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Bates v. Sanderson Farms, Inc.

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

May 23, 2018

JERRY BATES PLAINTIFF
v.
SANDERSON FARMS, INC., SANDERSON FARMS, INC. PROCESSING, KELVIN HARRELL, CECIL JACKSON, and JOHN DOES 1-10 DEFENDANTS

          ORDER AND OPINION

          DAVID BRAMLETTE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 41] filed by Defendants Kelvin Harrell, Cecil Jackson, Sanderson Farms, Inc. (Processing Division), and Sanderson Farms, Inc.[1] For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be GRANTED.

         Background

         This employment dispute arises from racial discrimination Jerry Bates contends he endured as a clean-up worker at a McComb, Mississippi Sanderson Farms plant, and retaliation he says he experienced after he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

         Bates, an African-American, worked on the clean-up crew at Sanderson Farms' McComb plant for over twenty years, from May 1995 to December 2015. As a worker on the clean-up crew, Bates cleaned the plant's production and processing equipment to prepare the plant for the day's poultry processing operations.

         Sanderson Farms also employed Kelvin Harrell, Bates' supervisor, and Cecil Jackson, Division Manager of the McComb plant. Harrell was the subject of a July 2015 EEOC complaint, in which Bates alleged that Harrell “constantly harassed” him and “placed negative information in [his] file” because Bates complained about Harrell to Jackson.

         Four months after initiating that EEOC complaint, Bates attended Sanderson Farms' annual “Heart & Soul” meeting. Heart & Soul meetings are mandatory employment seminars conducted by Sanderson Farms management. After each Heart & Soul meeting, employees are asked to complete a survey and submit written comments to Sanderson Farms' President. Company policy dictates that the Division Manager -- in this case, Jackson -- meet in-person with each employee who submits a Heart & Soul meeting comment.

         After the November 2015 Heart & Soul meeting, Bates submitted this comment:

Pay clean-up 40 hrs pay like all other Dept. We do more than 40 hrs worth of work a week: We actually work a miracle everyday to make this plant start up on time everyday.

         As Sanderson Farms' policy required, Jackson arranged in-person meetings with employees who, like Bates, submitted comments at the Heart & Soul meeting. To facilitate those meetings, Jackson emailed clean-up crew supervisors Chad Robinson and Dorsey Cameron. He instructed Robinson and Cameron to tell eight cleanup crew employees -- including Bates -- to remain at work after their shift ended on December 4, 2015 so that Jackson could meet with them about the comments they submitted.

         Around midnight on December 4, 2015, Robinson relayed the message to Bates and other members of the clean-up crew: They were to remain at work after their shift ended that morning so that they could speak with Jackson. Bates did not comply. He instead left work without speaking to Jackson. Sanderson Farms fired Bates later that day.

         Bates sued Sanderson Farms, Harrell, and Jackson, alleging general negligence and violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. (“FLSA”), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

         In his Complaint, Bates alleges that Sanderson Farms promoted white members of the clean-up crew more quickly than African-American members. Beyond that, he says, Sanderson Farms manipulated the hours the clean-up crew worked so that Sanderson Farms was not required to pay them overtime. Bates also alleges that management, including Jackson, ignored three harassment complaints he filed against Harrell. Finally, Bates alleges that he was fired in retaliation for his July 2015 EEOC complaint and the comment he submitted following the November 2015 Heart & Soul meeting.

         Sanderson Farms, Jackson, and Harrell move for summary judgment on all of Bates' claims.

         I

         Summary judgment is proper if Defendants show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). If Defendants show the absence of a disputed material fact, Bates cannot, in reply, simply direct the Court to conclusory allegations or a scintilla of evidence favorable to him. Lincoln v. Scott, 887 F.3d 190, 195 (5th Cir. 2018). He must instead “go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” McCarty v. Hillstone Restaurant Grp., Inc., 864 F.3d 354, 357 (5th Cir. 2017) (emphasis added).

         The Court views facts and draws reasonable inferences in Bates' favor. Vann v. City of Southaven, Miss., 884 F.3d 307, 309 (5th Cir. 2018). As always, the Court neither assesses credibility nor weighs evidence at the summary-judgment stage. Wells v. Minnesota Life Ins. Co., 885 F.3d 885, 889 (5th Cir. 2018).

         II

         A

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination in employment. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). It outlaws both intentional discrimination and unintentional discrimination that disproportionately adversely affects minorities. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 577 (2009). The former form of discrimination is called disparate treatment, the latter, disparate effect. Id. at 577. This is a disparate treatment case.

         Direct evidence of intentional discrimination is difficult to come by. A plaintiff without direct evidence may nonetheless prevail in a Title VII action “by providing circumstantial evidence sufficient to raise an inference of ...


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