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Johnson v. Verizon Services Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 18, 2017



          DuBois, J.


         In this employment discrimination case, plaintiff Frank Johnson alleges that he was terminated by defendants, Verizon Services Corporation and Verizon Data Services LLC, (collectively “Verizon”) because of his race. Johnson, the only African-American employee in his department, was terminated during a reduction-in-force after a thirty-three year career at Verizon. Johnson asserts claims of race discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, Phila. Code §§ 9-1100. Verizon has filed a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Verizon's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.


         The relevant facts as set forth in evidence submitted by the parties are as follows. Johnson's career at Verizon began in May 1979 when he was hired as a Service Representative by Verizon's predecessor. SOF ¶ 1. Johnson spent his first twenty-eight years with Verizon filling various positions, including systems analyst and, after promotion, tech manager. Pl. SOF ¶ 9; Resp., Ex. A, Dep. of Frank Johnson (“Johnson Dep.”), Nov. 21, 2016, 27:21-25. In 2009, Johnson began working in Verizon's IT Data Security Department on the code review team, where he was responsible for identifying errors and vulnerabilities in computer applications, recoding, and performing other duties. Pl. SOF ¶¶ 11, 16.

         The proficiency rankings of employees on the code review team started with Member Technical Staff (MTS), progressed to Senior Member Technical Staff (SMTS), and culminated in Distinguished Member Technical Staff (DMTS). Pl. SOF ¶ 13, fn. 2. Johnson was initially classified as an SMTS but was promoted to DMTS, the highest ranking available in the IT Department. Pl. SOF ¶ 13. To achieve this promotion, Johnson's performance had to be rated “above satisfactory.” Pl. SOF ¶ 14. Johnson was the highest ranked member of the code review team. Pl. SOF ¶ 32.

         From approximately 2010 to 2013, Johnson worked under the supervision of George Turrentine, manager of application security. Pl. SOF ¶ 15. During this period, Johnson claims that Turrentine treated and interacted with white employees in a friendlier and more professional manner than he did with non-white employees. Pl. SOF ¶ 29. In Johnson's 2010 performance review, Turrentine commented that Johnson produces “good solid work, ” and that he was “beginning to share his wealth of experience and skills-helping to grow the team. I believe he downplays his involvement and expertise-his humbleness and quiet strength of knowledge is refreshing.” Resp., Ex. L. Two years later, in June 2012, Turrentine stated in Johnson's performance review that “[Johnson] is a very talented employee-with a wealth of knowledge and experiences.” Resp., Ex. N.

         Despite these positive reviews, Johnson was notified on January 17, 2013, that he would be terminated, effective February 15, 2013, as part of a reduction-in-force (“RIF”). Pl. SOF ¶¶ 35-36.[1] While Turrentine states that he considered all of the employees on the code review team for termination, no other member was fired. Pl. SOF ¶¶ 37-39. The five retained team members performed similar work to Johnson, were supervised by Turrentine, had less experience than Johnson, and were not African-American. Pl. SOF ¶¶ 40-43. In determining who to terminate as part of the RIF, Turrentine did not use any specific standard because he “owned the department so [he] knew what was required to do [the] job.” Turrentine Dep. 39:20-23. Instead, he “put together a table of pros and cons on all the employees.” Id. at 37:4-6. On that list, Turrentine claims that he wrote Johnson “lack[ed] knowledge of distributed systems and that include[d] their languages.”[2] Id. at 38:20-22. Turrentine destroyed the list approximately six months after Johnson's termination because Verizon's “retention policy says that [employees] have to clear out stuff after a certain period of time.” Id. at 37:16-23. Accordingly, no physical record of why Johnson was terminated exists.

         On January 31, 2013, days after Johnson was informed of his imminent termination, Turrentine rated Johnson as “performing, ” indicating that he met objectives, requirements, and expectation, and periodically exceeded them.[3] Resp., Ex. O. He also commented that Johnson “continues to be a very talented employee-and has improved in his sharing of information.” Id.

         On March 3, 2016, Johnson filed suit, alleging discrimination on the basis of race and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance. Verizon filed its Motion for Summary Judgment on March 3, 2017. As stated in his Response, Johnson “has decided not to proceed on his retaliation claim.” Pl. SOF ¶ 6, fn. 1. Thus, the Court will only consider Johnson's race discrimination claim in this Memorandum.


         The Court will grant summary judgment if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A fact is material when it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         The Court's role at the summary judgment stage “is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether . . . there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Id. at 249. In making this determination, “the court is required to examine the evidence of record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). However, the party opposing summary judgment must identify evidence that supports each element on which it has the burden of proof. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322.

         Johnson's claims of race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance are governed by the same legal standard applicable to claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Jones v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 198 F.3d 403, 410 (3d Cir. 1999); Joseph v. Continental Airlines, Inc., 126 F.Supp.2d 373, 376 n.3 (E.D. Pa. 2000). Claims of race discrimination under Title VII are evaluated using the McDonnell Douglas three-step framework. Jones v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 796 F.3d 323, 325-26 (3d Cir. 2015). The Court first evaluates “whether the plaintiff has stated a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation; if [the plaintiff] has, [the Court] ask[s] whether the employer ...

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