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Hutcherson v. Siemens Industry, Inc.

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

September 24, 2018




         This cause is before the court on the motion of defendant Siemens Industry, Inc. (Siemens), Terry Steen, Brian Balmes and Coralee Kelly, to dismiss the amended complaint[1] of pro se plaintiff Jermyrion Hutcherson, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff has responded in opposition to the motion and the court, having considered the complaint and the parties' memoranda, concludes that the motion should be granted in part and denied in part, as set forth herein.

         Plaintiff, who is African American, was employed by defendant Siemens from 2007 until his termination on February 16, 2017. Following his termination, he filed the present action alleging that Siemens violated his rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The complaint also purports to assert an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against the individual defendants and a wrongful termination claim against Siemens. His claims are grounded in the following alleged facts.

         Plaintiff's Factual Allegations

         During the first seven years of his employment, plaintiff worked as a senior material administrator at Siemens' Richland, Mississippi site. During this time, he applied for more than fourteen promotions which resulted in three phone interviews for positions at other facilities but no offers; and he was never offered an opportunity to interview at the Richland site. In November 2014, he applied for the newly-created Training Coordinator position. After the hiring manager, Joel Mathewson, returned plaintiff's resume to him, telling plaintiff he was not qualified for the position, plaintiff lodged a complaint of discrimination with the human resources manager. An investigation ensued, which found evidence to support plaintiff's claim. As a way to resolve the claim, Mathewson offered to promote plaintiff to the position of contract administrator in the circuit breaker group. Plaintiff accepted and began work in this position in December 2014.

         Soon thereafter, Mathewson, in retaliation for plaintiff's having complained of discrimination, undertook a campaign of retaliation designed to force plaintiff to resign. This included, for example, providing plaintiff with only minimal training and failing to equip him with the essential tools (a laptop, remote access and company cell phone) needed to perform his new job. Mathewson's alleged retaliation campaign lasted for more than a year. Eventually, in March 2016, shortly after he was issued a reprimand by Mathewson for missing important e-mails, plaintiff was demoted and reassigned to work as a contract administrator in the surge arrestor group. That group was managed by defendant Brian Balmes, who appointed defendant Coralee Kelly to serve as “team lead” for a newly-assembled collective of contract administrators, which included plaintiff.

         Kelly was resentful of the fact that in December 2014, plaintiff had been given the position of Contract Administrator-Circuit Breaker Group. She had openly opposed the decision to hire him following the internal investigation of his discrimination complaint, and she complained to co-workers that the position was “rightfully hers.” Thus, when plaintiff became part of the surge arrestor group, Kelly, along with Balmes, undertook a retaliation campaign against him in an effort to have him terminated or force him to resign. As part of this alleged campaign, Balmes gave Kelly full access to plaintiff's work email account. Kelly used this access to manipulate (which included deleting some of) his emails to make it appear as though he was failing to handle his work. Kelly, in turn, generated and provided to Balmes false weekly reports which reflected that plaintiff was not keeping up with his emails. Balmes did not attempt to verify the reports or give plaintiff an opportunity to disprove them; instead, he accepted them at face value. In a further effort to force him to resign, Kelly started a false rumor that plaintiff, who had a compromised immune system from previous episodes of shingles, was faking his illness. And Kelly, along with Balmes, began to disproportionately assign tasks to plaintiff in an attempt to overwhelm him so that he would fail and be terminated or would give up and resign. In this regard, Kelly delegated some of her circuit breaker production line duties to him, which usually took him about one full day a week to perform. He complained to Balmes. However, Balmes offered no relief. Kelly and Balmes piled on even more work, requiring plaintiff to take on, in addition to his own job duties, the duties of a fulltime logistic position which had been eliminated. This additional work often took more than five hours of his work day, leaving him insufficient time to complete his contract administrator tasks.

         Eventually, plaintiff complained to human resources manager Terry Steen that Balmes' and Kelly's actions were creating a hostile work environment and causing him elevated levels of stress and anxiety. Steen did not investigate but rather merely reported the complaint to Balmes and Kelly. On September 21, 2016, just days after he complained to Steen, Balmes placed plaintiff on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Under the terms of the PIP, plaintiff was required to meet with Balmes and Steen every other week. In these meetings, Balmes, over plaintiff's objection, continued to rely on the allegedly fabricated reports submitted by Kelly. To no avail, plaintiff complained to Steen that the objectives of the PIP were not consistent with the actual (extra) work he was performing and asked Steen to investigate. Later, however, after plaintiff became upset during a November 22, 2016 PIP meeting, Steen suggested that “it would be best if Balmes hired a full-time customer care representative to perform the logistic function” and told plaintiff to focus solely on his contract administrator work.

