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Youngblood v. Noble Drilling U.S. LLC

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

May 15, 2019

Mitchell Youngblood, Plaintiff,
v.
Noble Drilling U.S. LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          CHRISTINA A. BRYAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This employment discrimination case is before the court on Defendant Noble Drilling (U.S.) LLC's Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Mitchell Youngblood's claims. Dkt. 26. Having considered the parties' submissions, argument of counsel at a hearing on the record on April 12, 2017, and the law, the court recommends that Noble's motion be granted in part and denied in part, as set forth below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Youngblood began working for defendant Noble in 2005 as a roustabout on the Noble Therald Martin.[1] He worked over the next several years as a floorhand, assistant crane operator, crane operator, Assistant Dynamic Positioning Officer (ADPO), Dynamic Positioning Officer (DPO), and Third Mate on various Noble drilling rigs around the world.[2]

         On December 17, 2016, Youngblood was working as a DPO on the Noble Danny Adkins. Youngblood and the rig Captain, Curtis Laskowski, were aware that a weather event called a “frontal passage” was expected to arrive sometime during the night of December 17 or early morning of December 18. Before his shift ended at midnight, Youngblood received a weather service notification that the front would arrive between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. on December 18. Youngblood did not notify Laskowski, who was off duty, of the updated and more specific window of time for the frontal passage. When Youngblood's relief, DPO Graham Philpot, arrived for his shift, Youngblood informed Philpot of the weather service notification. After leaving to check on another issue, Youngblood returned to Philpot, logged the current weather conditions, asked Philpot if there was anything else he needed, and retired for the night. Dkt. 27-2 at 42-45; Dkt. 31-19 at 2-4.

         At approximately 12:25 a.m., Philpot attempted to start the rig's thrusters to maneuver away from the mooring buoy, but one thruster would not start. At approximately 1:00 a.m., Philpot alerted Captain Laskowski, who was still not on duty at the time, of the situation. Between 1:24 a.m. and 1:30 a.m., surge from the weather event caused the rig to run over a mooring buoy, causing approximately $589, 000 in damage. Dkt. 27-3.

         Captain Laskwoski, Philpot, and Youngblood were all disciplined for the December 18, 2016 buoy incident. Dkt. 27-3. After the incident, Junior Drilling Superintendent David Milne held a conference call with Laskowski, Youngblood, Philpot, and the rig manager to discuss the event. Youngblood and Philpot's relief notes say that Milne informed them during the call that “no fingers would be pointed, and not blame was to be placed, ” but that they were written up anyway. Dkt. 31-6 at 2. For his part, Youngblood received a December 28, 2016 write up that criticized him for failing “to communicate with the Captain during inclement weather conditions, ” failing to “[b]e proactive when starting thrusters to help keep the rig clear of the buoy as the wind veers during frontal passage, ” and not “leaving your relief enough time to start thrusters and maneuver the rig prior to an estimated frontal passage occurring at 0100, 1 hour after watch turnover.” Dkt. 31-7 at 2. The December 28, 2016 write up did not set forth any sanction, but stated the expectation that Youngblood's “future actions, reactions and decision-making to safe guard the rig and personnel onboard will be thought out, effective, proactive and controlled, ” and that when in doubt, he is “implored to notify the Captain immediately.” Id.

         Youngblood contends that his career was on an upward trajectory until the December 28, 2016 write-up, and that the write-up was discriminatory. He alleges that after the December 28, 2016 write up, he suffered a series of adverse employment actions, including being laid off on February 1, 2017 (along with Philpot) from his DPO position on the Danny Adkins, and the failure to be promoted to an ADPO or DPO position when he was rehired after the layoff. Unlike Youngblood, Philpot was not rehired after his February 1, 2017 layoff. Dkt. 27-4 at 2.

         Youngblood complained to Noble representatives on May 17, 2017, and on other occasions over the next several days, that Noble had discriminated against him due to his race. Youngblood's employment with Noble ended on August 11, 2017 after Youngblood objected to signing a July 18, 2017 employee disciplinary form.

