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

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

September 24, 2019

KENNETH J. GAMBLE, Plaintiff,
v.
MERCEDES-BENZ U.S. INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          JOHN H. ENGLAND, III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Kenneth J. Gamble (“Gamble” or “Plaintiff) brings this employment discrimination action against Defendant Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (“MBUSI” or “Defendant”). (Doc. 1). MBUSI has moved for summary judgment on Gamble’s sole claim. (Doc. 22). Gamble opposes this motion, (doc. 28), and MBUSI has filed a reply brief in response, (doc. 30). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for review. (Docs. 23, 28 & 30). For the reasons stated more fully below, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 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.” “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 proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. (citation and internal 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-moving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party’s favor). Any factual disputes will be resolved in Plaintiff’s favor when sufficient competent evidence supports Plaintiff’s version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276-78 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party’s favor when that party’s version of the events is supported by insufficient evidence). 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) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mtn. Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 836 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 the 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).

         IT. Summary Judgment Facts

         A. Background and MBUSI Policies

         MBUSI operates an automotive manufacturing facility in Vance, Alabama. (Declaration of David Olive, doc. 24-1 (“Olive Decl.) at ¶ 2). Gamble, a former employee of MBUSI, first began working there on March 1, 1999. (Deposition of Kenneth J. Gamble, doc. 24-5 (“Gamble Depo.”) at 7 (23:2-4)). During the time relevant to this case, Gamble worked as a maintenance team member at MBUSI. (Gamble Depo. at 7 (24:12-20)). Gamble worked under a group leader, Scotty Morris (“Morris”), and a manager, Scott McCall (“McCall”)). (Gamble Depo. at 8 (27:8-17)). Prior to the incident at issue in this case, Gamble had never been disciplined. (Declaration of Kenneth J. Gamble, doc. 29-2 (“Gamble Decl.”) at ¶ 5; Deposition of David Olive, doc. 24-2 (“Olive Depo.”) at 16 (60:8-10)). Gamble was evaluated yearly and received very favorable evaluations each year of his employment with MBUSI, and his supervisors considered him to be honest. (Gamble Depo. at 8 (26:17-27:4, 28:20-29:7); Gamble Decl. at ¶ 4; Olive Depo. at (41:9-14), (60:5-7); Deposition of Scotty Morris, doc. 24-6 (“Morris Depo.”) at 4 (10:14-11:2)).

         MBUSI has an Equal Employment Opportunity Policy which prohibits discrimination or retaliation. (Gamble Depo. at 8 (25:1-15), 32 (Exh. 1)). Under that policy, team members can bring their concerns about discrimination or retaliation to MBUSI’s Human Resources (“HR”) Department. (Gamble Depo. at 32 (Exh. 1)). MBUSI also has a team member handbook containing this policy; the handbook is available to all team members via MBUSI’s intranet and at kiosks located in the atria at MBUSI’s facility. (Olive Depo. at 8 (25:13-26:8) 10 (33:3-34:2)).

         MBUSI’s Team Relation Regulation, HR06, addresses discipline and Corrective Performance Reviews. (Olive Depo. at 10 (34:7-37:3), 37-44 (Exh. 1)). This regulation applies to all managerial and non-managerial employees. (Olive Depo. at 8 (25:13-26:13)). HR06 contains a “Concerns Resolution” framework, designed “to establish a formal system to receive, review and resolve all work related suggestions, misunderstandings or disagreements . . . .” (Olive Depo. at 38-40 (Exh. 1)). The Concerns Resolution procedure suggests that team members with concerns first raise them with their supervisor; if the concern is not resolved, the team member should contact his or her HR Representative. (Id.).

         Among other conduct, HR06 prohibits “[e]ngaging in harassment of any kind.” (Olive Depo. at 10 (34:9-35:4), 38-40 (Exh. 1)). This offense is one of several that MBUSI describes as “so serious, severe, or unacceptable that it is outside the realm of a corrective performance review and employment may be terminated or temporarily suspended on the first incident.” (Olive Depo. at 41 (Exh. 1)). To “determine the correct actions needed to prevent recurrence” of conduct subject to a Corrective Performance Review, HR06 indicates MBUSI will “[e]valuate the circumstances of the situation, ” “[d]etermine levels and types of corrective performance reviews and actions as business needs warrant, ” and “[b]ase determinations on a case-by-case basis.” (Id.). And the regulation states that MBUSI considers the following in coming to an actual determination: the seriousness of the action, contributing circumstances, prior work record, actions taken with other team members in similar situations, intent, effect on fellow team members and/or business interests, and other relevant factors. (Id. at 42 (Exh. 1)).