         Soon after, in early December 2016, Kelly approached plaintiff and screamed at plaintiff in front of his coworkers, accusing him of “just wanting someone else to do his work.” Plaintiff complained to Steen about the incident, and also about Kelly's mistreatment of him in general, which included her willingness to help the white ladies in the group but not him. Steen conducted a “sham investigation”, following which he advised that Siemens would not be taking action against Kelly.

         In late December 2016, Balmes gave plaintiff a negative performance review based on Kelly's reports, and as a result, plaintiff was denied a pay raise. Toward the end of December and into January, plaintiff's health continued to decline as a result of the unrelenting retaliation he was subjected to at work, and in mid-January, he was required to undergo immediate surgery to remove inflamed digestive tract tissue. When he tried to return to work on February 9, 2017 following his surgery, Balmes refused to sign his doctor's order for restricted duty and sent him home. When he returned for work a week later, he was summoned to meet with Balmes and Steen, who advised he was terminated based on Kelly's continuing reports of his poor performance.

         Following his termination, plaintiff filed the present action asserting claims under Title VII for race discrimination based on the denial of promotions from 2007 to 2014, his demotion in March 2016, the December 2016 denial of a raise and his termination in February 2017; and for retaliation on account of his December 2014 complaint relating to Siemens' allegedly discriminatory hiring practices. He further asserts claims under the ADA for failure to accommodate his disability at some unspecified time while under the supervision of Balmes and Kelly and upon his initial attempt to return to work in February 2017, and also for failure to engage in the ADA's interactive process. Lastly, he asserts a state law claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against defendants Steen, Balmes and Kelly.

         Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations, ” but it must provide the plaintiff's grounds for entitlement to relief, including factual allegations that when assumed to be true “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Cuvillier v. Taylor, 503 F.3d 397, 401 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). In other words, the complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). While a plaintiff asserting Title VII and/or ADA claims is not required to submit evidence to establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation at the motion to dismiss stage, he is required “to plead sufficient facts on all of the ultimate elements of [his Title VII or ADA claim] to make his case plausible.” Chhim v. Univ. of Texas at Austin, 836 F.3d 467, 470 (5th Cir. 2016) (per curiam), reh'g denied (Oct. 14, 2016), cert. denied, __U.S. __, 137 S.Ct. 1339, 197 L.Ed.2d 529 (2017), reh'g denied, __U.S. __, 137 S.Ct. 2182, 198 L.Ed.2d 248 (2017).

         Title VII: Race Discrimination

         Title VII prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions against employees on the basis of race. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (making it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer ... to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's ... race”). “A plaintiff alleging workplace discrimination must exhaust his administrative remedies before he may sue under ... Title VII....” Castro v. Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, 541 Fed.Appx. 374, 379 (5th Cir. 2013). “Exhaustion occurs when the plaintiff files a timely charge with the EEOC and receives a statutory notice of right to sue.” Taylor v. Books A Million, Inc., 296 F.3d 376, 378-79 (5th Cir. 2002). For a claim based on discrete employment actions, such as termination, demotion, failure to promote, denial of transfer, or refusal to hire, this means the party must file his claim “within 180 days of the occurrence of such act or lose the ability to recovery for it, since a discrete act will have ‘occurred' on the day that it ‘happened'.” Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 110, 114, 122 S.Ct. 2061, 153 L.Ed.2d 106 (2002); Perez v. Brown, 207 F.3d 657 (5th Cir. 2000).

         Plaintiff's complaint reflects that he filed his first and only EEOC charge on February 23, 2017. According to Siemens, it follows that any discrete acts that pre-dated August 27, 2016 are barred for failure to exhaust. This includes his claims for alleged race discrimination based on the denial of promotions from 2007 to 2014 and his March 2016 demotion. In his complaint, and in response to defendants' motion, plaintiff submits that these claims are timely under either or both of two theories. First, he argues that his claims are timely based on the continuing violation doctrine. The continuing violation doctrine “relieves a plaintiff of establishing that all of the complained-of conduct occurred within the actionable period if the plaintiff can show a series of related acts, one or more of which falls within the limitations period.” Messer v. Meno, 130 F.3d 130, 134-35 (5th Cir. 1997). “If the plaintiff can demonstrate that the discrimination manifested itself over time rather than in a series of discrete acts, actions that would otherwise be time-barred may be considered by the court.” Mack v. John L. Wortham & Son, L.P., 541 Fed.Appx. 348, 355 (5th Cir. 2013). The ...

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