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WALDEN v. SAINT GOBAIN CORPORATION

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


June 30, 2004.

ALFONSO WALDEN, Plaintiff
v.
SAINT GOBAIN CORPORATION and GLOTEL, INC., Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: CYNTHIA RUFE, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Alfonso Walden brings this action against Defendants Saint Gobain Corporation ("Saint Gobain") and Glotel, Inc. ("Glotel"), alleging race-based employment discrimination, promissory estoppel and fraudulent misrepresentation. Near the outset of this litigation and with the express consent of all parties, the Court stayed Walden's claims against Glotel pending the outcome of arbitration proceedings and permitted the case to move forward solely as to Walden's claims against Saint Gobain.*fn1 Presently before the Court is Saint Gobain's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons below, Saint Gobain's Motion is granted as to all counts in the Complaint.

BACKGROUND

  Saint Gobain, a building materials supplier, retained Glotel to locate and recruit computer network programmers and consultants to work at Saint Gobain's North American headquarters. Sometime in early 2002, Lynne Watson of Glotel contacted Walden, an African American male, and informed him of an open position with a company located near West Chester, Pennsylvania. At the time, Walden was working for the City of Philadelphia as an employee of a City subcontractor, Ajilon, with a salary of $67,000 per annum. Knowing that Ajilon's contract with the City was about to expire and therefore his job at the City was going to end shortly, Walden authorized Watson to send his resume to the company in hopes of obtaining a new job.*fn2

  In late February 2002, Walden met with Steve Hillman of Glotel, who provided details about the position, then revealed to be with Saint Gobain. Soon thereafter, Walden interviewed for the position with Lee Congleton of Saint Gobain. At Congleton's request, Hillman offered the position to Walden at a salary of $73,000 per annum and said that Saint Gobain needed him to start immediately. Walden told Hillman that he was uncomfortable resigning from his current position without giving advance notice to his employer, but Hillman said that if Walden insisted on providing the traditionaltwo-weeks' notice, Saint Gobain would find someone else to fill the position.

  Walden immediately tendered his resignation*fn3 and, on March 1, 2002, signed a Project Consultant Agreement ("Agreement") with Glotel. The Agreement provided that Walden would provide consulting services for Glotel's client, Saint Gobain. Paragraph 11, which governs termination of the Agreement, is significant for purposes of today's decision: "[Walden] understands and agrees that [Glotel] may terminate [Walden's] engagement at any time and for any reason, with or without cause, and with or without notice."*fn4

  On Wednesday, March 6, 2002, Walden reported to Saint Gobain's offices for his first day of work wearing jeans and a flannel shirt over a white t-shirt. He worked that day, apparently without incident. That evening, Walden had planned to sleep at a friend's house but left in the middle of the night because the friend was having an argument with his girlfriend. At 2:00 a.m., Walden drove to Saint Gobain's offices, spoke briefly to a security guard, and then slept in his car for approximately four hours. At 6:00 a.m., Walden awoke and went inside to Saint Gobain's bathroom, washed his hands and face, wet his hair, and went back outside to smoke a cigarette.

  Congleton arrived for work on Thursday morning at approximately 7:00 a.m. and encountered Walden. When Congleton remarked that Walden was early for work, Walden explained that he had slept in the parking lot. Congleton noticed that Walden was wearing the same jeans, flannel and t-shirt he had worn the previous day. He considered Walden's behavior "bizarre," and at some point told Walden "it would be more appropriate if [you] wore a button-down shirt and Dockers."*fn5

  Congleton called Hillman of Glotel to report that Walden had slept in the parking lot and that Walden was not conforming to Saint Gobain's business-casual dress code. He told Hillman that if Glotel could not get Walden to conform to Saint Gobain's dress code, Saint Gobain would not need him any longer. Walden worked at Saint Gobain on Friday, March 8, 2002, apparently without incident.

  When Walden reported to Saint Gobain on Monday, March 11, 2002, Congleton told him that "based on you sleeping in the parking lot, . . . we don't think you're going to fit into our corporate culture," and that Saint Gobain was "looking for someone who wears Dockers."*fn6 Acting on instructions from a Saint Gobain manager, Congleton terminated Walden's assignment effective immediately. Walden then met with Hillman of Glotel to express his anger at being fired. Glotel paid Walden for the three days worked at Saint Gobain, plus an additional week's salary. Glotel had no other positions available for Walden, so their relationship terminated.

  After receiving a Notice of Right to Sue from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Walden filed the instant action on August 14, 2003. The Complaint alleges race-based employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 951 et seq.; and common law causes of action for promissory estoppel and fraudulent misrepresentation. After Saint Gobain filed its Motion for Summary Judgment, Walden voluntarily agreed to withdraw his claim for fraudulent misrepresentation. Accordingly, judgment is entered in favor of Saint Gobain on that count.

