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Ruth v. Eka Chemicals, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

February 17, 2015


Page 527

For Steve G. Ruth, Plaintiff: Philip C. Hearn, LEAD ATTORNEY, HEARN LAW FIRM, Jackson, MS.

For Eka Chemicals, Inc., Defendant: Scott Fuller Singley, LEAD ATTORNEY, BRUNINI, GRANTHAM, GROWER & HEWES - Columbus, Columbus, MS.

Page 528



Plaintiff Steve Ruth initiated this action, alleging that his employer Eka Chemicals, Inc. (" Eka" ) violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (" ADEA" ) by terminating him because of his age. Eka has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [32]. Upon consideration of the motion, responses,[1] rules, and authorities, the Court finds as follows:

Factual and Procedural Background

Steve Ruth was employed with Eka for seventeen years as a Chief Technician at one of two sodium chlorate plants in Columbus, Mississippi. While off duty in 2007, Ruth stepped into a sinkhole, severely injured his ankle, and underwent surgery as a result. He took disability leave for two months while recovering. Then in 2011, Ruth began to experience problems with the same ankle, requiring additional surgery.

Following the second surgery, Ruth took leave under Eka's short term disability policy. The terms of the policy dictated that Ruth was to receive a certain level of disability compensation for the first sixteen weeks of leave, and then a reduced level of compensation for up to ten weeks thereafter. When the first sixteen weeks expired, Ruth returned to work, but with several physical restrictions imposed by both his personal physician and a nurse practitioner that commonly receives referrals from Eka.

Eka allowed Ruth to maintain his work restrictions by assisting in the training of another employee, Michael Sanderson, in the Chief Technician position. After Sanderson's training was complete, Ruth met with the Sodium Chlorate Production Manager, Atwell Daves, who explained that Ruth's restrictions would need to be lifted if he wished to continue working at Eka. According to Ruth, Daves also informed him that should he be forced to go on disability leave for his ankle injury a second time, Ruth would receive a reduced level of compensation under Eka's disability policy. Ruth finally asserts that Daves " harassed" him during this meeting by stating: " you've had a couple of surgeries in the last couple of years . . . . it's costing this company." The next day, because his restrictions were still imposed, Ruth began another period of leave.

Both Daves and the Columbus Site Manager, Tim Mayo, assert that during that time, they learned that Ruth participated in activities that allegedly exceeded the imposed physical work restrictions, such as playing golf and coaching softball. Mayo contacted Eka's third-party insurance plan administrator CIGNA, which commissioned an independent investigation to confirm these activities.

While the investigation was ongoing, the majority of Ruth's restrictions were lifted, and he returned to work. Shortly thereafter, Lisa Winstead, the Human Resources Coordinator, learned that throughout the entirety of Ruth's leave, he received the full level of disability income despite the terms of the policy that stated the income payments were to be reduced to sixty-five percent after sixteen weeks. A few days after that, Eka received CIGNA's investigative report, which Eka contends confirmed

Page 529

that Ruth exceeded his physical work restrictions while on leave.

Mayo asserts that after receiving the report, he along with Daves and the Vice President of Human Resources, Steve Shiflet, all agreed that Ruth's receipt of disability overpayments and participation in activities that exceeded his physical restrictions warranted termination. Mayo communicated the decision to Ruth on August 20, 2014. Eka subsequently conducted internal interviews and hired Sanderson, Ruth's former trainee, to fill the vacant position.

Following his separation with Eka, Ruth filed this lawsuit, solely contending that Eka discriminated against him based on his age, which was forty-nine at the time of his termination.

Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule " 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, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment " bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then " go beyond the pleadings" and " designate 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, " but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Little v. Liquid Air Corp.,37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts ...

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