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McCullough v. Aaron's, Inc.

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

June 20, 2017

LANCE MCCULLOUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
AARON'S, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND OPINION

          LEE H. ROSENTHAL, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Lance McCullough worked at an Aaron's, Inc. store as a Product Technician. Aaron's disciplined and then fired him. He alleges that Aaron's discriminated on the basis of his race or color and retaliated for complaining about a racial slur. Aaron's has moved for summary judgment on both the discrimination and retaliation claims. (Docket Entry No. 17). McCullough responded, and Aaron's replied. (Docket Entry Nos. 18, 21). Based on the pleadings; the motion, response, and reply; the record; and the relevant law, the court grants Aaron's motion for summary judgment. Final judgment dismissing this action with prejudice is entered by separate order.

         The reasons for this ruling are explained below.

         I. Background

         Lance McCullough was hired as a Product Technician at the Aaron's, Inc. store C0068 in College Station, Texas, in October 2015. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 11). Aaron's asserts that McCullough had difficulty performing his job responsibilities and had several behavioral issues. (Id. at 12-13). On one occasion, Brian Perez, the most senior Product Technician at Aaron's, reported to Michael Cook, the store's general manager, that McCullough was difficult to work with and train. (Id. at 13). Cook discussed the situation with McCullough. (Id.).

         On November 25, 2015, McCullough had a disagreement with Chris Gray, another Product Technician. (Id. at 14; Docket Entry No. 1 at ¶ 7). McCullough asserts that during this exchange, Gray directed a racial slur at him. (Docket Entry No. 1 at ¶ 7). McCullough is African-American. (Id. at ¶ 8). Aaron's denies that Gray used a racial slur. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 11). McCullough told Cook about what Gray had allegedly said and reported the incident to the Aaron's employee hotline. (Id. at 15; Docket Entry No. 1 at ¶ 7). Cook sent McCullough home for the day after McCullough submitted a written statement about his complaint. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 15). Cook asserts that he had already decided to send McCullough home before he complained about Gray. (Id. at 16). McCullough disputes this and argues that there is a causal link between the complaint he made, Cook sending him home for the day, and his subsequent termination. (Docket Entry No. 18 at 20).

         Cook recommended to Roger Hooker, Aaron's regional manager, that McCullough be terminated. (Docket Entry No. 17 at 16). After an investigation into McCullough's complaint against Gray concluded that no racial slur had been used, McCullough was fired. (Id. at 16-17).

         In January 2016, McCullough filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination on the basis of race or color and retaliation. (Id. at 18). After receiving a Dismissal and Notice of Rights, McCullough timely sued, asserting discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). (Id.). 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 E.E.O.C. 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.” Nola Spice, 783 F.3d at 536 (internal quotation marks and citation 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, the movant does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. Pioneer Expl., L.L.C. v. Steadfast Ins. Co., 767 F.3d 503, 511 (5th Cir. 2014). “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) (citation omitted). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response.” United States v. $92, 203.00 in U.S. Currency, 537 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc)).

         “Once the moving party [meets its initial burden], the non-moving party must ‘go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Nola Spice, 783 F.3d at 536 (quoting LHC Grp., 773 F.3d at 694). The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and explain how that evidence supports that party's claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.'” Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves, 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008); see also Nola Spice, 783 F.3d at 536. Nevertheless, “[i]f a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may: . . . consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2).

         III. Analysis

         A. The ...


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