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Seals v. Southwire Co.

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

October 11, 2018




         This cause comes before the court on the motion of defendant Southwire Company for summary judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Plaintiff Melvin Seals has responded in opposition to the motion, and the court, having considered the memoranda and submissions of the parties, concludes that the motion is well taken and should be granted.

         This is, inter alia, a race and sex discrimination case which is presently set for trial in January, with this court serving as trier of fact.[1] On August 21, 2017, plaintiff, an African-American male, was fired from his position at an Extruder Operator at Southwire's Starkville factory, where he had worked since 2007. Southwire manufactures wire and cable used in electricity distribution and transmission. The stated reason for plaintiff's termination was that he had accumulated twelve attendance points (for unexcused absences), more than the ten needed for termination under Southwire's policies. As a result, plaintiff's supervisor Fred Turner, in conjunction with Dan Bickford (the plant manager), Brian Davis (the operations manager), and Natalie Henley (the human resources manager) made the decision to terminate his employment. Soon thereafter, plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and, after receiving a right to sue letter, he filed the instant action in this court. Defendant has presently moved for summary judgment, arguing that no genuine issue of fact exists regarding its potential liability in this case and that it is entitled to dismissal as a matter of law.

         In the court's view, the summary judgment analysis in this case is quite straight-forward, and it supports a dismissal of plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff raises four claims in this case, and it seems clear that two of them, his ADA discrimination and retaliation claims, are due to be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Before a plaintiff may file a Title VII or ADA claim in federal court, he must first exhaust his administrative remedies. See Dao v. Auchan Hypermarket, 96 F.3d 787, 789 (5th Cir. 1996) (noting that the ADA incorporates by reference Title VII's administrative procedures). In Mississippi, plaintiffs must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days of “the alleged unlawful employment practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1). This exhaustion requirement serves an important purpose, since “a primary purpose of Title VII is to trigger the investigatory and conciliatory procedures of the EEOC, in attempt to achieve non-judicial resolution of employment discrimination claims.” Pacheco v. Mineta, 448 F.3d 783, 788 (5th Cir. 2006).[2]

         In arguing that plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies, defendant notes that, on September 5, 2017, Seals filed two EEOC charges of discrimination, in which he marked only the “race” and “sex” discrimination boxes. Plaintiff failed to check the appropriate boxes for the retaliation and disability discrimination claims which he now seeks to assert in this case. This court notes that, in his two-page response to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiff offers no arguments in response to defendant's extensive arguments that he failed to exhaust administrative remedies with regard to his ADA discrimination and retaliation claims. This fact alone could be regarded as a concession of defendant's exhaustion arguments. Moreover, plaintiff appears to have tacitly admitted that he failed to exhaust administrative remedies in his first EEOC charge by filing a second EEOC charge in which he checked boxes for retaliation and sex discrimination.[3]

         While the above facts might reasonably be regarded as a concession of defendant's exhaustion arguments, this court will, considering plaintiff's status as a pro se litigant, discuss the merits of this issue. This court initially notes that, standing alone, plaintiff's failure to check the appropriate boxes in his EEOC charges, while significant, does not necessarily mean that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. See, e.g. Miller v. Sw. Bell. Tel. Co., 51 Fed.Appx. 928, 930 (5th Cir. 2002)(“[F]ailure to fill in the appropriate box in the filed charge” warrants summary judgment on exhaustion grounds only when “coupled with the inability to describe the general nature of the claim in the narrative section of the charge”). In determining whether plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies, this court must “interpret[] what is properly embraced in review of a Title VII claim somewhat broadly, not solely by the scope of the administrative charge itself, but by the scope of the EEOC investigation which ‘can reasonably be expected to grow out of the charge of discrimination.'” Sanchez v. Standard Brands, Inc., 431 F.2d 455, 466 (5th Cir. 1970).

         Given the language in plaintiff's EEOC charge, this court does not believe that an ADA or retaliation claim might have reasonably been expected to “grow out of” it, notwithstanding plaintiff's failure to check the appropriate boxes. In his EEOC charge, plaintiff alleged as follows:

I was hired October 2, 2007 as an Extruder Operator. I was discharged August 21, 2017. Dan Brickford, Plant Manager said, I was discharged for having twelve points. I believe I was discriminated because of my race/Black/sex/male in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended since:
A: I was assessed points for my attendance which I should not have been given points. I went to the hospital on August 17, 2017 because I was ill. I called in to inform my supervisor that I would be in; however, when I got to work, and my supervisor looked at my excuse, there was a prescription that I had to fill. I did not have the prescription filled when I was sent home. I went to the hospital because I was working around an employee who was smoking on the job and this facility is a non-smoking facility. I believe my pain was due to smoking. This generated two points. I returned to work on August 18.
B: I was not given sufficient notice that I had to work on July 15. My supervisor, James Holloway (Black) came to me at 4:00 Friday morning, stating that he forgot to tell me that Bryan Davis (White), Department Manager/Operation Manager sent him an email Wedesday stating that they need C1 to run Saturday. After that notice, I responded that I had already made plans to attend a family reunion. After being notified by my supervisor, he said, he would have to get with Bryan Davis. He did notify the other operator on Thursday that he had to come in on July 15 but he forgot to tell me. Male coworkers agreed to work for me on July 14 and 15.
C: Bryan Davis would not allow my male coworkers to replace me. James Holloway and Fred Turner (Black) supervisors allowed my coworkers to work for a black female in another area. The female was not a qualified operator; she is only a forklift driver. A black male (CV Helper) worked in the same department where I worked was allowed to take off with no advance notice by his brother-in-law, James Holloway. About the middle of May 2017, four CV1 operators (black males, including me) were asked on a Friday to work the following day, Saturday. Two of the black males stated that they had plans with their family already. To my knowledge no points were assessed against them for not working on Saturday because of a late notification from the supervisor. A black male who had accumulated over 18 points did not call in for work three days in a row. He was given six points for each day not calling in by Fred Turner. To my knowledge he was discharged between August 24 and August 29. However, to my knowledge he was rehired August 31 or September 1.

[September 5, 2017 EEOC charge at 1-2].

         In the court's view, the most important part of the above narrative is the introductory sentence, in which plaintiff wrote that “I believe I was discriminated because of my race/Black/sex/male in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended since . . .”. In so writing, plaintiff was utilizing his own words, in plain English, and he could not have been clearer that the factual narrative which followed was to be interpreted in light of his allegation that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race and sex. Thus, this is clearly not a case in which plaintiff merely neglected to “check the boxes” for disability discrimination and/or retaliation. To the contrary, plaintiff specifically stated that his factual narrative was to be read as evidence of race and sex discrimination, and this court believes that, in conducting its investigation, the EEOC is entitled to rely upon such specific and clear representations by the charging party.

         That brings this court to another compelling reason for finding plaintiff's claims to be procedurally barred, namely that the fact that, in its “right to sue” letter to plaintiff, the EEOC made it clear that it did, in fact, only consider his allegations of race and sex discrimination. In most EEOC “right to sue” letters which this court has considered, the agency has simply stated, in broad and vague terms, whether it been able to verify the plaintiff's claims. In this case, however, the EEOC appeared to go significantly ...

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