         Although it generally follows a progressive discipline policy, MBUSI has a zero-tolerance policy with respect to some behaviors, such as bringing a weapon to work, substance abuse, acts of violence, and using racial slurs; engaging in one of those behaviors results in immediate termination. (Olive Depo. at 8-9 (26:14-17, 29:10-30:10)). Although HR06 facially does not distinguish between racial and sexual harassment, David Olive (“Olive”), MBUSI’s Senior Manager of HR, testified that the company’s zero-tolerance policy with respect to racial harassment, which results in more serious treatment than sexual harassment, stems from the company’s “particular disdain for harassment of a racial nature”; those sorts of incidents are inflammatory to the plant’s workforce. (Olive Depo. at 33 (127:9-128:17)). Olive testified he was unaware of “any racial slurs that have been investigated and found to have been factual” in which MBUSI had chosen any action but termination. (Olive Depo. at 9 (31:11-32:6)). Teresa Works, a Team Relations Representative at the time of the events giving rise to this lawsuit, was also unaware of any racial harassment charges that did not end in the employee’s termination. (Deposition of Teresa Works, doc. 24-3 (“Works Depo.”) at 20 (73:6-9)).

         B. Gamble’s Firing

         At around 2:30 a.m. (late in the shift) on September 4, 2015, Gamble was in the MBUSI maintenance room along with at least two other members of the maintenance team: Eric Sprowl (“Sprowl, ” a black male) and Dennis Finnen (“Finnen, ” a white male). (Gamble Depo. at 11-12 (39:1-41:20, 43:5-8); Olive Decl. at ¶ 7). Gamble heard what he described as “an eruptive multiple people at one time screaming and cackling and making a noise.” (Gamble Depo. at 12 (43:13-16)). The noise was from a group of employees of ARD, a MBUSI subcontractor that works on off-line assembly. (Gamble Depo. at 15 (55:15-20); Gamble Decl. at ¶ 6). ARD’s employees are primarily black, although Gamble testified he did not know the races of the people making the noise. (Gamble Depo. at 16 (57:1-4); Gamble Decl. at ¶¶ 6-7). Someone then asked Gamble “what in the hell were these people screaming about” and he responded: “sounds like a bunch of monkeys in the jungle or monkeys on a vine, ” although he did not recall the exact words he used. (Gamble Depo. at 12 (43:5-44:12), 14 (51:5-14)). Gamble testified he did not mean anything racial by the comments, and they were not directed at Sprowl. (Gamble Depo. at 12-13 (44:16-17, 47:4- 20)). Neither Sprowl nor Finnen said anything to Gamble at the time, nor during the next two nights. (Gamble Decl. at ¶¶ 8-9).

         Three days later, on September 7, 2015, Sprowl sent an email to Morris requesting a meeting “ASAP next week to address and [sic] issue that came up Friday [September 4] evening.” (Morris Depo. at 5 (15:11-16:6); doc. 24-4 at 13). Sprowl stated it was “of the up [sic] most importance, ” but that it could wait until he returned to work the next week.[2] (Doc. 24-4 at 13). When Sprowl returned to work on September 14, 2015, he sent Morris the following email (copying Works):

Scotty,
I wanted to inform you about an incident that happened on Friday, September 4th, 2015 at the end of production.
My teammate Ken Gamble made a "degrading" and "racist" remark about a group of Black, ARD employees. The comment was also very insulting and degrading towards me as well. This has made me very uncomfortable being around Ken at this point. Below are the details of the incident. (Ken Gamble, Dennis Finnen, and me were sitting in the WO26 out-post after production had just stopped for the weekend. As the ARD group was preparing to leave for the night they started getting loud and laughing. Dennis commented that they need to hurry up and leave with the noise. Ken then commented looking at Dennis: "You know how those people are, they are like wild animals swinging in the trees, you can’t teach them how to act no way, they don’t know any better").
Ken did not smile nor did he seem to care that he had just completely insulted me and that group of Black ARD team members. To call a group of people "wild animals" swinging in trees (AKA – monkeys) is completely out of line and I consider it to be "Racist" and it has no place in a professional environment. To think that he will be giving me orders as a Team Leader makes this even worst [sic]. I can’t work with someone that thinks I am an animal and has no regards for my feeling. I won’t be disrespected like this! I want an official complaint filed with HR. I spoke with Dennis about the incident, he agreed that it was wrong and it embarrassed and offended him as well.

(Doc. 24-4 at 14) (emphasis in original).

