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Knowles v. Inzi Controls Alabama, Inc.

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

September 19, 2019

EDWIN I. KNOWLES, Plaintiff,



         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Inzi Controls Alabama, Inc.’s motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 26). Inzi terminated 64-year-old Plaintiff Edwin I. Knowles as part of a reduction in force. But Knowles claims that his termination was a mere pretext for age discrimination. Inzi counters that Knowles’s termination was not discriminatory; it was part of a massive reduction in force compelled by unfeeling market forces. The Court holds that Knowles has not produced substantial evidence to support his claims, and the motion is due to be GRANTED.


         Knowles is suing his former employer, Inzi, for age-discrimination during a reduction in force. At issue are some comments made by Knowles’s supervisors and the ages of the employees retained after the reduction in force. Knowles worked at Inzi and its predecessor plant until he was 64. During those eleven years, Knowles worked mostly as a maintenance technician on the second of three shifts. (Doc. 26-12 at 59, 95; Doc. 26-1 ¶12). Knowles alleges that two of his coworkers, Weisensale and Andrews, took over his work when he was terminated.

         At the time of the reduction in force, Weisensale was about 26. (Doc. 26-5 at 3). For the six months preceding the reduction in force, Weisensale had worked as a maintenance technician. But before that he had worked in another department as a mold setter for almost two years. (Doc. 26-8 at 2). Even as a maintenance technician, Weisensale “continued to do some mold setting on second shift along with maintenance technician duties ….” (Doc. 26-6 ¶13). Knowles initially claimed that there was about a forty-percent overlap between his job as a maintenance technician and Weisensale’s job as a mold setter. (Doc. 26-12 at 77). But when Inzi’s attorney asked him more about the overlapping duties, Knowles replied, “Well, what they did and what I did was not the same.” (Doc. 26-12 at 77–78). Knowles asserts that all mold setters do is change out molds, whereas his position as maintenance technician was a “higher level, higher paying job ….” (Doc. 26-12 at 75).

         At the time of the reduction in force, Andrews was 56. (Doc. 26-6 ¶18). He supervised the maintenance department, including Knowles, and reported to Moon. (Doc. 26-6 ¶¶5–6). As the supervisor, Andrews was responsible for determining who would be terminated. (Doc. 26-6 ¶15). Andrews selected five employees for termination in the maintenance department: Rickey Catrett, 57, Process Tech; Michael Knowles, 41, Process Tech; Mark Stokes, 47, Maintenance Tech; Edwin Knowles, 64, Maintenance Tech; and Kevin Teasdale, 44, Maintenance Tech. (Doc. 26-5 at 10). After the reduction in force, Inzi rehired Stokes and Teasdale as mold setters in a different department. (Doc. 26-12 at 36; Doc. 32-3 at 3).

         Several of Knowles’s supervisors made comments about Knowles’s age before the reduction in force. Three to four months before Knowles was terminated, Andrews told him to “get the young guy to change [a bad valve] out.” (Doc. 26-12 at 95). And about a month later, Andrews again told Knowles to “get these younger guys to” change out a pump. (Doc. 26-12 at 97). Moon’s allegedly discriminatory comment came in April or May 2015 after seeing Knowles for the first time in five years. (Doc. 26-1 ¶3). Moon greeted Knowles by saying, “I figured you done retired by now.” (Doc. 26-12 at 102). Two other Inzi employees, Yang and Park, allegedly made some discriminatory comments, but unlike Moon and Andrews, they were not decision-makers. (Doc. 26-1 ¶¶11–12, 17; Doc. 26-6 ¶10).

         Knowles knew of rumors swirling about a reduction in force and the loss of business. (Doc. 26-12 at 28–29). The rumors proved true, and Inzi conducted a massive reduction in force due to losing a large part of the plant’s business. (Doc. 26-1 at 2–3). As part of this reduction in force, Inzi consolidated the three shifts into two. (Doc. 26-6 at 2). This consolidation caused Andrews to eliminate the second- shift full-time maintenance technician position, which Knowles then held. (Doc. 26-6 at 3–4). Andrews eliminated the position because he and a technician and mold setter borrowed from the production department could cover the first shift, with just a single person with “extensive, recent mold setter experience” on the second shift. (Doc. 26-6 at 3). Both Andrews and Moon testified that age played no part in their decision-making. (Doc. 26-1 ¶15; Doc. 26-6 ¶16).

         After his termination, Knowles brought suit. (Doc. 1). Inzi now brings this motion for summary judgment before the Court, claiming that, as part of the reduction in force, Knowles was terminated because there were other workers better qualified for the remaining work.[1] Inzi also claims that Knowles’s post-deposition declaration contradicts his deposition testimony and that Knowles’s claims about his job performance and the state of Inzi’s business lack personal knowledge. (Doc. 37 at 3–4).


         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 court does not weigh the facts. Hairston v. Gainesville Sun Publ’g Co., 9 F.3d 913, 919 (11th Cir. 1994). But the court will determine “whether … there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). A mere scintilla of supporting evidence is insufficient. Id. at 252.

         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. When no genuine issue of material fact exists, the court determines whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).


         The issues presented in the motion and response brief are (1) whether Inzi engaged in age-discrimination, and (2) whether Inzi’s decision to terminate Knowles as part of a reduction in force was pretextual. Inzi claims that there is no evidence of intentional discrimination and that the alleged statements are insufficient to raise a material issue of fact. Inzi also claims that the reduction in force was a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason to terminate Knowles and that there is no evidence that the reduction in force was a mere pretext. Knowles counters that Inzi showed intentional discrimination both by retaining a younger maintenance tech and by making statements which showed a general discriminatory attitude among Inzi’s management. Knowles also claims that Inzi’s reasons for terminating Knowles have been inconsistent.

         To prove his prima facie case, Knowles must show (1) he was in a protected group and suffered an adverse employment action; (2) he was qualified for his current position or to assume another position at the time of discharge; and (3) sufficient evidence for the fact-finder to reasonably conclude that the employer intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff in reaching that decision. Earley v. Champion Int’l Corp., 907 F.2d 1077, 1082 (11th Cir. 1990). The burden then shifts to the defendant, who must provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the plaintiff’s adverse employment action. Id. at 1081. The plaintiff may rebut this reason with substantial evidence that it was a mere pretext for discrimination. Id.

         I. ...

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