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Wright v. Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., LP

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

September 12, 2017

Sherwin T. Wright, Plaintiff,
Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., LP, Defendant.


          Stephen Wm Smith United States Magistrate Judge

         This employment discrimination case is before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 21). A hearing was held on August 24, 2017. The motion is granted.


          From at least April 2008 until December 2014, [1] Wright was the only African-American maintenance electrician at defendant's Pasadena, Texas plastics complex. From 2011 to 2012, Wright was on a medical leave of absence due to injuries, including a traumatic brain injury, he suffered in a motorcycle accident. He returned to work with the restriction that he must work with a second electrician at all times.

         In September 2014, the Pasadena facility was engaged in a “turnaround” project. A unit was shut down so that maintenance, including electrical work, could be done. The project required completion of a “Lock, Tag, Try” process in which equipment is turned off or “de-energized” so that it cannot be turned on while work is in progress. The Lock, Tag, Try process has several steps, and requires completion of various forms by the electrician completing each step. One of these forms is called the “Isolation list” and identifies electrical breakers that need to be properly de-energized. On September 30, 2014, Wright's supervisor, Darryn Barnes, assigned Wright to disconnect the T-leads from certain breakers. Wright was not accompanied by a second electrician when he performed the assignment. A superintendent, Keith Bravenec, later learned that the T-leads on those electrical breakers had not been disconnected as required by the Lock, Tag, Try process and as indicated by Wright's initials on the isolation list. Bravenec reported the incident to Human Resources.

         On October 8, 2014, defendant told Wright he was being suspended without pay pending an investigation into the incident. This initial suspension was open-ended - Wright was not given a date to return to work. Having heard nothing further from his employer by October 27, 2014, Wright sent an email to Chevron CEO Pete Cella.[2] Cella responded quickly, saying he had “looked into your situation and can inform you that someone will be contacting you shortly about your status.”[3] Within 24 hours, Chevron contacted Wright and told him to return to the plant.

         Upon his return on October 30, 2014, Wright was given a letter titled “Final Warning and Two-week Suspension.”[4] Wright signed the letter although he disagreed with its content. Wright was assigned to report to Tom Shomette at the Pasadena Central Business Office to undergo “retraining and recertification.” There was no written procedure in place for the “retraining and recertification” Wright allegedly needed. During this period, Wright was given old electrical manuals and told to sit in a cubicle and read them. Chevron did not have a test in place to determine when or whether Wright would be certified to return to work. No other employee had ever been given this form of discipline.

         On November 11, 2014, a contract employee reported to his supervisor, Dean Merritt, that someone was snoring in a cubicle. Although Wright disputes it, Human Resources concluded the snorer was Wright. On November 18, 2014, Chevron issued a three-day suspension and “last chance” warning to Wright for this alleged violation of company work rules. The last chance warning informed Wright that he would be immediately terminated for any attendance or tardiness issues; unsatisfactory job performance; failure to follow all procedures, policies, and work rules; and that he “must pass a recertification exam and walk-thru after reasonable efforts to remediate, as determined by the Company.”[5]

         On November 20, 2014, Wright did not show up for his “retraining.” The training superintendent, John Smith, called Wright. Wright confirmed that he did not contact a supervisor regarding his absence, but that he had called the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Work Partners' Division (UPMC), a third-party that managed defendant's medical leave programs. Chevron management, specifically Human Resource Manager Lisa Laurin, Department Manager Andy Woods, and Plant Manager Mike Gilbert, decided to terminate Wright. Chevron contends that it has not hired anyone to replace Wright.

         Wright has sued Chevron for racial discrimination and retaliation under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the Texas Labor Code.[6] Chevron moves for summary judgment on Wright's claims.

         Summary Judgment Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issues of material fact exist, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden to prove there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co. v. Goel, 274 F.3d 984, 991 (5th Cir. 2001). Dispute about a material fact is “genuine” if the evidence could lead a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party. In re Segerstrom, 247 F.3d 218, 223 (5th Cir. 2001).

         “An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Terrebonne Parish Sch. Bd. v. Columbia Gulf Transmission Co., 290 F.3d 303, 310 (5th Cir. 2002).

         The standard for granting summary judgment in Title VII cases is by now too familiar to warrant extended recitation. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., succinctly summarizes the appropriate inquiry:

Whether judgment as a matter of law is appropriate in any particular case will depend on a number of factors. Those include the strength of the plaintiff's prima facie case, the probative value of the proof that the employer's explanation is false, and any other evidence that supports the employer's case and that properly may be considered on a motion for judgment as a matter of law.

530 U.S. 133, 148-49 (2000). The court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant, and disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe. Id. at 150-51. Trial courts should not treat discrimination differently than other ...

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