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Grace v. Centerpoint Energy, Inc.

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

October 16, 2017

ARTHEA GRACE PLAINTIFF
v.
CENTERPOINT ENERGY, INC. AND JOHN DOES 1-5 DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          CARLTON W. REEVES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In 2004, CenterPoint Energy, Inc. hired Arthea Grace as a service technician.[1] In 2015, CenterPoint fired Grace on the grounds that she violated a company rule by having “falsified company records.”[2] Grace has disputed this justification, claiming that CenterPoint actually fired her because she is a black woman.[3] Grace brought a Title VII employment discrimination claim to remedy this alleged wrong.[4] At the conclusion of discovery, CenterPoint moved for summary judgment.[5] For the reasons stated below, that motion is DENIED.

         I. Background

         The analysis for a Title VII discrimination claim is straightforward. First, Grace must establish a prima facie case that her firing was motivated by “a protected factor.”[6] If Grace establishes this case, then the burden shifts to CenterPoint to produce evidence that Grace's firing was based on a “legitimate nondiscriminatory reason.”[7] If CenterPoint meets this burden, then Grace must prove that this reason was merely “a pretext for discrimination.”[8]

         CenterPoint's motion for summary judgment makes only one argument: that Grace has failed to establish her prima facie case.[9] That motion does not argue that CenterPoint has produced evidence showing that Grace's firing was based on a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason. Nor does it argue that Grace has failed to prove that reason was a pretext for discrimination. This Court's only duty, then, is to determine if CenterPoint has shown there is no “genuine dispute” of any “material fact” as to whether Grace has established her prima facie case.[10]

         II. Has Grace Established Her Prima Facie Case?

         In a work-rule violation case like this one, Grace can establish her prima facie case in two ways.[11] First, Grace can show that she “did not violate” the relevant rule.[12] Second, if Grace did violate that rule, she must show that “similarly situated” employees not in the protected class “were not punished similarly.”[13] The discussion below assesses if Grace has made either showing.

         A. Did Grace Violate The Relevant Rule?

         CenterPoint argues that Grace indisputably violated the relevant rule - that is, the rule that CenterPoint fired her for breaking. In its briefings, CenterPoint suggests that Grace was fired for a host of rule violations, including a “failure to perform a gas leak investigation” and “expos[ing] CenterPoint's customer, a pregnant woman, to potential injury or death.”[14] But CenterPoint's own exhibits indicate that the company justified Grace's firing on a single ground: falsifying company documents.[15] Grace allegedly violated a rule banning such falsification in March 2015 when she submitted documents to CenterPoint to resolve a report of a gas leak.[16]

         Grace states that she did not falsify any company documents. To support her claim, she has given highly detailed testimony regarding what occurred during the relevant leak investigation. That testimony is as follows.[17]

         In the early hours of March 31, 2015, a CenterPoint dispatcher tasked Grace with investigating a reported gas leak. Grace knew the reported leak was located in a gated community, and asked the dispatcher for the gate code. The dispatcher informed her that he did not have the code because CenterPoint's “computers were down” - a claim verified by internal records submitted to this Court by CenterPoint.[18] The dispatcher told Grace to drive to the leak without a gate code, and that he would “see what [he could] do” to get her past the locked gate.

         Upon arrival at the gated community, Grace spent half an hour attempting to get beyond the locked gate. During this time, the dispatcher suggested the leak report was “old” and “left over” in the system, and “probably wasn't a leak” because a prior CenterPoint technician had “probably” turned off the gas at the residence. The dispatcher “question[ed] the validity” of the leak report, saying it was “probably an error.” Grace concluded that there was not an active leak at the location. She left the entrance of the gated community an hour after being tasked with the leak report, and returned home to take care of her sick children.

         CenterPoint requires technicians to resolve leak reports by entering one of three options into their computer system: no leak found, leak found, or leak repaired. About three hours after leaving the entrance to the gated community, [19] Grace entered “no leak found” into CenterPoint's computer system, along with the notation that she “didn't have any access” to the location of the reported leak. CenterPoint's own exhibits verify that Grace resolved the leak report by entering “NLF [no leak found] . . . gated community . . . no access” into their computer system.[20]

         CenterPoint does not dispute Grace's story. Instead, they argue that Grace's entry amounts to falsifying a company document. This argument assumes that CenterPoint had a rule that technicians could enter “no leak found” only under certain circumstances, and that such circumstances were not present when Grace her entry.

         This assumption finds no support in the record. Perhaps CenterPoint had a rule that “no leak found” could be entered only after physically examining a gas line, something Grace failed to do. But no evidence has been submitted that indicates what, if any, rules were in place in March 2015 regarding the entry of “no leak found.” The record's silence on the existence of any rule requires this Court to assume that there was no rule about when “no leak found” could be entered.

         On this assumption, Grace may not have lied when she made her entry into CenterPoint's computer system. This conclusion is not changed by Grace's subsequent statement, when confronted by management, that she “kind of dropped the ball” by failing to turn off the gas line upstream of the site of the reported leak.[21] This statement may be an admission that Grace violated a company policy dictating how technicians must act when they cannot access the site of a reported leak.[22] It is not, however, an admission that that she violated CenterPoint's ban on falsifying company documents. This is because Grace's entry did not include a claim that she followed every company policy in responding to the leak. Instead, her entry appears to be an accurate statement of what happened: she did not find a leak because she could not access the reported leak location. Given all this, there is a genuine dispute as to whether Grace established her prima facie case by showing that she did not violate the rule against falsifying company documents.

         B. Were Male Employees Similarly Situated To Grace Not Fired?

         Assuming Grace did violate CenterPoint's ban on falsifying company documents, she still may establish her prima facie case by showing that one or more “similarly situated” employees outside the protected class “were not punished similarly.”[23] To do so, Grace must show that such employees (1) “held the same job or responsibilities, ” (2) “shared the same supervisor or had their employment status determined by the same person, ” (3) had “essentially comparable violation histories, ” and (4) had “nearly identical” rule violations that led to different punishments.[24]

         CenterPoint argues that Grace cannot make these showings because she has provided “no evidence CenterPoint treated any male, non-African American employee more favorably under substantially similar circumstances.”[25] CenterPoint misstates Grace's burden. In alleging both race and gender discrimination, Grace seeks the protection Title VII gives to three distinct classes of employees: black people, women, and black women.[26] To obtain that protection, she need only present evidence that CenterPoint treated her differently from employees who were outside at least one of these classes, not two or more of them.

         Here, Grace has presented evidence that CenterPoint discriminated against her because she was a woman. She has not, however, presented any evidence that CenterPoint discriminated against her because she was black or because she was a black woman.[27] The analysis below is limited accordingly, and will examine how CenterPoint treated “similarly situated” male technicians. That analysis is divided into four parts, each discussing whether Grace has satisfied a particular prong of the “similarly situated” test.

         1. Did The Male Employees Have The Same Job As Grace?

         The first prong requires that Grace show that “similarly situated” male employees “held the same job or responsibilities.”[28] Grace has testified that two “similarly situated” employees - Lance Childers and Gelston McCornell - were, like her, CenterPoint technicians.[29] This testimony is undisputed, and thus satisfies the first prong.

         2. Did The Male Employees And Grace Share The Same Supervisor?

         The second prong requires that Grace show that she and the male employees “shared the same supervisor or had their employment status determined by the same person.”[30] Grace testified that Mr. Childers and Mr. McCornell were, like herself, supervised by CenterPoint Supervisor Allen Smith.[31] This testimony is undisputed, [32] and therefore satisfies the second prong.

         3. Did The Male Employees And Grace Share Essentially ...


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