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Smith v. Tower Automotive Operations Usa I, LLC

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

December 3, 2013

JOSEPH SMITH AND JOHSUA CARNEY, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWER AUTOMOTIVE OPERATIONS USA I, LLC, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CARLTON W. REEVES, District Judge.

Pending before the Court are Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment Against Plaintiff Smith [Docket No. 42] and Motion for Summary Judgment Against Plaintiff Carney [Docket No. 44]. Plaintiffs have responded in opposition [Docket Nos. 48 & 50], Defendant has replied [Docket Nos. 52 & 53], and the matter is ripe for review. The Motions are GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. Background

This action grows out of Defendant Tower Automotive Operation's ("Tower") adverse employment actions taken against Plaintiffs Joseph "Jody" Smith and Joshua Carney. Each was suspended for sleeping past the time allowed for a lunch break. They then were terminated, when after its investigation, Tower concluded that Smith and Carney filed a false internal complaint accusing one of their supervisors, Terry Koopman, of making racially offensive statements. In other words, Tower contends that the Plaintiffs lied on Koopman because he wrote them up.

Plaintiffs, however, argue that Tower's assertion of cause and effect is wrong. They contend their termination was the result of retaliation by Tower for having accused Koopman of making racially-discriminatory remarks in violation of 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-3(a). See Docket No. 1. The pertinent facts are as follows:

Tower is a manufacturer of structural components and assemblies used by the automotive industry. Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. against Pl. Smith, Docket No. 43, at 2. Plaintiffs, two Caucasian males, were maintenance workers at one of Tower's manufacturing plants located in Meridian, Mississippi. See Mem. in Opp. to Def. Mot. for Summ. J., Docket No. 48, at 1, 3. As maintenance workers, their duty was to make sure cells[1] were properly functioning at all times. Docket No. 42-1, Exhibit A, at 37 (Smith Dep.).

When they were hired, Plaintiffs signed and received employee handbooks. Docket No. 43, at 2. The anti-harassment policy of the employee handbook states that any person that is "the victim of illegal harassment or improper conduct must report it immediately" to the Human Resource (HR) Manager, Jamie Graham, or the Plant Manager, Darnell Montgomery. See id. at 2-3. After Tower is notified of the misconduct or harassment, the policy states that it "will conduct or direct a prompt investigation of the allegations. Upon completion of the investigation, the results will be reviewed by the Plant Manager and/or HR Manager, and any others, as is appropriate, with an appropriate action decided upon." Docket No. 42-4.

The policy also lists examples of conduct for which disciplinary action would be taken:

9. Misrepresentation and/or falsification of records, attendance reports, documents, or any other information used or required by the Company.
* * *
15. Sleeping during working time.
* * *
39. Leaving early and reporting late from designated lunch or break periods.

Docket No. 42-5. Tower reserved the right to discharge an employee, not only for the listed misconduct, but for other misconduct as the list is not "all-inclusive". Id., at 2.

A. Racial Remarks Allegedly Made by Terry Koopman in August, 2011

On or around August 21, 2011, Plaintiffs claim that they heard the production supervisor, Terry Koopman, make racially derogatory statements about black people to a group of white employees in the break room at the plant. Jody Smith's signed statement, which was not turned into HR until September 14, 2011, described the events as follows:

While sitting in the break room on lunch break during the week of August 21-25, Terry Koopman, 3rd shift production supervisor came in the break [room] and joined myself, Josh Carney, Tammy Morgan, and Rob Walsh. Terry made racial remark[s] about the Labor Day jazz festival that was on the table in the break room. The remark was can you imagine all the chicken and barbeque ribs that will be eaten at this thing, you know all them brothers have got to have their barbeque, also said he needed to get him suit of clothes so he can match the brother, all was spoken in street slang. Also on lunch, same people eating together on another night of the same week a remark to the effect that our company picnic would be... about the same as the jazz festival with all the blacks that are going to be there. I hope they cook plenty of chicken.
....
While Terry was leaving the break room, Randy Griffin was coming in and came up to our table while we were discussing what Terry had said, that Terry should watch what he says, Randy over heard this remark and asked what was said and we told him and he agreed that was inappropriate.

Docket No. 49-22. Carney also claimed to have heard Koopman's comments. Docket No. 44-18. Carney did not submit his statement to HR until September 15, 2011. Docket No. 49-17.

Smith's statement also included another incident where he alleges Koopman made comments invoking racist sentiments towards a black employee:

On the week between August 28 - [September, 2011], one of the nights, after getting up from lunch and exiting the break room[, ] Terry Koopman was telling Ethel [Clark, an African-American woman], what he wanted her to move in shipping, she replied that something else was in the way of it and he hastily told her to move what was in the way and get what he wanted, she drove off, he looked at me and said that one there is so stupid the only reason she has a job is because ...

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