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NICHOLSON v. BRADLEY GRAPHIC SOLUTIONS

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


April 22, 2004.

ROBERT C. NICHOLSON
v.
BRADLEY GRAPHIC SOLUTIONS, INC

The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS O'NEILL, Senior District Judge

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Robert C. Nicholson, filed a complaint against defendant Bradley Graphic Solutions, Inc., seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and other relief arising from defendant's alleged violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e, et seq. Presently before me is defendant's motion for summary judgment and plaintiff's response thereto. For the reasons stated below, I will grant defendant's motion.

  II. BACKGROUND

  Plaintiff alleges that his termination of employment with defendant was based on race discrimination. He also alleges that defendant's explanation for his termination was a pretext for race discrimination. Plaintiff was employed with defendant Bradley Graphic Solutions, Inc. as a bindery operator from April, 2000, until his termination on July 12, 2002. Robert J. Bradley, president of defendant, signed plaintiff's termination letter, which stated that plaintiff was being fired because of the "repeated intimidation and harassment of [plaintiff's] co-workers which is clearly a violation of the Employee Handbook and of the working environment that [defendant] strives [for in the workplace]." Bradley's affidavit also indicated that his decision to terminate plaintiff's employment was because of the "numerous complaints and instances involving verbal intimidation and harassment by Mr. Nicholson."

  During his employment with defendant, plaintiff was involved in several documented confrontations with his co-workers in which he allegedly engaged in verbal abuse and physical intimidation. On September 12, 2000, an incident investigation report was filed against plaintiff for threatening to file a complaint with OSHA and sue defendant company. Defendant alleges that plaintiff argued with his supervisor, Robert F. Weikel, about his unsatisfactory pay raise and threatened to sue if he fell because of papers being left on the floor from the previous work shift. During many work assignments the floor would get messy from cutting, boxing, and shrink wrapping certain jobs. On November 16, 2000, defendant issued an employee warning notice to plaintiff for an incident where he engaged in a loud argument with Weikel. The notice warned plaintiff that another similar action would result in a three day suspension.

  Plaintiff was involved in another altercation on March 15, 2001. An incident report was filed and signed by two bindery supervisors, Dave Smolenski and Weikel, stating that plaintiff and Raymont Dickson, an African-American co-worker, were arguing with each other. The report stated that the two men were having a heated discussion and decided to go "outside" to settle their differences. Smolenski and Weikel intervened and attempted to solve the argument between the two workers. During their intervention, plaintiff complained to the supervisor that he could slip and fall from pieces of paper left on the floor. Plaintiff's words and actions in that instance were viewed by defendant as an attempt to threaten and intimidate the supervisors.

  On June 11, 2001, Dickson filed an incident investigation report stating that plaintiff threatened to harm him if he did not keep the floor clean. Dickson also alleged that he requested plaintiff to stop harassing and threatening him on a daily basis. When Dickson started to go home that day, plaintiff allegedly followed him. Smolenski and Weikel stopped both men and inquired about their argument. Dickson alleged that plaintiff responded to the supervisors' intervention by threatening to harm him.

  On September 5, 2001, defendant issued another warning to plaintiff because he engaged in a "loud shouting match" with the plant manager. The warning mentioned that plaintiff was continuously "confrontational with his supervisor," and the continuance of this problem would "result in termination of employment." Plaintiff refused to accept and sign the document when defendant presented it to him.

  On November 13, 2001, defendant filed an incident report alleging that plaintiff and a co-worker, Barbara Russell, had an argument that began because plaintiff was playing his radio too loudly. An unsigned witness report from McCrosson, a shipper for defendant, noted that plaintiff and Russell were arguing and yelling that neither of them "owned the place." According to the incident reports submitted by plaintiff and Russell, the two parties had different interpretations of what actually occurred during their argument. Russell's incident report stated that she requested plaintiff to lower his radio volume and he responded to her request by saying that she could not tell him what to do. Russell also alleged that, in the later part of the day, plaintiff remarked that she was a weak woman with an attitude. Russell said that this remark caused her to have another argument with plaintiff. She alleged that plaintiff came across the room, reached within three inches from her and began to point his finger toward her as he screamed and threatened her. In Russell's account of this argument, she mentioned that plaintiff's threats caused her to be afraid for her safety at work.

