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Inmon v. Mueller Copper Tube Company, Inc.

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

February 16, 2018




         This cause comes before the court upon the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Upon due consideration of the motion, response, exhibits, and applicable authority, the court is ready to rule.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The plaintiff, Margaret Sue Inmon, was hired by the defendant, Mueller Copper Tube Company, Inc. (“Mueller”), in 1997 when she was fifty-one years old. Mueller produces copper tubing and operates a facility in Fulton, Mississippi, where it employs over three hundred workers. Inmon alleges that she was wrongfully terminated from her employment on January 5, 2016, because of her age (sixty-nine at the time of termination) in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and in violation of Mississippi public policy for her reporting of an alleged crime at the plant.

         Mueller's Fulton plant is a unionized facility with a collective bargaining agreement that controls the terms and conditions for the hourly employees at the facility. The collective bargaining agreement provides: “It shall be the continuing policy of the parties that the provisions of this Agreement shall be applicable to all employees without regard to race, color, sex, religion, age, handicap or national origin.”

         Mueller's Fulton facility also operates under a set of Plant Rules setting forth the accepted standards of personal conduct consistent with the safe, successful, and efficient operation of the plant in order to maintain uninterrupted production on the job and to protect Mueller and its employees.

         Mueller's plant manager, Mike Baum, who is Vice President of Operations and the highest ranking employee at Mueller's Fulton facility, made the decision to terminate the plaintiff's employment after the plaintiff incurred several infractions of plant rules during 2015. Mueller's policy is to terminate any employee who receives four disciplinary actions within a one-year period.

         In 2015, the plaintiff received a verbal warning, a written warning, and a three-day suspension for separate incidents unrelated to each other and unrelated to the fourth incident which ultimately resulted in the termination of the plaintiff's employment. The verbal warning was issued on August 21, 2015, when the plaintiff left shortly after her regular shift ended at 11:00 p.m. despite agreeing to be drafted to stay over until another employee could replace her. Mueller was unable to provide a replacement when the plaintiff left, and, as a result, production on the plaintiff's line was stopped for approximately four hours. The plaintiff acknowledges she was required to work the overtime pursuant to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement but contends no other employee ever received a verbal warning for being drafted for overtime and leaving.

         On November 20, 2015, the plaintiff received a written warning after her supervisor, Jon McWilliams, observed the plaintiff sitting down reading a newspaper when she should have been cleaning her area, thereby wasting time and violating Plant Rule 8 which states, “An employee shall not waste time, loaf or loiter on the job or on Company premises during working hours shall he neglect job duties and responsibilities, or do personal work of any kind.” On November 23, 2015, McWilliams met with the plaintiff and issued the written warning. According to McWilliams, the plaintiff became very loud and combative, but though she could have pursuant to plant rules and the collective bargaining agreement, the plaintiff did not file a grievance regarding this disciplinary action. Instead, the following day, the plaintiff went to the Fulton Police Department and filed criminal charges against McWilliams under Miss. Code Ann. § 97-35-15, “Disturbing the Peace.” In doing so, she completed an affidavit stating that on November 23, 2015, McWilliams “disturb [sic] the peace of Margaret Inmon at 404 Mueller Brass Road by yelling at her and telling her to shut her mouth.” McWilliams was arrested while at work at Mueller on December 8, 2015. Plant manager Mike Baum and human resources manager Travis Fisher accompanied McWilliams to the courthouse for two appearances. On December 9, 2015, the day after McWilliams' arrest, the plaintiff was disciplined for “making false, vicious statements, distracting attention of others, insubordinate conduct.” Because the plaintiff had already received a verbal warning and a written warning in 2015, she received a three-day suspension for this violation of plant rules.

         The plaintiff's fourth infraction of 2015 occurred on December 28 when an investigation into a report made by two employees, Helen Northington and Carol Gable, revealed that on that date the plaintiff had struck Northington with copper tubing. Video surveillance footage of the plaintiff's work area shows that the plaintiff left her machine early, littered the plant floor, and used her cell phone when, according to Mueller, she should have been working, all in violation of Mueller's plant rules. Because the December 28 incident involved multiple violations of plant rules and because these violations amounted to the plaintiff's fourth disciplinary action within a one-year period, Mike Baum made the decision to terminate the plaintiff's employment, and her employment was terminated on January 5, 2016.

         The plaintiff filed a grievance regarding her termination. On May 6, 2016, the union submitted a letter to the plaintiff stating, “After a thorough investigation and careful consideration of any and all evidence and based on the merits of the case, we do not believe we can prevail in arbitration. Therefore, your grievance has been withdrawn from the grievance procedure and will not be arbitrated.” The plaintiff filed the present action on November 22, 2016. She asserts that she was disciplined for frivolous reasons and that she was disciplined for actions that she alleges were common at Mueller and for which other employees were not disciplined. In other words, she asserts that the alleged disciplinary reasons for her termination were pretext for age discrimination.

         The plaintiff's second claim, that she was terminated in violation of Mississippi public policy for reporting a crime occurring at the plant, arose from the disciplinary incident with McWilliams and his arrest. The defendant asserts that Baum's decision to terminate the plaintiff had nothing to do with the plaintiff's filing charges against McWilliams and that Baum was not surprised by the plaintiff's actions in filing her police report because she had previously called 911 to report someone's vehicle in what she wrongfully asserted was her personal handicapped parking space at the Mueller facility.

         Standard of Review

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). On a motion for summary judgment, the movant has the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the movant makes such a showing, the burden then shifts to the non-movant to “go beyond the pleadings and . . . designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. Before finding that no genuine issue for trial exists, the court must first be satisfied that no rational trier of fact could find for the non-movant. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 ...

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