         Youngblood filed this suit on January 16, 2018, alleging claims against Noble under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 for race discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment. This Memorandum and Recommendation addresses only the discrimination and retaliation claims because Youngblood abandoned his hostile work environment claim by failing to address it in his response to Noble's Motion for Summary Judgment. See Collins v. Noble Drilling (U.S.) LLC, Civil Action No. H-16-2293, 2018 WL 7050254 at *2 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 19, 2018) (adopted 2019 WL 220306, Jan. 15, 2019) (plaintiff abandoned his § 1981 race discrimination claim by ignoring it in his summary judgment response). Youngblood's counsel confirmed at the hearing that Youngblood intended to abandon the hostile work environment claim.

         Youngblood challenges nine discreet employment actions by Noble:[3]

1. December 28, 2016 disciplinary form related to the December 18, 2016 incident that caused extensive damage to one of the buoys on the Noble Danny Adkins;
2. February 1, 2017 lay off from the position of DPO on the Noble Danny Adkins;
3. February 2017 rehire as a temporary Third Mate, instead of as DPO, on the Noble Don Taylor;
4. April 2017 failure to promote to DPO on the Noble Don Taylor;
5. February 2017 - August 2017 Harsh treatment by Chief Mates Gus Arriens and Ray Thibodeaux on the Noble Don Taylor;
6. May 19, 2017 verbal reprimand by Captain Tom McDorr on the Noble Don Taylor;
7. May 26, 2017 failure to promote to a DPO position on the Noble Globetrotter II;
8. July 18, 2017 employee disciplinary form regarding his performance on the Noble Don Taylor; and
9. August 11, 2017 termination from temporary Third Mate position on the Noble Don Taylor.

         The court recommends that Noble's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted in full as to Youngblood's discrimination claim and denied with respect his retaliation claim based on actions 8 and 9 of the above list.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. 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 (5thCir. 2001). Dispute about a material fact is “genuine” if the evidence could lead a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party. Hyatt v. Thomas, 843 F.3d 172, 177 (5thCir. 2016). “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 (5thCir. 2002). The court construes the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draws all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. R.L. Inv. Prop., LLC v. Hamm, 715 F.3d 145, 149 (5th Cir. 2013).

         B. McDonnell Douglas Burden-Shifting

         Youngblood's Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981[4] claims are subject to the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.[5] Davis v. Dall. Area Rapid Transit, 383 F.3d 309, 316-17 (5th Cir. 2004). Pursuant to this framework, a plaintiff relying on circumstantial evidence must first present evidence of each element of a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation. Id. at 317 (citing Patel v. Midland Mem'l Hosp. & Med. Ctr., 298 F.3d 333, 342 (5th Cir. 2002)). If a plaintiff meets this prima facie burden, a presumption of discrimination or retaliation arises, shifting the burden of production to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment action. Id.; Hernandez v. Metro. Transit Auth. of Harris Cty., 673 Fed.Appx. 414, 417 (5th Cir. 2016). If the employer states a legitimate reason for its action, the inference of discrimination disappears, and the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to present evidence that the employer's proffered reason is merely pretextual. Id. “In contrast to the minimal burden that a plaintiff bears when establishing his prima facie case, a plaintiff must produce ‘substantial evidence of pretext.' Hernandez, 673 Fed.Appx. at 419 (quoting Auguster v. Vermilion Par. Sch. Bd., 249 F.3d 400, 402-03 (5th Cir. 2001)). The plaintiff always bears the ultimate burden to prove discrimination. Outley v. Luke & Assoc., Inc., 840 F.3d 212, 216 (5th Cir. 2016).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Race Discrimination

         To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, Youngblood must show: (1) he was in a protected class; (2) he was qualified for the position; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) he was replaced by someone outside of his protected class, the employer promoted someone who is outside of his protected class, or he was otherwise treated less favorably than similarly situated employees. Okoye v. Univ. of Tex. Hous. Health Sci. Ctr., 245 F.3d 507, 512-13 (5th Cir. 2001); Outley v. Luke & Assoc., Inc., 840 F.3d 212, 216 (5th Cir. 2016); Autry v. Fort Bend Indep. Sch. Dist., 704 F.3d 344, 347 (5thCir. 2013); Bryan v. McKinsey & Co., 375 F.3d 358, 360 (5th Cir. 2004); Frank v. Xerox Corp, 347 F.3d 130, 137 (5th Cir. 2003); Price v. Fed. Express Corp., 283 F.3d 715, 720 (5th Cir. 2002).