  In contrast, plaintiff said that he did have his radio volume on loud, but that he turned it down once his supervisor asked him to do so. His account of what happened in the later portion of that day was different from Russell's. He stated that Russell overheard a conversation he was having with his supervisor about a particular task. Plaintiff contended that he and his supervisor were trying to fix a problem with packaging boxes and he suggested to his supervisor that Russell fill the boxes and he would close them. He stated that Russell entered this conversation and argued that she was not a "weakling." Plaintiff contended that Russell's remarks began another argument. This confrontation ended with Russell reporting the incident to another supervisor.

  On May 23, 2002, defendant conducted plaintiff's performance appraisal. Plaintiff received high marks in the areas of quality, productivity, job knowledge, reliability, and adherence to policy in this performance appraisal. However, he received a low mark, 65 out of 100 points, on interpersonal relationships, demonstrating that plaintiff needed improvement in this area.

  In July 2002, there were several arguments reported between plaintiff and co-workers Steven Snyder and Michael Grimshaw. On July 1, 2002, Snyder filed an incident report regarding two separate incidents where plaintiff allegedly threatened him. One incident involved plaintiff allegedly threatening Snyder if he failed to replace a trash can in the work area. In another incident, plaintiff allegedly threatened Snyder because he wanted Snyder to do a job assignment in a certain way. Snyder alleges that other similar incidents where plaintiff would confront him about "trivial issues" were reported to supervisors. Grimshaw filed an incident report on July 3, 2002, about another confrontation with plaintiff. He alleges that plaintiff started an argument over sharing work space. Grimshaw alleges that plaintiff got close to his face and threatened him using vulgar words. He reported this incident to a supervisor.

  On July 12, 2002, plaintiff was terminated. After plaintiff received his termination letter from defendant, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On February 14, 2003, the EEOC closed its file on plaintiff's charge against defendant because it was unable to conclude that plaintiff's evidence established any instances of discrimination.

  III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

  Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact," the moving party is entitled to summary judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably hold in the non-movant's favor with respect to that issue and a fact is material if it influences the outcome under the governing law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). It is my obligation to determine whether all the evidence can reasonably support a verdict for the non-moving party. See Allstate Ins. Co. v. Brown, 834 F. Supp. 854, 856 (E.D. Pa. 1993).

  In making this determination, I must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Further, the non-moving party is entitled to all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts. Id. However, the non-moving party must raise "more than a mere scintilla of evidence in its favor" in order to overcome a summary judgment motion and cannot survive by relying on unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions. Williams v. Borough of W. Chester, 891 F.2d 458. 460 (3d Cir. 1989). Although the moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of genuine issues of material fact, the non-movant must establish the existence of each element of its case. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

  IV. DISCUSSION

  Defendant alleges that plaintiff has failed to produce evidence that shows defendant's decision to terminate plaintiff's employment was based upon plaintiff's race. In establishing an employment discrimination claim, plaintiff must show a prima facie case of discrimination. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Once this prima facie showing has been made, the burden then shifts to defendant to "articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's rejection." Id. If defendant succeeds with this showing, then plaintiff must have the opportunity to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the reasons offered by defendant are merely pretext for discrimination. See Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1980). The ultimate burden of showing defendant's intentional discrimination against plaintiff is placed upon plaintiff at all times. See id.

  A. Prima Facie Case

  Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge. Plaintiff alleges that his termination was based upon racial discrimination in violation of Title VII. In order to establish a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge, plaintiff must show: 1) that he is a member of a protected class; 2) he was qualified for the position; 3) he was discharged; and 4) others not belonging to the protected class were retained or treated more favorably. See Riddick-Battle v. Dep't of the Navy, No. 95-7488, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12644, at *9 (E.D. Pa. August 29, 1996), citing St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1993).

  Plaintiff, who is African-American, was deemed qualified for the position of bindery operator by defendant. In plaintiff's latest performance evaluation, defendant reviewed plaintiff's capability to work as a bindery operator. Defendant assigned high marks to plaintiff's job performance in the areas of quality, productivity, job knowledge, reliability, and adherence to policy. These high marks on plaintiff's performance appraisal demonstrate that he was qualified to work as a bindery operator. Notwithstanding plaintiff's qualifications, defendant terminated plaintiff.

