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Gaines v. Cooper

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

June 18, 2019

JOHN R. COOPER, et al., Defendants.



         Timothy Gaines files this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against John R. Cooper, the Director of the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), and Gary Smith, the manager of ALDOT's Oneonta District, where Gaines worked as a Transportation Maintenance Technician. Doc. 1. Gaines asserts that the Defendants violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by discriminating against him on the basis of race and retaliating against him when they discharged him before the end of his probationary period. Id. The Defendants move for summary judgment on all claims, arguing that the claims are barred by the statute of limitations, the Defendants' Eleventh Amendment immunity, and that Gaines failed to establish the required elements of his discrimination and retaliation claims. Docs. 29 and 32. For the reasons discussed below, in particular, Gaines' failure to establish a prima facie case or to show pretext, the Defendants' motion is due to be granted.


         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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Rule 56(c) 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, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis of the motion and proving the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. at 323. If the moving party meets that burden, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party, who is required to go “beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal citations and 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-movant. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). 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) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 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 a 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).


         A. ALDOT's Job Classifications and Policies

         ALDOT created the Transportation Maintenance Technician (“TMT”) position to replace the Highway Maintenance Technician (“HMT”) position sometime before Gaines's employment. Doc. 31-31 at 6. TMTs perform a variety of services on ALDOT roads, and because of the vehicles they use, ALDOT requires TMTs to have a commercial driver's license (“CDL”). Docs. 31-7; 31-17; 31-33 at 1. After ALDOT created the TMT position, it reclassified HMTs who had a CDL as TMTs, and those who did not have a CDL as Transportation Workers (“TW”). Doc. 31-31 at 6-7. TWs perform unskilled labor, and are not required to have a CDL. Docs. 31-33 at 1; 39-1 at 5; 39-2 at 4.

         ALDOT allows individuals hired as TMTs a six-month probationary period to obtain a CDL if they do not already have one. Doc. 31-3 at 19. In March 2010, ALDOT adopted a policy to give employees one three-month extension if they did not obtain a CDL within their first six months of probationary employment. Docs. 31-1 at 35; 31-3 at 19-21; 31-4 at 20-21; 39-1 at 2-3. ALDOT's general policy is to discharge TMTs who do not earn a CDL before the end of their probationary period. Doc. 31-32 at 3. However, if ALDOT had originally hired an individual for a position that did not require a CDL, such as a TW, and promoted the individual to a TMT position, then that employee may have reversion rights, which would allow the employee to take a demotion to her previous position. See doc. 31-33 at 3; 31-7. See also Ala. Admin. Code 670-X-10-.01.

         B. Gaines' employment with ALDOT and attempts to earn his CDL

         ALDOT hired Gaines, an African-American man, on a conditional basis as a TMT, effective December 2, 2013. Docs. 31-1 at 6, 8-10; 31-4; 31-6; 31-18 at 1. Gaines worked in the Oneonta District, and at all relevant times, Smith served as the manager of the District. Doc. 31-29 at 2-3; Doc. 31-30 at 2. By all accounts, Gaines was a good employee, and never received any disciplinary actions. Docs. 31-29 at 4, 24; 31-19; 39-1 at 3; 39-2 at 3; 31-29 at 4. As a conditional employee, Gaines understood that to achieve full merit, or permanent status, he had to earn his CDL within a six-month probationary period. Docs. 31-1 at 9-11, 31; 31-7 at 1; 39-1 at 2. In other words, Gaines knew that he had to have a CDL to maintain his employment. See doc. 31-1 at 20.

         Consistent with policy, before his six-month probationary period ended, Gaines requested more time to prepare for and pass the CDL exam. Doc. 31-20. Smith recommended that ALDOT grant Gaines's request, and Steve Dukes, ALDOT's personnel director, also recommended the extension. Docs. 31-21; 31-29 at 4-5. ALDOT approved the extension for ninety days, docs. 31-1 at 32; 31-3 at 21; 31-22; 31-29 at 5, and informed Gaines that “[a]ccording to Departmental guidelines, [his] six-month probationary period may be extended by three additional months only once” and that he “must obtain a [CDL] by the end of [his] probationary period to obtain permanent status.” Doc. 31-22.

         Thereafter, Gaines took the written CDL exam at least two times, but did not pass. Docs. 31-1 at 20-21; 31-4 at 6, 15; 39-1 at 3; 39-2 at 3. Gaines talked with Mathis Jones, his supervisor, about his attempts to earn a CDL, but Gaines did not inform Smith that he had taken the written exam, and he did not request reimbursement from ALDOT for the fees he paid to take the exam. Docs. 31-1 at 22, 45; 31-30 at 3; 39-2 at 3. However, ALDOT did not require TMTs to apprise their district managers about their efforts to obtain a CDL. Doc. 31-1 at 23, 45; 39-1 at 3; 39-2 at 3.

         C. Gaines's shift-change and transfer requests

         Before Gaines began working for ALDOT, employees in the Oneonta District asked to change their work shift from a standard five-day work week to a four-day, ten hours per day work week, which Smith denied. See doc. 31-1 at 23. After ALDOT hired Gaines, at the urging of a co-worker, Gaines wrote a letter on behalf of the TMTs in the District to Smith and Smith's supervisors, asking for the ten-hour work day:

We feel that we are not being treated with equality and fairness! We are under the Guntersville, Alabama Division and District. There maintenance employees, as well as other divisions are working the []4-day 10-hour work week[]. Because of the repeated rejection of our request for this (4-day, 10-hour work week), the morale among our maintenance workers is not well. . . . Inclusively, Mr. Smith, we the maintenance workers . . . are requesting that after careful review, you will grant us our request.

Doc. 31-4 at 18-19. See also docs. 31-1 at 23-24; 31-3 at 22; 39-1 at 3. Although he did not sign the letter, Gaines attached a petition he and twenty-two other TMTs signed in favor of a four-day work week. Docs. 31-1 at ...

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