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Sprowl v. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc.

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

September 20, 2019




         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Reginald Eric Sprowl (“Sprowl”), an African-American, brings this action against his former employer, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (“MBUSI”). In Counts I and II of his Amended Complaint, Sprowl asserts race discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In Count III, Sprowl alleges that he was constructively discharged because of his race.

         Presently before the Court are MBUSI’s Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 24) and Motion to Strike (doc. 36). For the reasons stated below, MBUSI’s motion for summary judgment (doc. 24) is due to be GRANTED, and MBUSI’s motion to strike (doc. 36) is due to be DENIED as MOOT.

         II. Background[1]

         On September 4, 2012, Sprowl began his employment with MBUSI as a maintenance member in MBUSI’s Assembly Plant 2. During Sprowl’s employment with MBUSI, Scotty Morris (“Morris”) was his group leader and Scott McCall (“McCall”) was his manager.

         MBUSI periodically provides performance evaluations for its maintenance team members. The performance evaluations consist of two pages, the first of which provides team members with an overall numerical rating for their current performance in their existing job. A score of 3.00 or higher indicates that the employee “Meets Expectations.” On the second page of the evaluation, maintenance team members are rated as to their potential for advancement (“potential appraisal”) for the next level as either “Ready” or “Needs Development.”

         Morris provided Sprowl’s performance evaluations. For Sprowl’s first performance evaluation, which took place in October 2013, Morris evaluated Sprowl’s performance as Meets Expectations with a numerical grade of 3.00 (“Meets Expectations”). For Sprowl’s potential appraisal, Morris evaluated Sprowl as “Needs Development.” In November 2014, for his second performance evaluation of Sprowl, Morris again evaluated Sprowl’s performance with a numerical grade of 3.00 and marked Sprowl’s potential appraisal as “Needs Development.”

         In September 2015, Sprowl reported to Morris that fellow maintenance team member Ken Gamble (“Gamble”) had made a racist comment. MBUSI investigated the incident and ultimately terminated Gamble’s employment. Sprowl testified that several of the other maintenance team members blamed him for Gamble’s firing. Specifically, Sprowl believed that Morris tried to turn people against him after he complained about Gamble, though Sprowl admitted that he never heard or saw Morris doing so, nor did anyone tell Sprowl that Morris did so. During the course of the EEOC’s investigation of MBUSI, two of Sprowl’s co-workers stated that Sprowl was treated differently after making the Gamble complaint. Dennis Finnen (“Finnen”), who worked at MBUSI from 2014 to 2016, said that Sprowl was “shunned” by the Maintenance crew after making the Gamble complaint. A fellow team member, Cecil Agee (“Agee”), said that there was an “uproar” over Gamble’s termination and that Sprowl was blamed. Agee also considered this incident to be the reason why Sprowl was not promoted to team leader.

         In January 2016, MBUSI posted an opening for an Assembly maintenance team leader position. The team leader is the person responsible for directing work when the group leader is unavailable. As group leaders do not work the night shift, team leaders effectively act as group leaders during night shifts in the Assembly Shop. Additionally, the team leader position is considered a stepping stone to the group leader position. The January 2016 Team Leader Open Nomination Form listed the following as eligibility requirements for team leader promotions: (1) completion of the team leader assessment prior to signup; (2) no current corrective performance review; (3) ability to perform the essential functions of the position; (4) overall “S” on performance evaluation; (5) must be a MBUSI team member in Assembly Plant 2; and (6) must have been in current position for at least six months.

         MBUSI evaluates team members who apply for a team leader promotion- and who meet the basic eligibility requirements-based on three separate criteria. MBUSI assigns the team members either 1 or 2 points for each criterion. These three criteria include the team member’s assessment result (29 and above = 2 points, less than 29 = 1 point), the team member’s potential appraisal for the next level (Ready = 2 points, Needs Development = 1 point), and the team member’s peer input ratings (3.5 and above = 2 points, less than 3.5 = 1 point). Based on these three criteria, MBUSI designates team members as Ready 1 (overall receiving 6 points or 2 points in each of the three categories), Ready 2 (overall receiving 5 points or 2 points in two categories and 1 point in one category), or Needs Development (receiving 1 point in two or more categories). MBUSI fills the team leader position from Ready 1 and Ready 2 candidates. A candidate with an overall rating of Needs Development is considered by MBUSI as not eligible for consideration for promotion.

         Sprowl signed up to be considered for the January 2016 team leader job posting. Sprowl also completed a team leader assessment form. However, when MBUSI solicited peer input for the candidates for the maintenance team leader position, Sprowl’s name did not appear on the peer input sheet. Sprowl raised this issue with Morris, and MBUSI determined that it had mistakenly left Sprowl’s name off the peer input sheet. According to MBUSI’s HR specialist Val Banta (“Banta”), Sprowl had been left off the list because she initially could not find a record that Sprowl had completed the team leader assessment. Banta contends this is because she originally looked up his information under the name Eric Sprowl while Sprowl’s team leader assessment result had been listed under the name Reginald Sprowl. Once MBUSI discovered the mistake, it discarded the original peer input sheets and repeated the peer input process with Sprowl’s name included.