  Although the first three prongs of the test for a prima facie case are met, plaintiff cannot establish that his white co-workers were able to retain their jobs or were treated more favorably, while he was not. He contends that defendant terminated him for his interpersonal conflicts but did not discharge other white employees for similar misconduct that could possibly warrant termination. To show such unequal treatment, plaintiff must "set forth evidence to establish that he was treated differently from his Caucasian co-workers for similar disciplinary infractions." Davis v. City of Phila. Water Dep't, No. 00-CV-5671, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18163, at *11 (E.D. Pa. November 7, 2001). In plaintiff's deposition, he mentioned several instances where white co-workers allegedly acted inappropriately and were not disciplined or terminated. He argues that these particular incidents demonstrate that co-workers outside of his protected class were retained or treated more favorably. A similar situation arose in Davis where plaintiff, Andre Davis, alleged that his termination was based upon racial discrimination because his white co-workers allegedly committed similar offenses and were treated more favorably. Davis, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18163, at *6-7. In support of his claim, Davis submitted notices of suspensions that defendant gave to his white co-workers, warning of dismissal if a further offense was committed. Id. Davis argued that he was treated differently because he was terminated after receiving his notice of suspension while his similarly situated white co-workers were retained. Id. The court found that Davis was terminated because he committed another offense after his first warning and he was unable to show that other white co-workers who committed a second offense after their first warning were treated differently. Davis, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18163, at *10-11. Thus, the court held that Davis did not set forth evidence to establish that he was treated differently from his white co-workers in disciplinary actions. Id.

  As in Davis, plaintiff has revealed incidents of alleged misconduct by his white co-workers, but he has not submitted any documentation to support this contention.*fn1 There is no evidence outside of his own deposition to show that other non-minority employees were treated differently for similar offenses. See Riddick-Battle, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12644, at *11. If the evidence presented in Davis was considered insufficient, then plaintiff's lack of evidence to support his claim certainly fails to demonstrate that defendant engaged in differential treatment. He cannot survive a summary judgment motion by relying on unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions. Williams, 891 F.2d at 460. Thus, plaintiff has failed to prove that his white co-workers were retained or treated more favorably than he and he has not met his burden of establishing a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge.

  B. Legitimate, Nondiscriminatory Reason

  Even if plaintiff could satisfy the fourth prong of the prima facie case of discriminatory discharge, defendant has proffered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for plaintiff's termination. Once plaintiff has successfully demonstrated his prima facie case, the burden then shifts to defendant to "articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for the employment decision. McDonnell Douglas Corp., 411 U.S. at 802. Defendant contends that plaintiff was not discriminated against on the basis of his race, but that plaintiff was fired because he engaged in "repeated intimidation and harassment of [plaintiff's] co-workers." In offering a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment decision, defendant "must clearly set forth, through the introduction of admissible evidence, reasons for its actions, which, if believed by the trier of fact, would support a finding that unlawful discrimination was not the cause of the employment action." Dorsey v. Pittsburgh Assoc., No. 03-1882, 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 2249, at *8-9 (3d Cir. February 10, 2004), quoting St. Mary's Honor Ctr., 509 U.S. at 507.

  Defendant has offered various documents as evidence that the reason defendant offered in plaintiff's termination letter was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for plaintiff's discharge. Plaintiff's deposition, copies of incident investigation reports and statements from a number of co-workers and supervisors regarding plaintiff's interpersonal conflicts in the workplace show that during plaintiff's two years of employment with defendant he was involved in several arguments with his co-workers and was repeatedly warned about the potential consequences of his misconduct by defendant. Plaintiff does not deny these incidents occurred, but contends that other employees who allegedly had similar misconduct problems were not treated equally because their jobs were not terminated. In order for defendant's reason to be considered legitimate and nondiscriminatory, it is enough to present evidence that "raises a genuine issue of fact as to whether it discriminated against the plaintiff." Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, 450 U.S. at 254. Such evidence permits the "trier of fact rationally to conclude that the employment decision had not been motivated by discriminatory animus." Id. at 255. Defendant's explanation that plaintiff's termination was based on defendant's inability to tolerate his continued intimidation and harassment of its workers is a rational employment decision that is motivated not by any discriminatory animus, but by legitimate concerns of maintaining a hosfile-free work environment. Therefore, defendant has produced evidence showing that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for discharging plaintiff from employment.

  C. Pretext

  Because defendant has established a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, plaintiff must have the opportunity to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the reasons offered by defendant are merely pretext for discrimination. Id. at 253. In establishing pretext, plaintiff must present evidence that either: "(1) casts doubt upon each of the reasons offered by defendant for the employment action so that a fact-finder could reasonably conclude that each was a fabrication; or (2) allows the fact-finder to infer that discrimination was more likely than not the cause for the employment action." Dorsey, 2004 U.S. App. LEXIS 2249, at *11, citing Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 761 (3d Cir. 1994).

