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Lenoir v. SGS North America, Inc.

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

September 18, 2017



          Sharion Aycock UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Leundrell Lenoir filed his Complaint [1] in this Court on April 13, 2016[1] alleging that his former employer, SGS North America, Inc., racially discriminated against him in his employment and violated his rights protected by the Family Medical Leave Act.[2] Now before the Court is SGS's Motion for Summary Judgment [40] on all of Lenoir's claims. The issues are fully briefed and ripe for review. See [43, 45].

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Factual controversies are resolved in favor of the Plaintiff when both parties submitted evidence of contradictory facts. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). Lenoir, an African American male, started working for SGS as a switchman in July 2013. SGS is a contractor for the Axiall chemical plant in Aberdeen, Mississippi. SGS is primarily responsible for moving rail cars in and out of the plant, and sorting and pulling out select rail cars as needed. As a switchman, Lenoir worked on a three-person team along with a locomotive engineer and a lead man. SGS ran two of these three-person teams at the Aberdeen Axiall plant. Soon after being hired, SGS also trained Lenoir as a locomotive engineer. By all accounts, Lenoir was a good employee with a clean work record at SGS.[3] John Jackson was the Site Supervisor who oversaw SGS operations at the Axial plant on a day to day basis. Brice Dorgan was the Operations Manager over several SGS sites, and was on the Aberdeen site a few days each month.

         In the fall of 2014, fellow SGS employee Landry Hill trained Lenoir to take his place as a rail car inspector. Hill trained Lenoir for a couple of weeks before he left SGS. As an inspector, Lenoir was responsible for checking the brake shoes, tie wheels, hoses, and many other parts of the rail cars. Lenoir was also responsible for filling out and filing the associated inspection forms and documents. In March of 2015, SGS moved Will Curry over to inspector along with Lenoir. The idea was that Lenoir and Curry would work together to perform all the inspections as a team, a second inspector was needed due to the workload, and that Curry would cover for Lenoir when he went out for a planned double hernia surgery. Lenoir trained Curry, and got him up to speed on the job by the time Lenoir went on leave for surgery in April 2015.

         On April 9, 2015, Lenoir had surgery to repair the double hernia. SGS approved Lenoir for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, and Lenoir filed all the necessary paperwork with Human Resources. On May 19, 2015, Lenoir's doctor gave him approval to return to work on light-duty with a lifting restriction of 20 pounds. Lenoir wanted to return to work, and believed he could perform his inspection duties with the restriction, but Site Supervisor Jackson told Lenoir that he could not return to work until he was cleared with zero restrictions. While out on leave, Lenoir's co-worker, Cummings, informed him that SGS was planning to replace him with a former employee that wanted to come back, J.J. Mooneyham, a white male.

         Lenoir's doctor cleared him to return to work with no restrictions on May 29, 2015. Lenoir returned to work the following Monday, June 1, 2015. According to Lenoir, Jackson's attitude towards him changed dramatically for the worse when he returned to work after his surgery. Upon his return to work, Jackson informed Lenoir that if he could not do the job, he would be replaced by Mooneyham. Also on June 1, 2015, SGS took on a new contract to make some repairs to the rail cars such as changing brake shoes, replacing hoses, and various clips, hangars, etc. The inspectors, Lenoir and Curry, were responsible for making these repairs in addition to their inspection duties. Although the extent and timing is not clear, Lenoir had at least some experience and training, possibly from Hill, on how to perform these repairs.

         On Monday June 8, 2015, Lenoir and Curry were in Jackson's office sitting across the desk from him. Jackson had a length of rope leftover from a safety training exercise. According to Lenoir and Curry, Jackson tied the rope into a noose and held it up in front of Curry and Lenoir. Jackson then leaned back in his chair and made a “popping” noise with his mouth. Lenoir was greatly distressed and told Jackson “I don't play like that, you don't do that to a black man” and left the office. Lenoir and Curry discussed the incident. Lenoir was afraid to report the incident because he was already afraid of losing his job to Mooneyham. Although he was informed that SGS had an official harassment policy when hired, Lenoir did not remember the policy and did not report the incident to the human resources department in Louisiana.[4] In his deposition, Jackson admitted to knowing the offensive symbolism of the noose, especially to African Americans in the South, but denied tying the noose. Lenoir did his best to avoid Jackson for the next few days.