         At the time of the January 2016 team leader job posting, Sprowl did not have a current performance evaluation. Four white candidates for the maintenance team leader position also did not have current performance evaluations. As a result, Morris provided Sprowl and the four white candidates with updated performance evaluations. Sprowl received a performance evaluation of Meets Expectations with a numerical grade of 3.04 and potential appraisal score of Needs Development. While Morris rated two of the four white candidates with a potential appraisal score of Ready, the other two white candidates received a score of Needs Development.

         Morris cited several reasons why he rated Sprowl as Needs Development on the potential appraisal. Morris testified that Sprowl needed to volunteer to fill in as team leader when necessary and fill out shift turn over reports. Morris also said that Sprowl needed to gain more technical experience and experience on the other side of the shop. Morris also felt that Sprowl did not demonstrate leadership qualities necessary for the team leader position. However, Sprowl testified in his deposition that he did fill in as team leader and that he had participated in leadership programs, including a program in Germany.

         Sprowl’s peer input score, which his fellow team members supplied, was 3.4. Sprowl points out, however, that he received a higher overall performance evaluation score than two of the three white candidates selected for promotion. Based on the criteria MBUSI uses to evaluate eligibility for promotions, MBUSI assigned Sprowl only 1 point for peer input and 1 point for his potential appraisal. Accordingly, Sprowl was rated as Needs Development overall, and MBUSI determined that he was Not Ready for the January 2016 promotion to team leader.

         Ultimately, Chris Jones (“Jones”), Brian Cooper (“Cooper”), and Chris Hearle (“Hearle”) were selected to fill the available team leader positions. All three of these individuals are white. During the evaluation process, Cooper had been rated Ready 1, while Jones and Hearle were rated Ready 2. According to Morris and McCall, these three candidates were selected as team leaders because they considered them to be the best qualified for the position (and more qualified than Sprowl). The potential appraisals for Cooper and Hearle indicated that they filled in for the team lead, completed all tasks a team leader would complete in a normal work week, showed a “desire to advance, ” and requested and accepted additional projects. The potential appraisal for Jones indicated that he filled in for the team leader and completed all of the shift turnover information, that he was capable of leading a team, and that he escalated when necessary.

         In March 2016, Sprowl filed an EEOC charge based on MBUSI’s failure to promote him to the January 2016 team leader position. After investigation, the EEOC issued Sprowl a Notice of Right to Sue, stating that the EEOC “found reasonable cause to believe that violations of the statute(s) occurred.” (Doc. 16-1 at 2.) Both Morris and McCall testified that, at that time, they were not made aware that Sprowl had filed an EEOC charge.

         In March 2017, Sprowl applied for another maintenance team leader position that had been posted. The March 2017 Team Leader Open Nomination Form listed the same eligibility requirements as the January 2016 Team Leader Open Nomination Form. Again, Sprowl’s performance evaluation was not current, so Morris provided him with another performance evaluation. This time, Morris rated Sprowl as Meets Expectations on his performance evaluation with a grade of 3.08. Sprowl’s potential appraisal score was again rated as Needs Development. Sprowl’s peer input score for this job posting again fell below a rating of 3.5.

         Because MBUSI only awarded Sprowl 1 point for the categories of potential appraisal and peer review, Sprowl’s overall score placed him in the Not Ready class. Therefore, Sprowl was not eligible for the March 2017 team leader promotion. MBUSI selected Nate Davis (“Davis”), who is white and was rated Ready 1, to fill this team leader position. Again, Morris and McCall believed that Davis was the most qualified because of his leadership skills, his experience, and his escalation and problem-solving skills.

         After Sprowl did not get the March 2017 promotion to team leader, he decided to move back to his home state of South Carolina. Sprowl secured a job with Sealed Air in South Carolina, and he started his employment at Sealed Air on June 26, 2017.

         III. Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact[2] and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine if “the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., Inc., 357 F.3d 1256, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004). A genuine dispute as to a material fact exists “if the nonmoving party has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict in its favor.” Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001)). The trial judge should not weigh the evidence, but determine whether there are any genuine issues of fact that should be resolved at trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, trial courts must give deference to the nonmoving party by “view[ing] the materials presented and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206, 1213–14 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). However, “unsubstantiated assertions alone are not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” Rollins v. TechSouth, Inc., 833 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1987). Conclusory allegations and “mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). In making a motion for summary judgment, “the moving party has the burden of either negating an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case or showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the nonmoving party’s case.” McGee v. Sentinel Offender Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2013). Although the trial courts must use caution when granting motions for summary judgment, “[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).

         IV. Discussion

         Absent direct evidence of racial discrimination or retaliation, such as specific statements made by the employer’s representatives, a plaintiff may demonstrate circumstantial evidence of disparate treatment through the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973); see also Tex. Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981).[3] Under this framework, the aggrieved employee creates a presumption of unlawful discrimination by first establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. See Lewis v. Union City, 918 F.3d 1213, 1220–21 (11th Cir. 2019) (en banc). The burden then shifts to the employer “to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.” Id. at 1221 (citing Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253). If the employer proffers a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the burden returns to the employee to prove that the employer’s reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d 961, 976 (11th Cir. 2008). Although the McDonnell Douglas framework is one way of showing discriminatory intent, it is not the only way to show discriminatory intent in a ...

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