  In order to meet the first prong of Fuentes, plaintiff must show "such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its actions that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them unworthy of credence." Jones v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 198 F.3d 403, 413 (3d Cir. 1999), quoting Keller v. Orix Credit Alliance. Inc., 130 F.3d 1101, 1108-1109 (3d Cir. 1997). This standard can be satisfied if plaintiff demonstrates "through admissible evidence, that the employer's articulated reason was not merely wrong, but that it was `so plainly wrong that it cannot have been the employer's real reason.'" Id., quoting Keller, 130 F.3d at 1109.

  Plaintiff has not presented any reliable, factual evidence from which a factfinder could reasonably infer that defendant's reason is false. He has not been persuasive in discrediting defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for termination, that is, plaintiff's alleged intimidation and harassment of defendant's employees. It was reasonable for defendant to terminate plaintiff's employment to maintain the stability of its work environment. Though defendant considered plaintiff a qualified bindery operator, it determined that plaintiff's repeated interpersonal conflicts with his co-workers interfered with the company's goal of achieving a hosfile-free workplace. Thus, defendant had legitimate concerns that retaining plaintiff would create a tense environment that could negatively impact the company.

  In Jones, a teacher, Charles Jones, quit his job after he was informed by school district personnel that he would be terminated unless he voluntarily resigned from the position. Jones, 198 F.3d at 406. Prior to his resignation, Jones was involuntarily transferred to two schools because of his hosfile and threatening behavior toward parents and students. Id. at 406-408. In both instances, he was transferred after several warnings were issued. After his second transfer, Jones was involved in a physical altercation with a student that led to his forced resignation. Id. at 408-409. Jones brought suit alleging racial discrimination by the school district. Id. at 406. The court held that Jones' proven prima facie case was rebutted by defendant's legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. Id. at 412.

  In determining whether Jones established that defendant's reason was pretextual, the court found that many of the allegations made in his affidavit were not supported with anything more than his own beliefs. Id. As a result, the court held that Jones had insufficient evidence to support his claim of pretext because of his lack of actual knowledge. Id. at 414. Like Jones, plaintiff has failed to support his claim of pretext. Though plaintiff believes that defendant's proffered reason for his termination was false, he has provided no evidence to demonstrate that it is pretext for discrimination. Thus, plaintiff has been unable to cast any credible doubt upon the reason offered by defendant.

  If plaintiff fails to prove the first prong of the pretext analysis, he still has an opportunity to argue pretext under the second prong of Fuentes. In order to sustain a claim under the second prong, plaintiff must show that "discrimination was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the adverse employment action." This test can be satisfied if plaintiff can demonstrate that the employer has previously discriminated against him, that the employer has previously discriminated against other persons in plaintiff's protected class, or that the employer treated other similarly situated employees not within the protected class more favorably. Id. at 413, quoting Simpson v. Kay Jewelers, 142 F.3d 639, 645 (3d Cir. 1998).

  Although plaintiff contends that defendant treated him less favorably than his white co-workers, he has not produced any corroborating evidence that this was the case. For example, plaintiff alleges that a white employee, Rick, got into a physical altercation with Weikel where there was pushing and shoving. Plaintiff believes that defendant did not discipline Rick because he returned to work the next day. Plaintiff also alleges that another incident occurred between another white employee, Joe Warner and Bradley. He alleges that Warner came to work intoxicated and threatened Bradley with a hammer. Plaintiff argues that defendant took no real disciplinary action except for sending Warner home that day. He contends that these incidents prove that his white co-workers were treated more favorably. Plaintiff has not presented any corroborating evidence such as incident reports and depositions of witnesses to support this claim. Even if plaintiff presented such evidence, these alleged incidents do not rise to the same level as plaintiff's alleged misconduct. He has been cited for numerous interpersonal conflicts in the workplace whereas his allegations of his co-workers' hosfile behavior happened with each individual once. Plaintiff has not been persuasive in showing that racial discrimination was the motivating factor behind his termination. Therefore, he has failed to show that defendant's otherwise legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason is pretextual.

  V. CONCLUSION

  Plaintiff has failed to prove a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge. Even if a prima facie case were proved, plaintiff has not shown that defendant's otherwise legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason is pretextual. Taking all of the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is clear that defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating plaintiff from employment was not a fabrication. Therefore, I will grant defendant's motion for summary judgment.

  An appropriate order follows. ORDER

  AND NOW, this 22 day of April 2004, after considering defendant's motion for summary judgment and plaintiff's response thereto, and for reasons set forth in the accompanying memorandum, defendant's motion is GRANTED. Judgment is entered in favor of defendant, Bradley Graphic Solutions, Inc., and against plaintiff, Robert C. Nicholson.


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