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Mitchell v. TJX Companies, Inc.

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

August 13, 2019

DELIA J. MITCHELL PLAINTIFF
v.
THE TJX COMPANIES, INC. doing business as HOMEGOODS DEFENDANT

          ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARION AYCOCK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         Delia Mitchell filed suit in this Court on May 9, 2018 against The TJX Companies, Inc., doing business as HomeGoods, asserting race discrimination claims under Title VII and Section 1981 and age discrimination claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in connection with her termination from HomeGoods on January 18, 2018. Now before the Court is the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [44]. The issues are fully briefed and ripe for review.

         Background

         The Plaintiff, a 61-year-old Caucasian female, applied for a seasonal help position at HomeGoods in Tupelo, Mississippi in October 2017. HomeGoods hired the Plaintiff effective November 30, 2017, as a seasonal employee. On January 4, 2018 the Plaintiff had a verbal dispute regarding a work task with a younger African American co-worker, Aleigha Dominguez. After the incident, Dominguez reported the verbal dispute to her manager and informed her manager that she was going home for the rest of the day because she was so upset.

         On January 12, 2018, the Plaintiff had a physical altercation with the same co-worker, Dominguez. The Plaintiff and Dominguez each provided written statements describing the incident. According to the Plaintiff, she walked into the room to retrieve her radio and told Dominguez that she thought “the Lord brought us together today.” Id. at 48:23-49:13. In response, Dominguez told the Plaintiff to “never talk to [her] that way again . . ., ” referring to the January 4 incident. Id. The Plaintiff maintains that she tried to reason with Dominguez, but that Dominguez threatened to slap her in the face. The Plaintiff told Dominguez that she was not afraid of her and told Dominguez to stop pointing her finger in her face. Since Dominguez would not stop pointing, the Plaintiff put her finger in Dominguez's face to show her “how it felt.” See Plaintiff's statement [44-8]. The Plaintiff states that Dominguez then pushed her “really hard” and she tried to exit the room, but Dominguez pushed her against the door. The Plaintiff then exited the room.

         According to Dominguez, she was putting away her equipment when the Plaintiff walked in. See Dominguez statement [44-4]. She planned to ignore the Plaintiff, but the Plaintiff started talking and did not apologize for the January 4 incident. Dominguez indicates that the Plaintiff knew she was mad by the look on her face and that she told the Plaintiff not to disrespected her like she did on January 4. In response, the Plaintiff told her that she was not scared of her. Dominguez then put her finger up and the Plaintiff told her not to put her finger in her face. Dominguez states that the Plaintiff then pushed her arm down and put her finger in Dominguez's face. Dominguez maintains that she then pushed the Plaintiff away from her because she was backed up against the wall. After that, Dominguez says that the Plaintiff gave her an ugly look and walked out of the room.

         Shortly after the physical altercation occurred, Helene Taylor, one of the assistant managers at the Tupelo HomeGoods store, contacted Michael Florek, the District Loss Prevention Manager for the Tupelo store. Florek, who is Caucasian, reviewed the recording of the January 12 physical altercation and the written statements taken from the two employees. After this review, Florek determined that the Plaintiff was the aggressor in the altercation and that Dominguez had acted in self-defense. Florek made a recommendation to Kelsey Lott, the Regional Human Resources Generalist for the Tupelo store, that HomeGoods terminate the Plaintiff's employment because she was the aggressor and discipline Dominguez with a final written warning for her part in the altercation. Lott, who is Caucasian, did not review the recording but instead relied upon Florek's written summary and recommendation. After reviewing Florek's written summary and the statements collected from the Plaintiff and Dominguez, Lott agreed with both of Florek's recommendations. HomeGoods terminated the Plaintiff on January 18, 2018 and issued a final written warning to Dominguez, both of which were consistent with HomeGoods policies.

         In the Plaintiff's termination letter, HomeGoods cited “Improper Behavior” as the reason for her termination and explained that “Associates are expected to follow company rules and regulations and act in accordance with our code of conduct.” See Termination Document [49-16]. The letter concluded that “[f]ollowing an investigation into the incident, your personal actions and conduct were a failure to follow rules and regulations and therefore result in termination of your employment.” Id. In Dominguez's written warning, HomeGoods also identified “Improper Behavior” as the reason for the warning. The letter stated that “[f]ollowing an investigation into the incident, your personal actions and conduct were a failure to follow rules and regulations. Moving forwards, you will follow all company rules and regulations. Failure to comply will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” See Dominguez Disciplinary Action [44-12].

         After submitting a charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Plaintiff filed the instant suit, alleging that HomeGoods terminated her because of her race and because of her age. In addition to actual, punitive, and liquidated damages, the Plaintiff also requests reinstatement.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is warranted under Rule 56(c) when evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings and designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548. Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments are not an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1997); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, “but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Id.

         Race Discrimination Claims

         The Plaintiff alleges that her termination was improperly based on race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title 42 of the United States Code Section 1981. Under Title VII, it is “an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Race discrimination claims brought under Title VII and Section 1981 require the same proof to establish liability and the Plaintiff's race discrimination claims will be analyzed together under Title VII's framework. See Criner v. Tex. N.M. Power Co., 470 Fed.Appx. 364, 370 n. 3 (5th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing Byers v. Dall. Morning News, Inc., 209 F.3d 419, 422 n. 1 (5th Cir. 2000)).

         Claims of discrimination based on circumstantial evidence, such as the ones here, are subject to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). The first step of the McDonnell Douglas analysis requires “[t]he plaintiff [to] establish a prima facie case that the defendant made an employment decision that was motivated by a protected factor.” Mayberry v. Vought Aircraft Co., 55 F.3d 1086, 1089 (5th Cir. 1995); see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N. A., 534 U.S. 506, 512, 122 S.Ct. 992, 152 L.Ed.2d 1 (2002) (noting that “the precise requirements of a prima facie case can vary depending on the context and were ‘never intended to be rigid, mechanized, or ritualistic.'”) (citation omitted). If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the defendant must then bear “the burden of producing evidence that its employment decision was based on a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason.” Mayberry, 55 F.3d at 1089. If the defendant carries its burden, the third and final step of the analysis requires “the plaintiff to show that the defendant's proffered reasons were a pretext for discrimination.” Id.

         Given that the Plaintiff attempts to establish a prima facie case by asserting that 1) she did not violate HomeGood's “improper behavior” policy because she was not the aggressor, and 2) that a similarly situated African American employee was not also terminated, the analysis falls more squarely under the work-rule violation framework instead of the traditional four factors outlined by the Parties. See Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N. A., 534 U.S. 506, 512, 122 S.Ct. 992, 152 L.Ed.2d 1 (2002) (noting that “the precise requirements of a prima facie case can vary depending on the context and were ‘never intended to be rigid, mechanized, or ritualistic.'”) (citation omitted); see also Ring v. First Interstate Mortgage, Inc., 984 F.2d 924, 927 (8th Cir. 1993) (finding “to measure a plaintiff's complaint against a particular formulation of the prima facie case at the pleading stage is inappropriate.”).[1]

         In a work-rule violation case such as this, the Fifth Circuit has determined that a plaintiff may establish a prima facie case of discrimination in two distinct ways. First, a plaintiff may show that she did not violate the rule for which she was disciplined. Second, even if she did violate the rule, a plaintiff may still establish a prima facie case by offering evidence of disparate treatment, specifically showing that “employees who were not members of the plaintiff's protected class were treated differently under circumstances nearly identical to [hers].” Turner v. Kansas City Southern Ry. Co., 675 F.3d 887, 892 (5th Cir. 2012) (internal ...


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