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Eyob v. Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc.

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

July 28, 2017

Ephrem Eyob, Plaintiff,
Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc., Defendant.


          Gray H. Miller Judge.

         Pending before the court are (1) defendant Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc.'s (“MCFA”) motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 21), and (2) plaintiff Ephrem Eyob's motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. 22). Having considered the motions, responses, reply, evidentiary record, and the applicable law, the court is of the opinion that (1) MCFA's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 21) should be GRANTED, and (2) Eyob's motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. 22) should be DENIED AS MOOT.

         I. Background

         This is a case about alleged employment discrimination and an alleged hostile work environment. Dkt. 1. Eyob is an African American male, originally from Ethiopia. Dkt. 1 at 2. Eyob was terminated from his position as a Plant Supervisor at MCFA after working there for fourteen years. Id. MCFA is a manufacturer and distributor of forklifts. Dkt. 22. Eyob's causes of action against MCFA are racial discrimination and a hostile work environment under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (“Title VII”) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Dkt. 1 at 5.

         A. Eyob's Employment with MCFA

         On June 5, 2000, Eyob began working for MCFA as a 2nd Shift Assembler. Dkt. 21, Ex. A (Pierce Dec.). In 2009, Eyob was promoted to Crew Leader, reporting to the Plant Supervisor, Jimmy Uy. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 3. During that time, Uy reported to Marvin Chasteen, the Senior Manufacturer of Marking. Id. Dkt. 21, Ex. A at 3.

         On January 2, 2012, MCFA promoted Eyob to Plant Supervisor in the manufacturing division, reporting to Saravan Sigamani. Dkt. 21, Ex A-1. Sigamani, in turn, reported to Chasteen. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 8. As a Plant Supervisor, Eyob initially managed 16 employees on Manufacturing Main Line 2. Id. at 6. A few months later, Eyob was transferred to Manufacturing Main Line 1 (“Line 1"), managing 53 to 57 employees. Id. In 2012, Sigamani administered Eyob's performance appraisal, and Eyob recieved an overall score of “achieved expectations, ” with a mix of “exceeded expectations, ” “achieved expectations, ” and “generally met expectations” scores in the various categories of the appraisal. Dkt. 23, Exs. F, G.

         On May 6, 2013, Eyob started reporting directly to Chasteen. Dkt. 21, Ex. A-2. The other Plant Supervisors who reported to Chasteen were Carlos Perez (Mast Assembly), Uy (Final Finish), and Chip Hilgert (Main Line 2). Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 10.

         Chasteen claims that he repeatedly addressed quality and excessive overtime issues with Eyob with respect to Line 1. Dkt. 21, Ex. C (Chasteen Dep.) at 6. The quality issues were documented in Eyob's performance evaluation both mid-year and end-of-year 2013, where he received a “generally met expectations” overall score, and his appraisal reflected declining performance compared to 2012. Dkt. 23, Exs. B, I. Late in 2013, Eyob's line encountered a quality issue with the assembly of a hydraulic lever. Dkt. 21, Ex. C (Chasteen Dep.) at 14-15. The issue was addressed with the engineering department. Id. at 18-19 In April 2014, the hydraulic lever issue reoccurred on Line 1. Id. On April 10, 2014, Chasteen claims that he discussed the issue with his supervisor, Jay Gusler, and they made the decision to terminate Eyob. Id. at 14. Eyob was terminated that day. Id. Eyob was replaced with Guillermo Amezaga, who is Hispanic, as Plant Supervisor for Line 1. Dkt. 21, Ex. A (Pierce Dec.) at 3.

         MCFA's employee handbook contains a progressive discipline policy that explains that MCFA can issue a series of verbal or written warnings for poor performance. Dkt. 23, Exs. D (“first policy”), E (“second policy”).[1] However, the policies also state that MCFA can terminate an employee without warning. Dkt. 23, Exs. D, E. MCFA admits that it terminated Eyob without issuing him any warnings under the progressive discipline policy. Dkt. 21 at 29.

         B. Eyob's Allegations of Harrassment and Discrimination

         Eyob alleges that he was subjected to a number of instances of harassment, beginning in 2009. Dkt. 23-13 (Eyob Dep.) at 5. Though Eyob was not directly supervised by Chasteen, he claims that throughout this time period, Chasteen found opportunities to chastise him for taking time off work and to raise concerns about his assembly line. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 3-4, 9. When Chasteen became Eyob's supervisor, Eyob alleges that Chasteen made comments such as “you work for me now, ” that he “just got lucky” with his promotion, and that he should “be careful” about raising an issue during a morning meeting. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 17, 28. In May 2013, Eyob claims that Chasteen falsely accused the employees of Line 1 of deliberately damaging trucks to create overtime. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 28-29. Additionally, Eyob argues that Chasteen prevented him from leading a tour of the MCFA facility during the 2014 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Id. at 26-27, 32 (claiming that Eyob believed that Chasteen did not want an African American representing the company to dealers); Dkt. 23-3 (Eyob. Dep) at 15. Further, Eyob alleges that at least once he was told to “deal with it, ” when he was shorthanded for the day and asked for extra staff. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 12.

