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James v. Sutliff Saturn

November 24, 2010

STEPHEN COREY JAMES, PLAINTIFF
v.
SUTLIFF SATURN, INC. DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM

I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Stephen Corey James, filed this action against his former employer, Sutliff Saturn, Inc. ("Sutliff"), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq., the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 P.S. § 951 et seq., alleging, amongst other things, racial and disability discrimination. Presently before the court is defendant's motion for summary judgment on all claims.

We will examine the motion under the well-established standard. Lawrence v. City of Philadelphia, 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d. Cir. 2008). Upon careful review of the briefs and the record, we will grant defendant's motion and enter judgment in favor of Sutliff and against James.

II. Background

James', an African-American, employment began with Sutliff on September 13, 1999. He was hired as an appearance technician for Sutliff's Carlisle Pike facility. Def.'s Statement of Material Facts ("SMF") ¶¶ 2-4. Sutliff disciplined Plaintiff on three occasions while he worked at the Carlisle Pike facility. The first incident occurred because plaintiff used Sutliff materials to detail a friend's vehicle. Def.'s SMF ¶ 5. The second and third incidents involved James' failure to maintain the prep shop in a clean, presentable manner. Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 6-7, 10. As a result of these infractions, Sutliff transferred plaintiff to its Harrisburg, Pennsylvania facility.

Due to a minor problem with his right knee, on November 7, 2005, James underwent knee surgery to correct meniscus and cartilage damage. Def.'s SMF ¶ 12; see also doc. 28, Ex. A at pg. 20-21. As a result of this surgery, Sutliff granted plaintiff twelve weeks of Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") leave, which expired on February 1, 2006. Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 13-14. After expiration of James' FMLA leave, Sutliff granted plaintiff an additional leave of absence. Def.'s SMF ¶ 15; see also doc. 28, Ex. A at 72-73.

Prior to his leave, James was the only full-time appearance technician at Sutliff's Harrisburg facility. (doc. 28, Ex. A at 67.) As a result of his leave of absence, Sutliff promoted another employee to replace James while he was recuperating. (doc. 20, Ex. E.) However, James' replacement resigned on February 2, 2006. Id. Sutliff promoted another employee, James Sulzer, to fill the vacate appearance technician position until such time as James could return to work. Id. However, when plaintiff returned to work on March 7, 2006, Sutliff terminated his employment allegedly because Sulzer was performing well and there was not enough work to support two appearance technician positions. Def.'s SMF ¶¶ 21, 22, 24, 32-33.

James, as one of only a few African-Americans employed by Sutliff, believed he was terminated because of racial discrimination. As a result, he filed an administrative action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC") alleging discrimination based on race. On September 6, 2010, plaintiff attempted to add a claim of disability discrimination to his PHRC and EEOC charges. In March of 2009, plaintiff received a Right to Sue letter from the EEOC and PHRC. Subsequently, he filed the pending action in this court.

III. Discussion

A. Discrimination based on Race

Title VII and PHRA race discrimination claims are examined under the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis. Sarullo v. United States Postal Service, 352 F.3d 789, 797 (3d Cir. 2003); Jones v. School Dist. Of Philadelphia, 198 F.3d 403, 410 (3d Cir. 1999)(PHRA). Under this analysis, James "bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case by a preponderance of the evidence." Sarullo, 352 F.3d at 797 (citing St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506, 113 S.Ct. 2742 (1993)). If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to "articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employee's rejection." Sarullo, 352 F.3d at 797 (quoting McDonnel Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817 (1973)). If defendant carries its burden, the presumption of discriminatory action is rebutted, and the plaintiff must then establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the "employer's proffered reasons were merely a pretext for discrimination." Sarullo, 352 F.3d 797 (citing Texas Dep't. of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253-55, 101 S.Ct. 1089 (1981)).

The existence of a prima facie case is a question of law. Sarullo, 352 F.3d at 797. James must demonstrate that: (1) he belongs to a protected class; (2) he was qualified for the position; (3) he was subject to an adverse employment action despite being qualified; and (4) this adverse action occurred under circumstances that raise an inference of discrimination. Id. The "central focus...is always whether the employer is treating 'some people less favorably than others because of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Pivirotto v. Innovative Systems, Inc., 191 F.3d 344, 352 (3d Cir. 1999)(quoting Int'l Bhd of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 335 n.15, 97 S.Ct. 1843 (1977)). "The prima facie test remains flexible and must be tailored to fit the specific context in which it is applied." Sarullo, 352 F.3d at 797-98. Nevertheless, although James need not establish a precise kind of disparate treatment to establish a discrimination claim, he must establish some causal nexus between his membership in a protected class and the decision to terminate his employment. See Sarullo, 352 F.3d at 798.*fn1

Contrary to Sutliff's assertion, we conclude that James has established a prima facie case of race discrimination. It is undisputed that James, an African-American male, belongs to a protected class. It is also beyond dispute that James' employment was terminated by Sutliff. Likewise, it is equally undisputed that James qualified for the appearance technician position by virtue of his having held the position prior to his knee surgery. The issue before us is whether plaintiff has submitted sufficient evidence showing his termination occurred under circumstances that raise an inference of discrimination. We conclude that his termination, and then replacement by Sulzer, a white male, is sufficient to raise the inference of discrimination. However, our inquiry does not end there. Sutliff now has the burden to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for James' termination.

Sutliff asserts that when James returned from leave management determined that Sulzer should not be removed from the appearance technician position because he was reliably performing the job and had no disciplinary issues. (doc. 22 at 10.) Consequently, management concluded that there was not enough work for two technicians, and thus James was terminated. As we discussed previously, the evidence shows that James had a history of disciplinary infractions necessitating his transfer from Sutliff's Carlisle Pike Facility to Harrisburg. Based on this and other evidence, we conclude that Sutliff has sufficiently articulated a non-discriminatory reason for ...


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