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Collins v. Koch Foods Inc.

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

September 23, 2019

SHAWNETTA COLLINS, Plaintiff,
v.
KOCH FOODS INC., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the court is Defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 47). In addition, Plaintiff Shawnetta Collins requested, in her response brief, that the court strike paragraph 31 of Defendants’ statement of undisputed facts. (Doc. 61 at 6 ¶ 31).

         Ms. Collins is an African-American woman. Defendants Koch Foods, Inc., and Koch Foods of Alabama, Inc. (collectively, “Koch Foods”), are related companies that, at the time of the events involved in this lawsuit, ran two poultry processing and packaging plants in Montgomery, Alabama. At that time, Defendant Robert Elrod was the Director of Human Resources for Koch Foods. Until July 2017, Ms. Collins was the Human Resources Manager for one and then the other of the two plants. In July 2017, Ms. Collins married the Plant Manager for the two plants, and Defendants fired her for violating their anti-fraternization policy. She has now brought suit against Defendants. The only claims remaining in the case[1]are:

(1) race discrimination, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, against Mr. Elrod and Koch Foods, Inc., (“Count One”) (doc. 10 at 4–13)
(2) sex discrimination, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., against Koch Foods, Inc., and Koch Foods of Alabama (“Count Two”) (doc. 10 at 13–16)
(3) intentional infliction of emotional distress, under Alabama law, against all three defendants (“Count Four”) (doc. 10 at 18–19)
(5) negligent and wanton hiring, training, supervision, and retention, in violation of Alabama law, against all three defendants (“Count Five”) (doc. 10 at 19–23)

         First, the court DENIES Ms. Collins’ motion to strike paragraph 31 of Defendants’ statement of undisputed facts because, contrary to her assertion, that paragraph does not rely on any unproduced, privileged documents.

         Second, the court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The court GRANTS the motion for summary judgment as to Count One (the claims of race discrimination under § 1981) because Ms. Collins has either not presented evidence to establish a prima facie case of race discrimination, or she has not rebutted Defendants’ legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the challenged employment actions. The court DENIES the motion for summary judgment as to Count Two (the claims of sex discrimination under Title VII) because Ms. Collins has presented evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Koch Foods discriminated against her based on her sex. The court GRANTS the motion for summary judgment as to Count Four (intentional infliction of emotional distress) because Ms. Collins’ only evidence of outrage relates to a theory that she did not assert in her amended complaint, and because Count Four fails, the court also GRANTS the motion for summary judgment as to Count Five (negligence and wantonness).

         I. BACKGROUND

         On a motion for summary judgment, the court “draw[s] all inferences and review[s] all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Hamilton v. Southland Christian Sch., Inc., 680 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted).

         Koch Foods operates a chicken processing plant complex in Montgomery Alabama, consisting of a processing plant (also called the “kill plant”) and a debone plant. (Doc. 48-1 at 6, 29; see also Doc. 51 at 5 ¶ 4; Doc. 61 at 3 ¶ 4). Until Koch Foods combined the two plants in 2017, each plant had its own Human Resources Manager and Plant Manager. (Doc. 48-3 at 37). During the events that are the subject of this lawsuit, Koch Foods was working on combining the two plants into one single campus. (Doc. 48-1 at 28; Doc. 48-3 at 6; Doc. 48-4 at 40).

         The complex as a whole also had a Complex Human Resources Manager, who oversaw each plant’s Human Resources Manager, and a Complex Manager, who oversaw all of the managers at the complex, including the Plant Managers and the Human Resources Managers. (See Doc. 48-3 at 60). The Complex Human Resources Manager position changed multiple times during the course of the events that are the subject of this lawsuit, but at all relevant times, Rod Thomas was the Complex Manager. (Doc. 48-1 at 16; Doc. 48-5 at 91).

         In addition to the management of the complex, Koch Foods had a Corporate Human Resources Director who managed all of the Human Resources departments for all of Koch Foods’ facilities, including the Montgomery complex. (Doc. 48-5 at 9, 19). Defendant Robert Elrod was the Corporate Human Resources Director. (Id. at 9, 19, 40).

         Ms. Collins became a Human Resources Manager in January 2008, serving first at the kill plant, then at the debone plant, then back at the kill plant. (Doc. 48-1 at 6, 8, 15). When she became a Human Resources Manager, Koch Foods had an anti-fraternization policy prohibiting managers and supervisors from “engag[ing] in intimate relationships with anyone under their direct or indirect supervision.” (Doc. 48-2 at 10). Employees were required to report any such relationship to their supervisor. (Id.).

         In 2014, while serving as the Human Resources Manager for the kill plant, Ms. Collins began dating Johnny Gill, the Plant Manager for the kill plant. (Doc. 48-12 at 7, 9; Doc. 48-1 at 15, 22). Because neither Ms. Collins nor Mr. Gill supervised each other, their relationship was not a violation of that version of the anti-fraternization policy. (Doc. 48-3 at 20). Nevertheless, Ms. Collins disclosed the relationship to her supervisor, David Birchfield (a Caucasian man), who at that time was the Complex Human Resources Manager. (Doc. 48-1 at 22; see Doc. 48-16 at 3 ¶ 7).

