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Graham v. VT Halter Marine, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

July 21, 2014




BEFORE THE COURT is Defendant VT Halter Marine, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment [39]. Plaintiff Abraham Graham has filed a Response [43], and Defendant VT Halter Marine, Inc. has filed a Rebuttal [45]. Having considered the parties' submissions, the record, and relevant legal authorities, the Court is of the opinion that Defendant VT Halter Marine, Inc. is entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to each claim asserted by Plaintiff.


A. Factual Background

In October 2010, Plaintiff Abraham Graham ("Plaintiff"), who is African-American, began working as a welder in a weld shop at Defendant VT Halter Marine, Inc.'s ("Defendant") Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard. Dep. of Pl. Abraham Graham ("Pl.'s Dep.") 58:20-24 [39-1]. Plaintiff's immediate supervisor was David Rawls. Id. at 91:14-25 [39-1]. Plaintiff was normally assigned to work in the weld shop but on occasion would be directed to work inside of vessels. Id. at 91:14-20 [39-1]. The majority of Plaintiff's complaints in this case are directed toward Rawls. Id. at 94:16-19, 102:6-9 [39-1]. Plaintiff recalls that Rawls constantly observed and remarked upon the work Plaintiff was doing, complained about the length of time the welders remained on break, followed Plaintiff to the restroom, refused to grant black workers excused absences, and had a habit of "running off" black workers. Id. at 94:22-96:12 [43-2]. According to Plaintiff, Rawls' supervisor, Wayne Stokes, would often simply agree with what Rawls said or did. Id. at 113:14-22 [39-1]. Plaintiff acknowledges, however, that Rawls' treatment did not prevent Plaintiff from performing and excelling as a welder. Id. at 92:22-93:23 [39-1].

On the night of September 15, 2011, while Plaintiff and several other welders were beginning their night shift on a barge in which they had been assigned work, another welder discovered a noose. Id. at 109:15-110:4 [39-1]. On the morning of September 16, 2011, Lisa Fallon, Defendant's Director of Human Resources, began an internal investigation by obtaining statements from the welder who discovered the noose and from the supervisors of the day shift which ended immediately prior to the discovery of the noose. Decl. of Lisa Fallon ("Fallon Decl.") ¶¶ 4-5 [39-3]. On September 19, 2011, however, two more nooses were found in the barge's "hole." Pl.'s Dep. 110:5-10 [39-1]. At this point, Plaintiff and the members of the weld shop who were assigned to the barge walked off the job. Id. at 111:22-25.

On September 20, 2011, Defendant ordered twenty-four hour security to be posted at the barge, and Defendant's chief executive officer, Bill Skinner, held a meeting with the members of Plaintiff's work crew to discuss the incidents and Defendant's response. Fallon Decl. ¶7 [39-3]. That same day, Defendant distributed a written memorandum to all shipyard workers condemning the noose incidents as violations of Defendant's harassment policy and informing them that an investigation was underway to identify and terminate those responsible. Fallon Decl. ¶7, Ex. 6 [39-3]. Defendant paid the entire work crew for an eight hour shift for the night of September 19, 2011. Pl.'s Dep. 113:18-114:1 [39-1]. On September 23, 2011, Mr. Skinner met with a third-party professional investigation service to have another, parallel investigation conducted into the incidents. Fallon Decl. ¶10 [39-3]. Although the individual(s) who were responsible for the nooses were never identified, no similar incidents have occurred since September 19, 2011. Id. at ¶13 [39-3], Pl.'s Dep. 126:16-19 [39-1], 128:22-129:5 [42-3].

On February 7, 2012, over four and one-half months later, Plaintiff had a cellular telephone with him while at work and answered a call in front of Rawls. Pl.'s Dep. 132:12-18 [39-1]. Plaintiff claims that he needed his telephone and had to take the call because his wife is legally blind and had been sick. Id. at 132:2-11 [39-1]. Plaintiff was aware that Defendant's policies clearly prohibited him from having or using a cellular telephone while at work. Id. at 82:2-5, 84:2-20, 85:1-4 [39-1]. Plaintiff understood this policy. Id. Defendant suspended Plaintiff for three days as a result of this violation of policy. Id. at 131:18-132:1 [39-1].

Defendant also had a policy of requiring employees such as Plaintiff to call in when they knew they would not be able to come to work on a particular day. Pl.'s Dep. 79:4-19 [39-1]. On Friday, February 10, 2012, the day he was due to return from suspension, Plaintiff called Defendant's human resources department pursuant to the call-in policy and spoke with Delores Perry, a file clerk in the department. Pl.'s Dep. 139:21-140:25 [39-1], Dep. of Delores Perry ("Perry Dep.") 5:19-23 [39-18]. Plaintiff informed Perry that he needed to stay at home to care for his wife and would not be present for work that day. Pl.'s Dep. 139:21-25 [39-1], Perry Dep. 7:4-11, 9:7-15 [39-18]. Plaintiff, however, did not return to work the following Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, and he acknowledged that he did not use the call-in procedure on any one of those days to notify Defendant because Plaintiff had heard an unsubstantiated rumor that he had been terminated.[1] Pl.'s Dep. 142:5-143:23 [39-1].

According to Iris Favre, Defendant's policy, which is explained to individuals who will be working at the shipyard, is that "a three-day no call is considered a resignation." Dep. of Iris Favre ("Favre Dep.") 69:9-11 [39-19]; see also VT Halter Marine, Inc. Orientation Checklist 2 [39-5] ("Attendance Notification:... Three (3) consecutive days of unreported absences will be considered a voluntary resignation."). Plaintiff was aware of and understood this policy. Pl.'s Dep. 68:25-69:4 [39-1]. Taking Plaintiff's failure to communicate for three consecutive days that he would not be at work as an abandonment of his job, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment on February 16, 2012. Favre Decl. ¶8 [39-5]. On April 23, 2012, Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") asserting Defendant had wrongfully discriminated against him on the basis of his race. Fallon Decl. ¶17, Ex. 20 [39-4]. The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter on July 30, 2012. Id. at Ex. 20 [39-4].

B. Procedural History

On October 29, 2012, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this case advancing claims for race-based disparate treatment, hostile work environment, and retaliation pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§2000e-1 to -2000e-17, along with state law claims for emotional distress.[2] Defendant now moves for summary judgment on the basis that Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case with respect to any of his Title VII claims. Br. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. 15-16, 18-22 [40]. Defendant further maintains that the evidence is insufficient to support a hostile work environment claim, and that it had legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for suspending and terminating Plaintiff. Id. at 16-17, 22-24 [40]. In Response [43], Plaintiff contends he was forced to work in a hostile work environment due to the noose incidents, the alleged scrutiny he received after the walk out, and harassment he allegedly experienced at the shipyard's security gate. Mem. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. 4-9 [43]. Plaintiff argues that he has established a prima facie case of discrimination based on race and retaliation stemming from the walk out and resulting investigation, and that jury questions exist related to the explanation Defendant has provided for its actions. Id. at 13-18, 22-24 [43].


A. Legal ...

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