  STANDARD OF REVIEW

  The underlying purpose of summary judgment is to avoid a pointless trial in cases where it is unnecessary and would only cause delay and expense.*fn7 Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." In deciding a motion for summary judgment, all facts must be viewed and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party.*fn8 The Court's function is not to weigh the evidence, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.*fn9 In employment discrimination cases, the summary judgment standard is "applied with added rigor" because "intent and credibility are crucial issues."*fn10

  DISCUSSION

  A. Walden's Employment Discrimination Claim

  Walden claims that Saint Gobain abruptly terminated him because of his race in violation of Title VII and the PHRA.*fn11 Although Saint Gobain attacks the viability of this claim because technically it was not Walden's employer, the Court assumes for purposes of analysis that Saint Gobain and Walden had the requisite employer-employee relationship under Title VII and the PHRA. For the reasons below, the Court agrees with Saint Gobain that Walden cannot adduce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Saint Gobain terminated Walden's employment because of his race. The familiar McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis applies to Walden's claims of employment discrimination.*fn12 Walden bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination.*fn13 If he satisfies this burden, the burden shifts to Saint Gobain to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Walden.*fn14 If Saint Gobain can meet this burden, the presumption of discriminatory action raised by the prima facie case is rebutted.*fn15 To survive summary judgment, Walden then must present evidence that Saint Gobain's proffered reason was merely a pretext for discrimination and not the real motivation for his termination.*fn16 He may do so by providing evidence that would allow a factfinder reasonably to "(1) disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not the motivating or determinative cause of [Saint Gobain's] action."*fn17

  The existence of a prima facie case of discrimination is a question of law for the Court. It requires a showing that: (1) the plaintiff belongs to a protected class; (2) he/she was qualified for the position; (3) he/she was subject to an adverse employment action despite being qualified; and (4) either non-members of the plaintiff's protected class were treated more favorably, or the circumstances of the plaintiff's termination raise an inference of discrimination.*fn18 This test is flexible and must be tailored to fit the specific context of a given case.*fn19

  Saint Gobain argues that Walden cannot satisfy the fourth prong of the prima facie case. In response, Walden claims that the following evidence gives rise to an inference of racial discrimination. First, he contends that he was "treated differently and less-favorably than his fellow co-workers."*fn20 He notes that Saint Gobain maintains no work rules against sleeping in the parking lot before work or washing up in the office bathroom, and that it never terminated anyone for such conduct or for wearing improper attire. Second, he contends that Congleton made "[d]isparaging comments which reflected race-based animus towards Walden."*fn21 Specifically, Walden argues that Congleton's explanation for the termination — that Walden "did not fit into the corporate culture" because, among other things, Saint Gobain wanted "someone who wears Dockers" — constitutes "direct evidence" of racial bias.

  Even taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Walden, the circumstances of Walden's termination do not raise an inference of discrimination. Although Walden alleges disparate treatment, he fails to identify any similarly situated individuals or relate the circumstances of any other employees' treatment. This is a major and ultimately fatal deficiency in Walden's case.*fn22 While Walden notes that Saint Gobain has (admittedly) never fired any other individuals for wearing improper attire, washing up in the office bathroom, or spending part of the night in the office parking lot, this is not evidence that gives rise to an inference of racial discrimination. Presented in a vacuum and without reference to how Saint Gobain has treated any similarly situated, non-African-American employees that engaged in the same conduct, this set of circumstances is not relevant to whether invidious discrimination — as opposed to an objection to Walden's conduct — motivated Saint Gobain's decision to discharge him. Nor is it significant that this specific conduct is not proscribed by a Saint Gobain work rule. As discussed in more detail infra at Part B, Walden was an "at-will" employee dischargeable "at any time and for any reason, with or without cause." Again, without evidence that similarly situated non-members of a protected class were treated more favorably, firing someone for conduct not specifically prohibited by a company handbook or work rule is not evidence of illegal employment discrimination. Given that Saint Gobain employed highly subjective criteria in deciding to terminate Walden, evidence of similarly situated employees is all the more imperative, and its absence is fatal to Walden's claim of disparate treatment.*fn23 Nor can evidence of Congleton's allegedly disparaging comments save Walden's claim. This purported "direct evidence" of discriminatory animus is facially race-neutral.*fn24 No jury could reasonably conclude that Saint Gobain's stated preference for employees who "fit into a corporate culture" or dress in "Dockers" are statements "directly reflecting a discriminatory attitude."*fn25 The reference to "Dockers" relates to Saint Gobain's stated preference, as outlined in its dress code, that employees wear appropriate clothing to the office. The reference to Saint Gobain's "corporate culture" is more ambiguous, probably referring to more ineffable qualities and conduct associated with the professional and business communities. If Walden is suggesting that these terms are "codewords" for "non-African American," he presents no evidence in support of such an assertion.*fn26*fn27 Given the circumstances surrounding Walden's termination, no reasonable jury drawing on their common sense and experience would reach such a conclusion.*fn28

  Finally, it is also significant that Congleton is the same individual who both hired and fired Walden within a very short span of time. Courts have concluded that this circumstance militates against any inference that discriminatory animus motivated an employment decision.*fn29 Accordingly, the Court concludes that Walden cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination and that summary judgment in favor of Saint Gobain is appropriate.

