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Sanders v. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc.

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

January 28, 2019




         Plaintiff William Eugene Sanders (“Sanders” or “Plaintiff”), who is white, brings suit alleging racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Before the Court is Defendant Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc.'s (“MBUSI”) motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 21.) Sanders has timely filed his opposition. (Doc. 29.) The motion has been briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, MBUSI's motion for summary judgment (doc. 21) is due to be granted.

         I. Background[1]

         MBUSI hired Sanders as a Team Member (“TM”) in March 1997. Sanders was promoted to the Team Leader (“TL”) position in 2003. In 2012, Sanders was moved to a TL position in the KVP Shop. In 2014, Susan Warner (“Warner”) became the manager over the KVP Shop. Because there was no Group Leader (“GL”) in the KVP Shop, Sanders as a TL reported directly to Warner. Warner and Sanders worked well together, and Warner gave Sanders positive evaluations in August 2014 and October 2015. These evaluations noted that Sanders's performance was satisfactory and that he was ready for consideration for advancement to the next level. Due to these evaluations, Warner planned to make Sanders the GL in the KVP shop, once he satisfied certain required assessments.

         As part of the process for a promotion to a GL position, MBUSI collects peer input on the potential GL candidates. In response to MBUSI's request for peer input on Sanders, MBUSI received both solicited and unsolicited feedback about Sanders that included a number of complaints about him. Warner was concerned about these complaints so she spoke with Dwight Barger, Jason Jones, Luke Smith, Jack Avery, and Casey Cook, all of whom are white, about the complaints they made.[2] After speaking to these individuals, Warner then turned these complaints over to Human Resources (“HR”) for investigation. Among the complaints made about Sanders's demeanor, there were specific allegations that Sanders distributed a survey that used racially insensitive language, that Sanders stated he did not want blacks or females working in the shop, and that Sanders would often force people to work overtime and would interfere with other employee's ability to take vacation days.

         Zina Cooper (“Cooper”), Department Manager for Team Relations at MBUSI, initiated an investigation into these allegations. Cooper is African American. As part of her investigation, Cooper interviewed all TMs in the KVP shop. While five of the nine individuals interviewed corroborated the allegations, the remaining four rebutted these complaints. Specifically, Don Shane Flynn and Daniel Wallin, who are both white, stated that they had no recollection of the alleged survey or inappropriate comments that Sanders made. Both also stated they had no complaints about how Sanders treated them. James Snipes, who is white, said he had not heard any inappropriate statements and Randy Channel, who is white, stated that Sanders was the best person he ever worked for. Cooper informed Sanders that she was investigating complaints about him and then suspended him for the remainder of her investigation.

         Cooper's report ultimately found that enough witnesses had confirmed Sanders behavior and suggested termination. However, the alleged survey Sanders supposedly handed out was not found on his personal computer or any MBUSI computer. Cooper presented her report to Sr. Manager David Olive (“Olive”), a white male who had known Sanders since 1997. Olive evaluated the report and discussed it with Cooper. After meeting with Cooper, Olive determined that termination was too severe of a punishment based on the conflicting evidence and the lack of leadership training Sanders had received, which Olive believed may have contributed to some of Sanders's behavior.

         On December 22, 2015, Sanders met with Olive, Cooper, and Warner and was informed that he was being demoted to a TM position in the body shop as a result of the investigation. Sanders was also issued a level 3 Corrective Performance Review (CPR), even though he had not had any prior complaints about his behavior. Given his strong work history and the small number of people complaining, Sanders believed the results of the investigation to be improvident and discriminatory. After a discussion with Warner, Sanders insisted that he would continue his efforts to clear his name.

         In March of 2016, Sanders filed an EEOC charge against MBUSI regarding its investigation into his behavior. Sanders then applied for a Quality TM position in April 2016. Due to his recent discipline, Sanders was not eligible for the position. Plaintiff also asserts that he applied for an X167 project position in 2016 but was not chosen. Almost a year later, in February of 2017, Sanders applied for a Quality SQO position- job posting 1532. In August 2017, Sanders contacted Frank Walls, Jr. (“Walls”) his Team Relations Representative, to ask why he had not heard back from HR on his application for the Quality SQO position.

         Walls then spoke to Valerie Banta (“Banta”), MBUSI's HR Specialist-Employment, about why Sanders had not been interviewed. Banta told Walls that “Sanders did not qualify for the position and that by the way Sanders had a lawsuit that Legal was handling so to be careful what he said.” (Doc. 23-5 ¶7.) Walls then communicated to Sanders Banta's statement “that everything dealing with Sanders had been sent to Legal because Sanders had a lawsuit.” (Doc. 23-6 ¶3.) However, Sanders recollection of this conversation with Walls was that Walls told him that “because [he] had filed a lawsuit against the company, that [he] wasn't eligible for the job; that everything pertaining to [Sanders] had been moved to Legal. [He] wasn't considered for the job because [he] had filed a lawsuit.” (Pl. Dep. at 186.) Ultimately, job posting 1532 for the Quality SQO position was pulled and no one was hired to fill the position. In October of 2017, MBUSI posted an opening for a MPS specialist. Sanders applied for the job but did not get the position. In December 2017, the Quality SQO position was reposted, and Sanders did not apply for the position.

         II. Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact[3] 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.” Id. 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 non-moving 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, 1220 (11th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, Fla., 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).

         III. Discussion

         Title VII prohibits, among other conduct, “discriminat[ion] against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). “[A] plaintiff may use three different kinds of evidence of discriminatory intent: direct evidence, circumstantial evidence or statistical evidence.” Standard v. A.B.E.L. Services, Inc., 161 F.3d 1318, 1330 (11th Cir.1998) (Both ...

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