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Brown v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.

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

July 22, 2015

ERIC BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
COOPER TIRE & RUBBER COMPANY, and T.K. GROUP, INC., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHARION AYCOCK, District Judge.

Plaintiff Eric Brown initiated this action against his employer Cooper Tire & Rubber Company ("Cooper Tire") and its third party contractor T.K. Group, Inc. ("T.K. Group"), alleging claims against both Defendants under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and against T.K. Group under Mississippi law for tortious interference with contract and negligence. Both Cooper Tire and T.K. Group have filed motions for summary judgment [64, 66]. Upon consideration of the motions, responses, rules, and authorities, the Court finds as follows:

Facts and Procedural History

While serving in the National Guard, Eric Brown discovered through military hearing tests that he suffered from high frequency hearing loss. Brown later began employment with Cooper Tire at its Tupelo plant as a utility person, filling in for other employees who were absent. Pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA"), Brown and other employees at the Tupelo plant were required to undergo annual hearing tests, or audiograms, in order to determine whether their work environment caused significant hearing loss, known as a standard threshold shift ("STS"). See 29 C.F.R. ยง 1910.95(g). Cooper Tire contracted with T.K. Group to conduct these hearing tests. While at the plant, T.K. Group technicians administered multiple audiograms at one time, having Cooper Tire employees sit in a booth and listen for a "beep" tone over headphones. Employees were instructed to press a button upon hearing the tone.

T.K. Group conducted Brown's first audiogram in October 2011 without incident. Brown's next audiogram was conducted by T.K. Group technicians James Younglove and Barbara Younglove on October 4, 2012. Monica Hauss, the Workers' Compensation Specialist in the human resources department at the Tupelo plant and primary contact person for T.K. Group, testified that following Brown's test, one of the technicians informed her that Brown's results were "all over the board, " and that this was an indication that he was repeatedly pressing the button. Hauss asserts that she and the technician agreed Brown should be retested. However, Barbara Younglove denies ever talking with Hauss, and James Younglove testified that he never communicated the content of Brown's results to Hauss.

In any event, it is undisputed that Cooper Tire decided to proceed with a retest of Brown, which took place on October 9, 2012 and was conducted by technicians Billy Williams and Janelle Williams. Following the retest, Hauss testified that one of the technicians again stated that Brown's results were "all over the board" and that when this happens, it is usually a sign of someone "constantly hitting the button." Both Billy Williams and Janelle Williams deny making such a statement.

After the retest, Hauss reported the issues with both of Brown's tests to Cole Goodson, the plant's Production Manager, explaining, in Goodson's words, that she and the technicians felt "like he [wa]s falsifying the information... and just hitting the button." Goodson conducted a subsequent investigation into the hearing tests and then terminated Brown on October 22, 2012. Following his termination, Brown requested and was granted a peer review hearing before a panel comprised of other Cooper Tire employees on December 6, 2012. The panel voted to uphold Brown's termination.

After the panel's decision, Brown filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and subsequently received his right-to-sue letter. He commenced this suit in September 2013, alleging that both Defendants discriminated against him on the basis of his hearing impairment in violation of the ADA.[1] Brown also brings claims against T.K. Group under Mississippi law for tortious interference with contract and for negligence. In his response to T.K. Group's Motion for Summary Judgment [66], Brown conceded his ADA claim against T.K. Group, and it is accordingly dismissed. The Court will therefore address the remaining ADA claim against Cooper Tire, before turning to the state-law claims against T.K. Group.

Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when the evidence reveals both that there is no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and that 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 (quotation and 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). When such contradictory facts exist, the Court may "not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). Importantly, conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1997); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

Discussion and Analysis

Disability Discrimination

Brown claims Cooper Tire illegally discriminated against him by terminating him because of his hearing impairment. The ADA makes it unlawful for an employer to "discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job ...


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