         In April and June 2016, two Koch Foods employees filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) based on alleged sexual harassment by Mr. Birchfield and Melissa McDickinson, who was a Human Resources Manager. (Doc. 59-15 at 21, 23). According to Koch Foods, an internal investigation revealed evidence that Mr. Birchfield and Ms. McDickinson were involved in an “intimate relationship.” (Id. at 23). Koch Foods determined that Mr. Birchfield could no longer serve “as an effective manager, ” and allowed him to resign effective August 24, 2016. (Id.; Doc. 48-10 at 73; Doc. 48-16 at 3 ¶ 7).

         Mr. Birchfield’s resignation left the position of Complex Human Resources Manager open, and in August 2016, Ms. Collins applied for the position. (Doc. 48-1 at 24; Doc. 48-8 at 44). Koch Foods’ manual on “Employee Hiring for Salaried Employees” provides that it gives “first consideration” to current employees unless a Human Resources Manager decides to seek outside candidates:

Current employees who want to transfer to or apply for an open position should be given first consideration. . . . If no internal candidates meet the job requirements, or if the Local Human Resources Manager determines that it is appropriate to do so, then the Local Human Resources Manager can seek outside candidates.

(Doc. 48-2 at 1, 4). Koch Foods solicited outside candidates to apply. (See Doc. 48-4 at 4, 11).

         In September 2016, while Koch Foods was making its decision about who to hire, Mr. Thomas (the Complex Manager) and Mr. Elrod (the Corporate Human Resources Director) learned of Ms. Collins and Mr. Gill’s relationship. (Doc. 48-3 at 19; Doc. 48-5 at 89; Doc. 48-12 at 16–17). They called Ms. Collins and Mr. Gill in for a meeting to ask them about their relationship. (Doc. 48-1 at 26–27; Doc. 48-3 at 25; Doc. 48-5 at 89). Mr. Elrod testified that, while they were waiting for Ms. Collins and Mr. Gill, Mr. Thomas asked him not to hire Ms. Collins for the Complex Human Resources Manager position because he (Mr. Thomas) did not trust Ms. Collins, given her relationship with Mr. Gill. (Doc. 48-5 at 89).

         Ms. Collins and Mr. Gill admitted that they were living together and engaged to be married. (Doc. 48-1 at 27, 48; Doc. 48-3 at 25; Doc. 48-5 at 89). Mr. Elrod testified that, to avoid the conflict of interest that arose because of their relationship, he transferred Ms. Collins to the debone plant so that she and Mr. Gill would not be working in the same plant. (Id.; see also Doc. 48-1 at 28–29; Doc. 48-3 at 25).

         Also in September 2016, Mr. Elrod began working on revising Koch Foods’ anti-fraternization policy. (Doc. 48-8 at 44–45; Doc. 48-16 at 3 ¶ 7). He testified that he did so because of the issues with Mr. Birchfield (doc. 48-16 at 3–4 ¶ 7; doc. 48-8 at 68), and because he was “very unhappy about all of these issues coming up in human resources, and I was ready to get it stopped. . . . [T]hey had gone on for some time with different people, and I was tired of it” (doc. 48-8 at 45). He and an attorney worked on revising that policy through September 2016. (Id. at 3–4 ¶¶ 7– 8).

         While Ms. Collins was working at the debone plant, Koch Foods released its revised anti-fraternization policy. (See Doc. 48-1 at 40). The new anti-fraternization policy provides that “[n]o person in a management or supervisory position shall have a romantic or dating relationship with an employee whom he or she directly supervises or whose terms or conditions of employment he or she may influence.” (Doc. 48-2 at 25). It also specifically “prohibits employees who work in the human resources department from dating or having any type of romantic or sexual relationship with any other employee who works at the same facility or complex regardless of whether or not the human resources employee has direct managerial or supervisory authority over the employee.” (Id. at 26). The policy states that “one of the individuals involved in the relationship may be subject to transfer or termination of employment.” (Id. at 25). Ms. Collins and Mr. Gill’s relationship was a clear violation of the revised anti-fraternization policy. Mr. Elrod testified that after finalizing the revised anti-fraternization policy, he asked Ms. Collins to sign it and to distribute it among Koch Foods’ other employees, but she did not complete either task. (Doc. 48-8 at 5).

         Around the same time, Koch Foods hired Michael Carow, a Caucasian man, to be the Complex Human Resources Manager. (Doc. 48-4 at 3). Ms. Collins and Mr. Gill continued their relationship, each working in a different plant.

         Mr. Carow resigned as the Complex Human Resources Manager eight months later. (Doc. 48-8 at 59–60; Doc. 48-10 at 9). He later took on the newly-created position of Human Resources Director. (Doc. 48-4 at 24). Ms. Collins applied to replace Mr. Carow as the Complex Human Resources Manager. (Doc. 48-8 at 59). Mr. Carow, tasked with finding his own replacement for the Complex Human Resources Manager position, testified that he received Ms. Collins’ application but he did not interview her. (Doc. 48-4 at 35–36). He testified that he did not make a hiring decision until later, but he knew when he received her application that she was involved with Mr. Gill and would not be qualified for the position. (Id.).

         On July 3, 2017, Mr. Gill was promoted to become the Plant Manager of both plants[2] (doc. 48-4 at 61–62; doc. 48-9 at 14), although the plants were not officially ...


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