedan determined that because of Mr. Lawson's contributions and hard work, he deserved the gift cards. Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 9. Plaintiff disagreed with Mr. Sedan's decision. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 63:10-64:1; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 10. She later told Mr. Lawson that he did not deserve the gift cards and that she should have received them because he had not been employed long enough. Id.; Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 63:22-64:1; Doc. 58-6, Lawson Dec. ¶¶ 1, 4. Plaintiff told Mr. Lawson that he should give her his gift cards, which he then did. Id. Plaintiff later used the gift cards. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 63:22-64:3.

         After learning of Plaintiff's actions, Mr. Sedan immediately reported the incident to the human resources department. Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 11; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 10; Doc. 58-4, Hinson Dec. ¶ 6. On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff was suspended pending an investigation. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 66:19-21; Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 12; Doc. 58-4, Hinson Dec. ¶ 7. Human resources manager, Josh Simmons, and assistant manager, Kista Hinson, conducted the investigation. Id. Following their investigation, it was determined that Plaintiff had taken the gift cards from Mr. Lawson, and that, in so doing, she had undermined Mr. Sedan's authority and misappropriated company property intended for another employee for her own personal gain. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 66:19-67:13, Att. Ex. 9; Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 14. As a result, her employment was terminated on June 23, 2016. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 67:11-13; 68:2-7, Att. Ex. 9; Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 15. The decision to terminate was made jointly by Mr. Simmons and Ms. Hinson. Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 66:19-67:13; Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 15; Doc. 58-4, Hinson Dec. ¶ 9. Mr. Sedan played no role in the decision to terminate Plaintiff's employment. Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 15; Doc. 58-3, Sedan Dec. ¶ 11; Doc. 58-4, Hinson Dec. ¶ 9.

         Defendant's human resources department has received no other reports of employees taking gift cards from other employees. Doc. 58-2, Simmons Dec. ¶ 16; Doc. 58-4, Hinson Dec. ¶ 10; Doc. 58-1, Pl.'s Depo. 68:15-20. Several years ago, Safety Coordinator Chuck Branum made Mr. Simmons aware that some drums were missing, but it was ...


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