         On Wednesday June 10, 2015, Operations Manager Dorgan arrived at the Aberdeen Axial site for his monthly visit. While Lenoir was taking a break in the scale house, Dorgan and Jackson approached the scale house and observed Lenoir leaning back in his chair with his sunglasses on. Dorgan and Jackson accused Lenoir of sleeping when he was supposed to be working. Dorgan and Jackson gave Lenoir a disciplinary write up for the incident. According to Lenoir, he was not asleep, he was only in the scale house for 15 or 20 minutes, employees often took their breaks in the scale house, and it was normal for inspectors to take lengthy breaks sometimes depending on their workload.

         On Thursday June 11, 2015, Dorgan was again on site. Dorgan and Jackson performed an audit on some of the cars Lenoir and Curry inspected and repaired the previous week. According to Dorgan and Jackson, four of the repairs Lenoir and Curry claimed to have made were not performed or were not done properly. Lenoir disputes their finding, but admits that he missed a strap on one hose. Dorgan and Jackson fired Lenoir the following day for falsifying documentation, specifically, for reporting repairs as complete that were not. SGS hired Mooneyham to replace Lenoir in the inspector position.

         After filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and receiving a right-to-sue letter, Lenoir filed this suit. In his Amended Complaint [23], Lenoir alleges that SGS harassed, discriminated, and retaliated against him based on his race, and retaliated against him for taking FMLA leave. SGS now requests summary judgment in its favor on all of Lenoir's claims.

         Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 governs summary judgment. Summary judgment is warranted when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). 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 moving party “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 non-movant, “but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little, 37 F.3d at 1075. 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).

         Lenoir asserts three race discrimination claims under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and one claim under the FMLA. Lenoir's race claims are (1) that his termination was racially discriminatory, (2) that he was terminated in retaliation for engaging in an activity protected by Title VII, and (3) that his work environment was racially hostile. Lenoir's final claim is that he was terminated in retaliation for taking FMLA leave.

         Race Discrimination - Termination

         To succeed on a claim for racial discrimination under Title VII or 42 U.S.C. § 1981, a plaintiff must first prove a prima facie case either through direct evidence of discriminatory motive, or circumstantial evidence under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973); Lee v. Conecuh Cty. Bd. of Ed., 634 F.2d 959, 961-62 (5th Cir. 1981); Mason v. United Air Lines, Inc., 274 F.3d 314, 318 (5th Cir. 2001).

         Direct evidence is evidence that, if believed, proves the fact of discriminatory animus without inference or presumption. Harry v. Dallas Hous. Auth., 662 F. App'x 263, 266 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing Sandstad v. CB Richard Ellis, Inc., 309 F.3d 893, 897 (5th Cir. 2002). In the Title VII context, direct evidence includes any statement or document that shows on its face that an improper criterion served as a basis for the adverse employment action. Id.

         To establish a prima facie case of discrimination using circumstantial evidence under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff must show that he (1) was a member of a protected group; (2) was qualified for his position; (3) suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) was replaced by someone outside of his protected group. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817; Giles v. City of Dallas, 539 F. App'x 537, 543 (5th Cir. 2013); Wheeler v. BL Dev. Corp., 415 F.3d 399, 405 (5th Cir. 2005).

         If a plaintiff establishes a presumption of discrimination by establishing a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 142, 120 S.Ct. 2097; Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254-56, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981). The burden on the employer “is one of production, not persuasion; it ‘can involve no credibility assessment.'” Reeves, ...

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