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Willis v. Cleco Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 8, 2014

GREGORY WILLIS, Plaintiff-Appellant
CLECO CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellee

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

For Gregory Willis, Plaintiff - Appellant: Larry English, English & Associates, L.L.C., New York, NY.

For Cleco Corporation, Defendant - Appellee: Charles H. Hollis, Heather F. Crow, Kullman Firm, New Orleans, LA.

Before DAVIS, GARZA, and DENNIS, Circuit Judges. JAMES L. DENNIS, Circuit Judge, concurring in part, dissenting in part.


Page 315

EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judge

Gregory Willis (" Willis" ), who is an African-American, filed suit against his former employer, Cleco Corporation (" Cleco" ), alleging race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. After two rounds of motions, the district court granted summary judgment to Cleco on all of Willis's claims. On appeal, Willis raises three points of error. First, he argues that his retaliation claims, based on a Disciplinary Warning and being placed on a Work Improvement Plan, should not have been dismissed because he raised a genuine dispute of material fact concerning his supervisor's retaliatory motive. Second, he asserts that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on his wrongful termination claim because he offered summary judgment evidence tending to show that the stated reasons for his

Page 316

termination were merely pretext for discrimination. Lastly, he contends that the district court should have reconsidered its wrongful termination ruling based on his request, which was couched within a memorandum of law submitted in opposition to Cleco's second motion for summary judgment. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM in part, REVERSE in part, and REMAND for further proceedings.


Willis worked in Cleco's Human Resources department as a Senior Human Resources Representative. At all times relevant to this appeal, he was supervised by Ed Taylor (" Taylor" ), Manager of Human Resources. Taylor reported to John Melancon (" Melancon" ), the general Manager of Human Resources. Two years before his eventual termination, Willis reported to senior Cleco officials that he overheard a racially hostile conversation between Robyn Cooper (" Cooper" ), a Cleco employee, and Melancon. Willis was standing outside Cooper's office when he heard Cooper assert that African-American students at a local historically black college were " dumb" and " lazy," just like the current African-Americans working for Cleco. According to Willis, Melancon remained silent when he heard Cooper make this statement. Willis claims that reporting this incident created significant retaliatory animus against him, which was the true motivation for a subsequent Disciplinary Warning, being placed on a remedial Work Improvement Plan, and his eventual termination.

Two weeks after reporting Cooper's statement, Willis sent an email to twenty-four other Cleco employees informing them that another employee's son had been hospitalized because of an overdose on a large volume of pills. That other employee, James Eli (" Eli" ), allegedly informed Taylor that he did not authorize the email and that its dissemination caused him significant distress. Willis, however, claims he sent the message with Eli's permission. Thereafter, Taylor issued a formal Disciplinary Warning to Willis by placing a letter in his personnel file on April 16, 2007. The letter indicated that the Disciplinary Warning was based on Willis's mass distribution of a co-worker's private information, lack of good judgment, and lack of respect for others. Willis claims that these proffered justifications are merely pretext for retaliatory animus resulting from his earlier report.

Several months after the Disciplinary Warning, Willis was placed on a " Work Improvement Plan" by Taylor. Taylor alleges he took this step because Willis's job performance was inadequate during the first half of 2007. According to Cleco, a Work Improvement Plan is a developmental tool used to assist an employee in meeting performance standards. Willis claims that Work Improvement Plans are essentially punitive, because they factor negatively into an employee's promotion and salary-increase calculations. Taylor claims his implementation of a Work Improvement Plan for Willis was necessary because Willis made recurring mistakes, missed meetings, and inefficiently managed an important hiring initiative. Willis, on the other hand, claims that he was actually placed on the Work Improvement Plan in retaliation for his earlier reporting of Cooper's racially hostile statements in conversation with Melancon.

The next year, Willis helped a personal acquaintance, Franklin Sylvia (" Sylvia" ), obtain a job with Cleco. Sylvia is biracial. A number of months into his employment, Sylvia called Willis to ask a work-related question. During the call, Sylvia claims that Willis made ...

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