         Further, Eyob alleges that Chasteen told him, during the lead up to the 2012 Presidential election, that he should not vote for Barack Obama because the candidate was in favor of giving “free health care and food stamp[s] for black people.” Id. at 23. Chasteen disputes that this conversation occurred and agrees that if it had, it would be inappropriate. Dkt. 21, Ex. C (Chasteen Dep.) at 21-22. Sometime after April 2013, Eyob entered Chasteen's office and witnessed Chasteen and Uy watching an offensive video of a native, rural African village that depicted the villagers as stupid. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 22-23; Dkt. 21, Ex. C (Chasteen Dep.) at 25-26 (disputing that Eyob witnessed him watching the video and agreeing that the video was inappropriate). Eyob also alleges that Chasteen would waive his finger at Eyob to get Eyob to come to him. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 25-26. Eyob claims that he explained to Chasteen that this type of gesture was rude in the Ethiopian culture and asked him to stop, but that Chasteen continued to make the gesture at least 20 or 30 more times. Id. Chasteen claims that he did not know that finger-waving was considered rude in Ethiopian culture. Dkt. 21, Ex. C (Chasteen Dep.) at 23.

         Additionally, Eyob alleges that he witnessed Chasteen referring to black employees other than Eyob as “Mr. Wayne” at least four or five times, apparently in reference to a former African American employee of MCFA named Wayne Billard. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.) at 25-26. But see Dkt. 21, Ex. C (Chasteen Dep.) at 23 (denying this accusation). Finally, Chasteen replied in his deposition testimony “[g]osh I don't know” and “[i]t's possible” that he may have used the n-word at some time in the last five years. Dkt. 23-13 (Chasteen Dep.) at 56. However, Eyob does not testify that he witnessed Chasteen using this derogatory racial slur. Dkt. 21, Ex. B (Eyob Dep.); Dkt. 23-13 at 2-20 (Eyob Dep.).

         C. Procedural History

         Eyob initially filed his discrimination complaint under Title VII with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Dkt. 1, Ex. A. On May 11, 2016, the EEOC dismissed the case and notified Eyob of his right to sue. Id. On June 13, 2016, Eyob filed his complaint against MCFA. Dkt. 1. On December 29, 2016, MCFA answered and asserted affirmative defenses. Dkt. 6. On March 13, 2017, MCFA filed its motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 21. Eyob responded, and MCFA replied. Dkts. 23, 24. On March 13, 2017, Eyob filed a motion for partial summary judgment on MCFA's mixed motive defense and failure to mitigate damages defense. Dkt. 22. MCFA responded, but Eyob did not reply. Dkt. 25.

         II. Legal Standard

         A court shall grant summary judgment when a “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(c). “[A] fact is genuinely in dispute only if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Fordoche, Inc. v. Texaco, Inc., 463 F.3d 388, 392 (5th Cir. 2006). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (1986). If the party meets its burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to set forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). The court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the non-movant. Envtl. Conservation Org. v. City of Dall., Tex., 529 F.3d 519, 524 (5th Cir. 2008).

         III. Analysis

         First, the court will consider MCFA's motion for summary judgment on Eyob's claims of employment discrimination and a hostile work environment. Dkt. 21. Then, the court will consider Eyob's motion for partial summary judgment on MCFA's affirmative defenses. Dkt. 23.

         A. Employment Discrimination Based on Race

         Eyob alleges that he was terminated from his position with MCFA on the basis of his race in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Dkt. 1 at 5. Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge an employee because of his or her “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). Section 1981 states “[a]ll persons . . . shall have the same right[s] . . . as enjoyed by white citizens.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981(a). “Employment discrimination claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 . . . are analyzed under the evidentiary framework applicable to claims arising under Title VII.” Lawrence v. Univ. of Tex. Med. Branch at Galveston, 163 F.3d 309, 311 (5th Cir. 1999).

         A plaintiff can prove intentional discrimination through either direct or circumstantial evidence. See Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 345 (5th Cir. 2007). Direct evidence is evidence which, if believed, proves the fact without inference or presumption. Jones v. Robinson Prop. Grp., L.P., 427 F.3d 987, 992 (5th Cir. 2005) (citing Brown v. E. Miss. Elec. Power Ass'n, 989 F.2d 858, 861 (5th Cir.1993)). When race discrimination claims are based on circumstantial evidence, courts apply the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. McCoy v. City of Shreveport, 492 F.3d 551, 556 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)). Here, the parties agree that the burden-shifting framework is applicable because Eyob presents circumstantial evidence in support of his discrimination claim. Dkt. 21 at 18; Dkt. 23 at 19-20.[2]

         First, under the burden-shifting framework, a plaintiff must present a prima facie case of discrimination. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. To establish a prima facie discrimination case under Title VII, the plaintiff must show that he (1) is a protected class member, (2) was qualified for his position, (3) suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) that others similarly situated were treated more favorably. Okoye v. Univ. of Tex. Hou. Health Sci. Ctr., 245 F.3d 507, 512-13 (5th Cir. 2001) (citing Shackelford v. Deloitte & Touche, LLP, 190 F.3d 398, 404 (5th Cir. 1999)).

         If the plaintiff is successful in presenting a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden of production shifts to the employer to “rebut a presumption of discrimination by articulating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.” Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 345 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Auguster v. Vermilion Parish Sch. Bd., 249 F.3d 400, 402 (5th Cir.2001)). Then, “[if] the employer meets its burden, then [the burden] shifts back to the plaintiff to present substantial evidence that the employer's reason was pretext for discrimination.” Id. “If the plaintiff can show that the proffered explanation is merely pretextual, that showing, when ...

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