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Wong v. Lighthouse Point, LLC

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

December 5, 2017

CATHERINE WONG PLAINTIFF
v.
LIGHTHOUSE POINT, LLC d/b/a Trop Casino Greenville DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DEBRA M. BROWN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This employment discrimination action is before the Court on Lighthouse Point's, LLC, motion for summary judgment, Doc. #30, and its motion for partial summary judgment, Doc. #32.

         I

         Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “[s]ummary judgment is proper only when the record demonstrates that no genuine issue of material fact exists and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Luv N' Care Ltd. v. Groupo Rimar, 844 F.3d 442, 447 (5th Cir. 2016). “A factual issue is genuine if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party, and material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., 798 F.3d 222, 226 (5th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). On a motion for summary judgment, a court must “consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor.” Edwards v. Cont'l Cas. Co., 841 F.3d 360, 363 (5th Cir. 2016).

         In seeking summary judgment, “[t]he 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.” Nola Spice Designs, L.L.C. v. Haydel Enters., Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). If the moving party satisfies this burden, “the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). “Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the moving party satisfies this initial burden by demonstrating an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celtic Marine Corp. v. James C. Justice Cos., Inc., 760 F.3d 477, 481 (5th Cir. 2014).

         II

         Factual Background

         A. Wong's Initial Employment with Lighthouse Casino

         Catherine Wong is an Asian American woman who was born in October of 1954. Doc. #35-1 at 5, 22. She attended both Mississippi State University and Delta State University but did not earn a degree from either. Doc. #35-1 at 8.

         In the early 1980s, after moving to Greenville, Mississippi, with her husband, Wong, her husband, and her husband's parents became owners of a Chinese restaurant in Greenville. Id. at 9-10. In addition to the restaurant, Wong ran Riverland Print Works, a t-shirt screen printing business; and Posh Designs, a catering company. Id. at 10-12. In 2007, Wong closed the restaurant and the t-shirt business. Id.

         In January 2008, Wong began working as an assistant manager at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville. Id. at 12; Doc. #35-15 at 3. Approximately three months later, in April of 2008, Wong was hired by Lighthouse Casino to work as a guest relations manager. Doc. #35-1 at 12-13. As a guest relations manager, Wong, who still worked at Doe's, [1] served as a liaison between guests and Tess Ingram, a white woman[2] and the casino's general manager at the time Wong was hired. Id. at 13-14.

         At some point, Lighthouse Casino merged with Jubilee Casino and became Tropicana Casino, also referred to as “the Trop.” Id. at 16, 20. Sometime after this merger, Wong was placed under the supervision of an unnamed male marketing director. Id. at 16-17. In September of 2011, Cheryl Goode, an African American woman, [3] became Tropicana's marketing director. Id. at 18. Goode “constantly tr[ied] to find something wrong with everything that [Wong] did.” Id. at 19. Wong heard from “people” that Goode “did not like white people” and Wong could tell that Goode did not like her because even though she is Asian, she is “considered white.” Id. at 24.

         On a Monday in January 2012, Wong was called into the office of Roslyn Hinton, Tropicana's human resources director. Id. at 18, 20. Hinton and Goode, who was also present, informed Wong that she was being terminated, effective immediately, for failure to follow casino procedure in running a drawing the previous Friday. Id. at 20-21. Wong's employment ended that day. Id. At the time Wong was terminated, Chris Strobbe, a white man, [4] was Tropicana's general manager. Id. at 29.

         Following her termination, Wong suffered from increased stress which she attributes to numerous factors. Doc. #35-1 at 85-86. Approximately three months after her termination, Wong suffered a heart attack caused by high cholesterol. Id. at 87.

         B. Wong's Rehire, and Subsequent Hire of Aleisha Baker

         In November of 2012, Strobbe told a friend of Wong's to tell Wong to call him. Doc. #35-1 at 29. During their first conversation, Strobbe told Wong that he believed she would be “good for the position to be director” of The Greenville Inn and Suites, the hotel attached to Tropicana. Id. at 31; Doc. #31-2 at 26. Wong, who was then 58 years old, accepted Strobbe's offer to work as Director of Hotel VIP Services. See Doc. #35-1 at 38; Doc. #35-2. As director, Wong was responsible for the operations of the hotel, including (1) training, hiring, and firing hotel staff; (2) working with maintenance to fix problems on the property; (3) doing budgets and payroll; and (4) “drumming up business.” Doc. #35-1 at 38, 43.

         On September 16, 2013, Wong, together with Hinton, hired Aleisha Baker, an African American woman born in 1977, to work as a front desk clerk. Doc. #35-3 at 4-5; Doc. #35-1 at 51. Following Baker's hire, Wong oversaw Baker's training on the hotel's reservation system and “how to answer the phone correctly.” Doc. #35-1 at 51.

         C. April 2015 Evaluation and Training of Baker

         On April 9, 2015, Roscoe Green, an African American male[5] who was then working as Tropicana's general manager, completed a “Management Performance Evaluation” of Wong. Doc. #35-5. Wong received scores of “Exceeds Expectations” or “Meets Expectations” in every measured category. Id. Overall, Wong's scores placed her in the “Exceeds Expectations” category. Id.

         Also around April 2015, Wong decided that she needed a supervisor for when the hotel was busy. Doc. #35-1 at 52, 56. She started to “groom” Baker to be her assistant. Id. Specifically, Wong showed Baker office procedures, purchasing, and how to train new employees. Id. at 52- 53.

         D. Hotel Director Position

         On September 8, 2015, Wong sent Hinton an e-mail stating that she had received approval from Green to create a hotel supervisor position to provide supervision when she was away from the hotel. Doc. #35-7. Two days later, on September 10, 2015, Tropicana issued a vacancy announcement for the position of Hotel Supervisor. Doc. #35-16. The duties of the Hotel Supervisor position were described as:

Directly supervises all hotel Front Desk and Housekeeping staff and ensures proper completion of all duties. Directs and coordinates the activities of the front desk, reservations, guest services, and housekeeping areas. Prepare monthly reports and budget for the department.

Id. According to Green, vacancy announcements are posted on “some type of website” which is accessible to employees “as well as anyone applying from the outside.” Doc. #35-4 at 17.

         Wong told Baker that she should apply for the new position. Doc. #35-3 at 12. Baker submitted her application on September 11, 2015. See Doc. #35-8. Wong never applied for the Hotel Supervisor position. Doc. #31-2 at 16.

         E. Wong's Termination

         At about the time Green approved the creation of the hotel supervision position, he began to contemplate eliminating Wong's position. Doc. #31-2 at 9-10. According to Green, he made this decision to produce “cost savings” and discussed it with Lighthouse's corporate office, with whom he had been discussing “reorganization/restructuring” since July or August. Id. at 10; Doc. #31-3 at 6.

         At approximately 4:00 p.m. on September 23, 2015, Wong was informed that she needed to see Green. Doc. #31-2 at 9; Doc. #35-1 at 65. After Wong entered Green's office, Green informed her that her position was being terminated. Doc. #35-1 at 67. Green said that Wong was doing “an excellent job;” it was “just corporate terminating … the position.” Id.

         Karen Spencer, a white woman and then human resources secretary, was terminated the same day. Doc. #35-1 at 66; Doc. #35-4 at 10. During his deposition, Green testified that he could not “remember exactly” why Spencer was terminated but he “believe[s]” that it was also for cost savings purposes. Doc. #35-4 at 11. Hinton testified that Spencer was let go as part of the same corporate reorganization which eliminated Wong's position. Doc. #35-6 at 5.

         F. Reassignment of Wong's Duties and ...


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