         Morris met with Sprowl privately after receiving this email. (Morris Depo. at 6-7 (18:21-19:12)). Sprowl seemed upset to Morris, and indicated he wanted to file a complaint with HR.[3](Id.). After meeting with Sprowl, Morris informed Works that Sprowl would like to speak with her. (Id.). Sprowl then completed a formal complaint in which he restated the content of his email, again characterizing Gamble’s statement as: “You know how those people are, they are like wild animals swinging in the trees, you can’t teach them how to act no way, they don’t know any better.” (Olive Decl. at ¶ 4; doc. 24-1 at 9).

         Works, whose responsibility was to find out the facts surrounding the incident, began an investigation. (Works Depo. at 7-11 (21:3-37:7)). Her only role in the investigation was to get the statements; she then turned the information over to her supervisor, Team Relations Manager Zina Cooper (“Cooper”). (Olive Depo. at 5 (14:11-15, 15:2-12), 16 (57:9-22); Works Depo. at 7 (21:3-22:8), 11 (37:3-21), 19 (69:22-72:23)). Works took statements from Finnen and Gamble. Finnen characterized Gamble’s remarks as: “They are just a bunch of monkey’s [sic] you can’t expect any more from them. All they know is swinging from vines.” (Doc. 24-2 at 51). According to his statement, Finnen felt shame for Gamble and bad for Sprowl; Finnen indicated Gamble had “no filter and no compassion.” (Id.). In a subsequent statement, Finnen indicated Gamble had later told him “Boy, I almost messed up, ” to which Finnen had replied “yeh you did.” (Doc. 24- 5). Gamble’s statement indicated he had said “something like (do not know exact words) sound like a bunch of Monkey’s [sic].” (Gamble Depo. at 16 (59:21-60:11)). 59 (Exh. 9)). Works also met with Gamble on September 15, 2015. (Gamble Depo. at 57 (Exh. 7)). According to Works’s notes, Gamble told Works he “was thinking that the sounds were like on a movie, noise in a jungle, and I said, ‘Sounds like a bunch of monkeys.’” (Id.). Gamble said “Eric [Sprowl] is a great guy . . . I think the world of Eric and he is the last person I would want to offend.” (Id.). Gamble also told Works he did not know if the people making the noises were black or white. (Id.). Works did not investigate whether any of the employees making noise had heard Gamble’s comments. (Works Depo. at 8 (28:1-10); Olive Depo. at 34-35 (132:16-133:1)). Works made no recommendation regarding discipline for Gamble and had no role in the decision to discharge Gamble. (Works Depo. at 11 (37:3-10)).

         MBUSI initially suspended Gamble pending the completion of the investigation. (Gamble Depo. at 13 (48:8-15)). On September 17, 2015, Olive called Gamble to tell him that Olive would be back in touch with the company’s decision. (Gamble Depo. at 18 (65:6-22)). Investigating the incident, Cooper reviewed the statements gathered by Works and prepared an investigation summary report. (Olive Decl. at ¶ 5; doc. 24-1 at 11). The report concluded “[t]he comment reported as being offensive was corroborated by the witness and the accused.” (Doc. 24-1 at 11). Cooper recommended to Olive that Gamble be discharged for violating HR06. (Olive Decl. at ¶ 6). Olive considered the HR06 factors-the seriousness of the action, contributing circumstances, prior work record, action taken with other team members, intent, effect on fellow team members, and other relevant factors-and decided to terminate Gamble. (Olive Depo. at 16-17 (59:12-63:2), 20-21 (74:7-10, 76:7-77:7); 34 (129:15-130:2)). Olive testified this was consistent with MBUSI’s past practice: specifically, that he could not find an incident where a team member had made a racially offensive remark, corroborated by witnesses and admitted to by the team member, that had not resulted in termination. (Id.).

         On September 18, 2015, Olive recommended to MBUSI’s vice president that Gamble be terminated, and the vice president approved Gamble’s termination the same day. (Id. at 16 (57:11-22); doc. 24-4 at 19). Olive called Gamble that day and told him that he would be terminated. (Gamble Depo. at 17 (65:2-5)). MBUSI issued a Corrective Performance Review to Gamble indicating he had violated HR06 due to “racially derogatory comments” and sent Gamble a letter terminating his employment effective September 18, 2015. (Doc. 24-4 at 18-19). Two days later, Gamble sent an email to MBUSI’s president requesting another chance; Gamble admitted he had made an inappropriate comment but again denied it was meant as a racial remark. (Gamble Depo. at 22 (81:14-19), 68 (Exh. 14).

         C. The ...


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