  Even assuming that Walden could establish a prima facie case, his claim still cannot withstand summary judgment. Saint Gobain has articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination, i.e., that Walden's behavior was "bizarre" and did not conform to its "corporate culture," thus rebutting any presumption of discrimination. Accordingly, Walden must present evidence that would allow a reasonable factfinder either to disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons, or to believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not the motivating or determinative cause of Saint Gobain's action.*fn30 In attempting to meet this burden, Walden relies exclusively on the evidence already discussed above. There is nothing inherently improper about relying on overlapping evidence in the prima facie and pretext stages of the McDonnell Douglas analysis,*fn31 but in this case Walden's failure to adduce any additional evidence that might either discredit Saint Gobain's explanation or cast suspicion on its motivations further underscores the deficiency of his claim. Given the facts of this case, there is nothing outlandish about Congleton's assessment of Walden's conduct, nor is it incredible that Saint Gobain would use such conduct as a basis for termination. Accordingly, Walden's evidence fails to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the reason for his termination was a pretext for race discrimination. For this additional reason, summary judgment is appropriate on Walden's employment discrimination claims.

  B. Walden's Promissory Estoppel Claim

  In support of his claim of promissory estoppel, Walden alleges that Saint Gobain promised him employment only if he would immediately resign from his position at the City of Philadelphia. He argues that Saint Gobain reasonably should have expected that its conditional offer would induce Walden to quit his job, move to the West Chester area, and start working at Saint Gobain. Because he relied on Saint Gobain's promise to his detriment, Walden contends, damages are due.*fn32

  As with Walden's employment discrimination claim, Saint Gobain moves for summary judgment on his promissory estoppel claim on the ground that Walden was employed by Glotel, not Saint Gobain. Because Walden's claim fails as a matter of law regardless, the Court will assume for purposes of analysis that Walden and Saint Gobain had an employee-employer relationship.

  It is firmly established that Pennsylvania courts do not recognize a cause of action for promissory estoppel in the context of at-will employment.*fn33 Recognizing this barrier to his claim, Walden argues that he is entitled to an exception to the at-will doctrine because he gave "additional consideration" to Saint Gobain when theyformed an employer-employee relationship, thus precluding his termination "without just cause for a reasonable time."*fn34

  In Pennsylvania, in the absence of an employment contract, an employment relationship is generally considered to be at-will, terminable by either party at any time and for any reason.*fn35 "However, an employee can defeat the `at-will' presumption by establishing, inter alia, that the employee gave his employer additional consideration," which may include affording the employer "a substantial benefit other than the services which the employee is hired to perform, or when the employee undergoes a substantial hardship other than the services which he is hired to perform."*fn36 This ordinarily presents a jury question, but when the evidence is "so clear that no reasonable [person] would determine the issue before the court in any way but one," the issue may be resolved on summary judgment.*fn37

  In the instant case, the Court's analysis does not proceed from a mere "presumption" that Walden was an at-will employee; Walden specifically affirmed the at-will nature of his employment in the Agreement with Glotel. The Agreement states that "[Walden] understands and agrees that [Glotel] may terminate [Walden's] engagement at any time and for any reason, with or without cause, and with or without notice." The "additional consideration" theory of recovery is "an intention-discerning mechanism";*fn38 it provides an avenue for establishing the parties' intention that the employment relationship would not be terminable at-will. However, where the parties' intention regarding this specific issue is memorialized and agreed upon in an unambiguous written contract, as it is here, "the intent of the parties is to be ascertained from the document itself."*fn39 Therefore, even if Walden could establish that he provided Saint Gobain with additional consideration, the terms of the Agreement completely preclude him from establishing that his or Saint Gobain's conduct or statements evidence an intent to modify the at-will presumption.*fn40 None of the cases that Walden cites found that additional consideration warranted an exception to the at-will doctrine when terms of the employment contract defined the employment relationship as at-will.*fn41 By contrast, other courts from this district have found the existence of a specific agreement for at-will employment defeats any effort to supplant the at-will presumption.*fn42 The same reasoning applies here.

  Accordingly, because Pennsylvania does not recognize a cause of action for promissory estoppel in the at-will employment context, Saint Gobain is entitled to summary judgment on Walden's claim for promissory estoppel. An appropriate Order follows. ORDER

  AND NOW, this 30th day of June, 2004, upon consideration of Defendant Saint Gobain Corporation's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. # 14], Plaintiff's Response thereto, including his voluntary withdrawal of his fraudulent misrepresentation claim [Docs. # 18-19], Defendant's Reply [Doc. # 20], and for the reasons set forth in the attached Memorandum Opinion, it is hereby ORDERED that Defendant's Motion is GRANTED in its entirety. It is further ORDERED that JUDGMENT IS ENTERED in favor of Defendant Saint Gobain Corporation and against Plaintiff Alfonso Walden on all counts of the Complaint.

  It is further ORDERED that Plaintiff and Defendant Glotel, Inc. shall, within ten (10) days of the date of this Order, submit an update addressing the status of Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Glotel, Inc., including information relating to any arbitration between the parties.

  It is so ORDERED.


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