         For purposes of summary judgment, Noble does not contest the first two elements of Youngblood's prima facie case. However, Noble contends that several of the nine employment actions identified above do not rise to the level of an adverse employment action for purposes of a discrimination claim. As to the remaining actions, Noble has put forth legitimate, non-discriminatory explanations for its decisions, and contends that Youngblood cannot show that its legitimate explanations are merely pretext for race discrimination.

         A. 1. Youngblood Has Not Met His Prima Facie Burden on Four Alleged Adverse Employment Actions

         Only “ultimate employment decisions such as hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting, and compensating, ” constitute adverse employment decisions for purposes of proving a prima facie case of discrimination. Felton v. Polles, 315 F.3d 470, 486 (5th Cir. 2002), overruled on other grounds by Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006). Title VII does not address “every decision made by employers that arguably might have some tangential effect upon…ultimate [employment] decisions.” Banks v. East Baton Rouge Parish Sch. Bd., 320 F.3d 570, 575 (5th Cir. 2003) (employer's decision that limits an employee's opportunities for promotion or lateral transfer does not qualify as an adverse employment action); see also, Ackel v. Nat'l Comm., Inc., 339 F.3d 376, 385 (5th Cir. 2003) (“restructuring office procedures, clarifying job duties, and…reprimands[] do not constitute ultimate employment decisions, ” (quoting Green v. Administrators of the Tulane Educ. Fund, 284 F.3d 642, 657-58 (5th Cir. 2002)); Odeh v. City of Baton Rouge/Par. of E. Baton Rouge, 731 Fed.Appx. 288, 292 (5th Cir. 2018) (written reprimand and warning that future incidents would result in more severe action did not constitute an ultimate employment decision).

         Actions 1, 5, 6 and 8-the December 28, 2016 employee disciplinary form, the harsh treatment by Chief Mates Arriens and Thibodeaux on the Don Taylor, the May 19 verbal reprimand, and the July 18, 2017 employee disciplinary form-do not directly impact the terms of Youngblood's employment such as hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting, and compensating, and do not constitute adverse employment actions. Therefore, Youngblood cannot meet his burden to present a prima facie case of discrimination as to these four employment decisions (actions 1, 5, 6, and 8). Youngblood cites Brooks v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 86 F.Supp.3d 577, 586 (S.D. Tex. 2015), for the proposition that “[d]isciplinary write-ups that are the basis for more serious consequences may be adverse employment actions.” Dkt. 30 at 22. Brooks, however, is a retaliation case, which involves a less rigorous standard for an adverse employment action, as discussed in more detail below in Section III.B.1.b.

         Noble does not dispute that termination constitutes an adverse employment action, but strenuously disputes that Youngblood was terminated. According to Noble, Youngblood resigned. Captain Malone called Youngblood into his office on August 11, 2017, intending to offer him a permanent Third Mate position on the Noble Don Taylor. However, he told Youngblood that before he could accept the position, Youngblood needed to sign a July 18, 2017 employee disciplinary form regarding performance issues brought to Malone's attention by Chief Mates Arriens and Thibodeaux. As Youngblood explained in his deposition:

[Malone] . . . said: “As you are aware, there is a third mate position. Before I can offer this position to you, we have to take care of this matter.” And he gave me the write-up. So he never offered [the job] because he said we had [to] take care of the write-up and I didn't sign the write-up and I got up and walked out of the office.

Dkt. 27-2 at 34-35. Youngblood further testified that he told Malone, “No, I'm not signing the write-up.” Dkt. 27-2 at 83. According to Youngblood, he returned to Malone's office and asked Malone to call Noble HR representative Amanda Joiner, but Malone replied that Joiner had already directed Malone to “tell Mitchell his resignation is effective immediately.” Id. at 86. Youngblood denies he intended to resign but admits he never told Malone or anyone in management that he wanted to continue working. Id. at 87-89.

         Malone wrote an email to Joiner that same day, stating that Youngblood refused to sign the letter of warning and that “[Youngblood] initially accepted the position of Third Mate on board the Taylor, but has since changed his mind and he was told that means he is resigning from the Company effective immediately.” Dkt. 27-7 at 21. The email also said, “He will be on this afternoon's flight, should be departing in about three hours.” Id. Malone testified at his deposition that “[Youngblood] declined the job because he didn't want the Letter of Warning[, ]” and “I don't think he said the words ‘I ...


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