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Cristain v. Hunter Buildings & Manufacturing, LP

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

June 19, 2017



          Lee H Rosenthal Chief United States District Judge.

         Luis Enrique Cristain sued his former employer, Hunter Buildings & Manufacturing, LP, alleging that it violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the antiretaliation provisions of the Texas Workers' Compensation Act when it terminated him two weeks after he was injured on the job. Hunter moved for summary judgment, and Cristain responded. (Docket Entry Nos. 17, 18). Based on the parties' motion and response, the record, and the applicable law, Hunter's motion for summary judgment is denied.

         Docket call will proceed as scheduled on July 6, 2017, at 2:00 p.m. The reasons for the ruling are explained below.

         I. Background

         Hunter Buildings is a Houston-based company that designs and builds modular blast-resistant buildings. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 2). Hunter hired Cristain in August 2014 as a “Helper” in the Outfitting Department. (Id.) His duties were primarily manual labor. (Id.) Cristain was 55 years old when hired; the next oldest worker on his work team was approximately 42. (Docket Entry No. 18, Ex. 2 at 3).

         On February 5, 2015, Cristain was working in an unfinished modular building on a six-foot high scaffold when the scaffold fell out from under him. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 3). According to Cristain, the scaffold hit him on the leg and lower back as it fell. (Docket Entry No. 18 at 8). A coworker contacted Kevin Edmonds, Hunter's Health, Safety, Security, and Environmental Manager, after the incident. (Id. at 8-9). Edmonds found that Cristain was not bleeding or unconscious and took him to a doctor with whom Hunter had an account for any occupational injuries. (Id.). The doctor diagnosed a lumbar strain, with no need for physical restrictions. (Docket Entry No. 18, Ex. 8 at 2). Cristain asked that he be allowed to stay home the following day, a Friday. (Docket Entry No. 17, 4). Edmonds initially suggested that Cristain could come to work and perform some limited duties, but after repeated requests allowed him the day off. (Id.) Edmonds went to Cristain's home on February 8, a Sunday, to check on him, and drove him to work the following morning. (Id.). Edmonds filed a claim with Hunter's workers' compensation carrier that day, February 9, after Cristain again asked permission to go home to recover from his pain. (Id. at 4-5).

         Over the following weeks, Edmonds continued to take Cristain to follow-up medical appointments. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 5). On February 13, 2015, Edmonds offered Cristain a modified-duty position of “Flow Monitor.” (Id.). Hunter specifically created the position to accommodate Cristain during his recovery. (Id.). The new duties were more ministerial in nature, including monitoring and documenting manufacturing projects and communicating the progress on them to the supervisor. (Id.). Cristain started these duties on February 16, 2015. (Id.).

         Soon after starting his new position, Cristain received several disciplinary actions. On February 17, 2015, Edmonds reprimanded Cristain after finding him playing on his cell phone in the break room while he was not on a break. (Id. at 8). When this happened again on February 18, Edmonds said that he would put a written warning in Cristain's file. (Id.). On February 19, Edmonds reprimanded Cristain for failing to pick up the paperwork for his Flow Monitor job. (Docket Entry No. 17-1 at 5-6). Edmonds documented this and the previous incidents in an “Employee Warning Notice.” (Docket Entry No. 17-2, Ex. G at 17). Cristain denied that he was ever counseled about being on his phone or for failing to pick up paperwork. (Docket Entry No. 17-1 at 6; Docket Entry No. 18, Ex. 1 at 3).

         Cristain was terminated on February 20, 2015. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 8-9). The parties offer divergent accounts of what happened that day. Edmonds asserted that he had recently received the results of Hunter's investigation into the February 5 scaffold accident. (Id. at 7). The report stated that Cristain had violated Hunter's safety rules by using the scaffold without taking the required training or completing a safety analysis. (Id.). Edmonds intended to discipline Cristain about these safety violations. (Id. at 9). Before calling him into his office, Edmonds prepared another Employee Warning Notice, leaving blank the sections for “Employee Statement, ” “Action Taken, ” and the signature lines. (Id.). He intended to mark the box for “Warning.” (Id.). According to Edmonds, Cristain “became very defensive, loud and aggressive” when told that he was being disciplined. (Docket Entry No. 17-1 at 7). He “yelled at [Edmonds] and called [him] a ‘bitch.'” (Id.). Edmonds testified that he decided to fire Cristain based on this outburst. (Id.). He marked the box for “Dismissal” in the “Action Taken” section of the Employee Warning Notice. (Id.). When Cristain refused to sign the form, the Human Resources Manager signed instead. (Id.).

         Cristain alleged that Edmonds had made comments about his age in the weeks leading up to his termination. (Docket Entry No. 18, Ex. 1 at 3). Cristain specifically alleged that while Edmonds was driving him to the doctor on February 5, immediately after the fall, Edmonds said that he “was only hurting because [he] was old . . . and that [he] wasn't getting better because [he] was old.” (Id.). According to Cristain, when he went into Edmonds's office on February 20, he was handed a form marked “dismissal” and told to sign it. (Id.). When he asked why, Edmonds told him that he “was old and not worth anything and that [he] had five minutes to leave or he would call the police.” (Id.). Cristain denied being abusive and using the term “bitch.” (Id.). Edmonds denied calling Cristain an “old man, ” saying that he was “useless, ” or making similar age-based comments. (Docket Entry No. 17-1 at 8).

         Cristain filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Fair Employment Practices Agency in July 2015. (Docket Entry No. 18, Ex. 2 at 2). He received a notice of right to sue letter in May 2016 and filed this suit in August 2016. Discovery and this motion followed.

         II. The Summary Judgment Standard

         “Summary judgment is required when ‘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.'” Trent v. Wade, 776 F.3d 368, 376 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). “A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the ‘evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Nola Spice Designs, LLC v. Haydel Enters., Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “The moving party ‘bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'” Id. (quoting EEOC v. LHC Grp., Inc., 773 F.3d 688, 694 (5th Cir. 2014)); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         “Where the non-movant bears the burden of proof at trial, the movant may merely point to the absence of evidence and thereby shift to the non-movant the burden of demonstrating by competent summary judgment proof that there is an issue of material fact warranting trial.” Id. (quotation marks omitted); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Although the party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005). “A fact is ‘material' if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law.” Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 326 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must ...

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