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Thomas v. Steris Corp.

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

September 6, 2019




         Plaintiff Kenneth Thomas (“Thomas”) filed a four-count complaint alleging that Defendant STERIS Corporation (“STERIS”) fired him for engaging in protected conduct and belonging to a protected class. Count 1 alleges that STERIS fired him because he was disabled in violation of the ADA. (Doc 24 ¶¶35-39). Count 2 alleges that STERIS fired him for requesting that his disability be accommodated in violation of the ADA. Id. ¶¶40-45. Count 3 alleges that STERIS fired him because he was over forty in violation of the ADEA. Id. ¶¶46-50. Count 4 alleges that STERIS fired him for complaining that STERIS was firing other people because they were over forty in violation of the ADEA. Id. ¶¶51-56. This matter comes before the Court on Defendant STERIS' motion for summary judgment on all four counts. (Doc. 56). Upon consideration, the motion is GRANTED as to all counts.


         Defendant STERIS is a globe-spanning enterprise that styles itself a “leading provider of infection prevention and other procedural products and services.”[1]STERIS operates a plant in Montgomery, where Thomas was employed for the better part of 40 years as a human resources manager.[2] (Doc. 56 at 3). At times relevant to this action, Thomas was supervised by Denise DeThomas and Mac McBride. (Doc. 56 at 3-4).

         On April 15, 2015, Thomas' employment came to an end. (Doc. 60 at 2). The parties find themselves embroiled in controversy because they each have distinctly different memories of Thomas' tenure with the company. Thomas alleges that his firing was the result of a veritable cannonade of STERIS civil rights abuse, including age discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation for requesting disability accommodations, and retaliation for protesting age discrimination. Id. at 3. Conversely, STERIS alleges that Thomas was an incompetent employee who could not continue to serve as a human resources manager because none of the human resources he was managing trusted or respected him and Thomas had been given over a decade to convince them of his conviviality. (Doc. 58-1 at 13).

         Thomas was 63 years old at the time of his departure from STERIS. (Doc. 61-1 at 1). He was also disabled as a result of an injury sustained while serving in the United States military. (Doc. 61-1 at 1). Thomas' left knee required multiple surgeries and he needed a cane to walk. Id. at 2. After an initial stint as the human resources manager in the Montgomery plant during the 1980s, Thomas was rehired to the same position in 2001. (Doc. 58-1 at 3). During the relevant periods of his employment with STERIS, Thomas was in possession of an authentic handicapped placard and made use of a handicapped parking space. (Doc. 56-6 at 1).

         Until 2014, Thomas received passable performance reviews, either “meeting” or “achieving” expectations with the only criticism being that he should spend more time walking amongst the plant workers. (Doc. 58-1 at 3). In late 2014, a decline in Thomas' performance seems to have coincided with the appointment of DeThomas as his new supervisor. Id. at 4. In just two months, Thomas' spotless record began to fall apart. In August, Thomas failed to attend an important corporate meeting and then, during DeThomas' first visit to the Montgomery plant, she was told by employees, including members of the leadership team, that they did not trust Thomas. (Doc. 58-1 at 7). In September, Thomas attended a corporate training session but failed, not only to successfully complete the training, but also to follow-up with remedial education. Id. at 8. Thomas' unhappy fall continued when he accidentally deleted a presentation he was supposed to give at STERIS' headquarters and just days later incorrectly informed McBride as to the rates that the Montgomery plant paid independent contractors, resulting in significant embarrassment when McBride conveyed the incorrect figures to executives. Id. at 9-10. Thomas himself described the latter mistake as a “big deal.” Id. at 10.

         In November of 2014, Thomas attended his mid-year performance review with DeThomas, during which the two spoke about his recent difficulties and the lack of confidence that some employees had in Thomas' management. Id. at 10. Thomas admitted during this review that he was a “work in progress” and had “a lot of areas for improvement.” Id. To follow up on the discussion, DeThomas conducted a Hogan 360 review on Thomas by sending surveys to 28 of Thomas' coworkers asking them to give her feedback about his performance. Id. at 11. The results of the review showed Thomas to be in the bottom 10% of managers, with particularly low marks in areas imperative to success as a human resource manager, including the ability to build trust and relationships. Id. at 12.

         Following his winter of discontent, Thomas met with DeThomas and McBride on April 16, 2015 to discuss his performance issues. Id. He stated during the meeting that he knew he had dropped the ball on at least one occasion and failed to meet expectations. Id. at 12. At this meeting, Thomas' supervisors mentioned two courses of action. The first course involved a “transition” plan that would effectively terminate Thomas but allow him to stay on for a few months to ease the process. (Doc. 58-1 at 13-14). The second involved a performance improvement plan but DeThomas made clear that, given the lack of trust Thomas' co-workers had in him, she did not believe it would work. (Doc. 62 at 5). At this point, Thomas left the building and returned only once to collect his things. (Doc. 58-1 at 14). On April 29, DeThomas filled out and returned a notice of claim to the Alabama State Department of Labor confirming that Thomas has been discharged for performance issues and misconduct. (Doc. 61-2 at 2).

         Thomas explains the foregoing series of undisputed facts by saying that the timeline of his alleged inadequacy, which he argues is comprised only of the second half of 2014, conveniently began after a series of discriminatory interactions with his employer. (Doc. 61-8 at 45). Thomas presents three instances of interaction between himself and STERIS that he believes are enough to show that STERIS fired him for engaging in protected activity or belonging to a protected class. First, in 2013, Thomas opposed STERIS' firing of Alan Burnett, who was over the age of 40 at the time, on the grounds that the decision did not comply with the corporation's policies and procedures.[3] (Doc. 1-1 at 2). Second, in May of 2014, McBride asked Thomas to consider how employees would view his use of the handicapped spot considering his stories about playing golf over the weekend. (Doc. 60 at 16). Third, in both 2012 and early 2014, McBride reported to Thomas' direct supervisor that he needed to walk the plant floor more often, despite McBride's knowledge of Thomas' handicap. (Doc. 60 at 17).

         STERIS now seeks summary judgment that Thomas' firing was not motivated by a desire to discriminate or retaliate.


         The court will grant summary judgment when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc). The moving party need not produce evidence disproving the opponent's claim; instead, the moving party must demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In turn, the nonmoving party must go beyond mere allegations to offer specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial exists. Id. at 324. ...

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