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Ihsan v. Weatherford U.S., LP

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

May 21, 2019

HAMID IHSAN, Plaintiff,
WEATHERFORD U.S., LP, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, Hamid Ihsan, brings this action against defendant, Weatherford U.S., LP, asserting claims for employment discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981-1988 ("§ 1981"), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, et seq. ("Title VII"), and Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, Texas Labor Code §§ 21.051(1) and 21.055, based on race (South-Asian), color (darker skin color), national origin (Pakistani-born), and religion (Muslim).[1] Pending before the court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defendant's MSJ") (Docket Entry No. 21), and Defendant's Motions in Limine (Docket Entry No. 28). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's MSJ will be granted, Defendant's Motions in Limine will be denied as moot, and this action will be dismissed with prejudice.

         I. Undisputed Facts

         Defendant is a multinational company servicing the oil and gas industry.[2] In October or November of 2014 defendant's Product Line Engineering Manager, Michael Jahn, interviewed plaintiff for the position of Mechanical Engineer III at defendant's facility in Kingwood, Texas. Following the interviews, Jahn recommended that plaintiff be hired. Defendant hired plaintiff, and plaintiff began working as a Mechanical Engineer III reporting to Jahn in January of 2015.[3]

         Plaintiff's on-the-job training for his position as Mechanical Engineer III consisted of time that Jahn gave him to complete online training courses and modules related to defendant's product lines, use of defendant's internal database (Windchill) and design software (Creo), and hands-on training provided by other engineers under Jahn's supervision.[4]

         On May 15, 2015, Jahn sent plaintiff an email with performance objectives that included a directive to increase his knowledge of Windchill by looking into the training courses again and learning to complete work on his own, reminding him that he needed to complete his assignments in a timely fashion, and advising him to complete conceptual layouts with raw drawings and waiting to work out the details until after the conceptual layout has been approved.[5]

         On or about May 28, 2015, Jahn met with plaintiff to explain that draft drawings had to be produced quickly in response to customer requests, and that details would be investigated and finalized only if the customer accepted the draft drawings.[6] After this meeting plaintiff understood that Jahn believed there were areas in which his job performance needed improvement.[7]

         On June 23, 2015, Jahn placed plaintiff on a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP"), and reviewed with plaintiff in the presence of the defendant's Human Resources Manager, Jodi Andersen, the performance expectations outlined in the PIP. The PIP outlined several areas of improvement, including the plaintiff's need to improve the timeliness of his work, his ability to multitask, and his need not to get caught up on details during a project's initial stages. Jahn explained to plaintiff that his performance would be monitored for the next thirty days, and that thereafter Jahn would decide the best course of action. Jahn met with the plaintiff on a weekly basis to monitor his progress and address concerns.[8]

         When the PIP expired on July 24, 2015, Jahn extended it for an additional thirty days, i.e., until August 24, 2015.[9] The PIP Extension acknowledged that the plaintiff had made improvement, but stated that more was needed, specifically:

1. Monitor priorities more closely: Some tasks could have been done in a different order to better meet timely expectation. Creating a task overview list so we can discuss those things more efficiently would be one way to approach this area.
2. Follow the guidance you received by the project engineer: While working on the nForm-whqx project, you have not yet completed this more complex zone 2 back panel as instructed by the project engineer.
3. Focus first on the big picture of the project and then drill down to details. You are currently researching the cable clamps for the nForm-whqx. It would be more effective to start by looking at the larger back panel and then looking at the details of the clamps. Adopting this approach will help move a majority of the work forward in a timelier manner. This will also improve project transparency.
Maintaining continuity in these areas is necessary for you to become a well-accepted team lead and your performance will be closely monitored in the areas identified in the plan and described above.[10]

         The PIP Extension also warned the plaintiff that "[f]ailure to improve may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination."[11]

         In mid-August of 2015 plaintiff submitted a written complaint about Jahn through the defendant's internal complaint hotline alleging, inter alia, (1) that Jahn disregarded workplace safety issues and resented plaintiff for complaining about them, (2) that Jahn made disparaging remarks about Muslim customers who were slow to respond during the month of Ramadan, (3) that Jahn singled him out because he was a U.S. citizen and Jahn was not, (4) Jahn did not give him formal Creo training, and (5) Jahn intentionally placed him on a PIP during Ramadan out of bias for his religion.[12]

         In response to the complaints of discrimination that the plaintiff lodged against Jahn, the defendant's Human Resource Manager, Pamala Barrick, investigated the plaintiff's complaints, but after meeting with Jahn and several other employees was unable to substantiate the plaintiff's claims of discrimination.[13] On September 9, 2015, Barrick reviewed her findings with the plaintiff and reminded him about the defendant's non-retaliation policy.[14]

         On September 14, 2015, Jahn and plaintiff exchanged emails about drawings that plaintiff had not completed.[15]

         On September 28, 2015, the defendant terminated the plaintiff's employment.[16] When Barrick inquired "what the trigger [was] to terminate" the plaintiff, defendant's Human Resources Manager, David Dyer, responded, "He failed to meet requirements of his PIP, plus other circumstances."[17]

         Jahn died in October of 2015.[18]

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is authorized if the movant establishes that there is no genuine dispute about any material fact and the law entitles it to judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Disputes about material facts are "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511 (1986). A party moving for summary judgment "must 'demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact,' but need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 3 7 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553-54 (1986)). "If the moving party fails to meet this initial burden, the motion must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response." Id. If, however, the moving party meets this burden, Rule 56 requires the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and show by admissible evidence that specific facts exist over which there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. In reviewing the evidence "the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc., 120 S.Ct. 2097, 2110 (2000). Factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, "but only when there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges that defendant discriminated against him on the basis of race (South-Asian), color (dark-skinned), national origin (Pakistani), and religion (Muslim) in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Title VII, and comparable provisions of the Texas Labor Code, by placing him on PIPs and terminating his employment, and by terminating his employment in retaliation for having complained about discrimination.[19] Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on all of plaintiff's claims because plaintiff is unable to present evidence capable of satisfying the elements for a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation and because plaintiff is unable to present evidence capable of showing that the legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for which the defendant terminated his employment, i.e., poor performance and failure to meet the expectations for the position he held, was a pretext for discrimination or retaliation in violation of § 1981, Title VII, or the Texas Labor Code.[20] Plaintiff argues that Defendant's MSJ should be denied because the evidence establishes that his supervisor treated him differently than other employees working as engineers and retaliated against him after he complained about the supervisor's discriminatory treatment.[21]

         A. Applicable Law

         The Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibits race discrimination in private and public contracts. 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Title VII protects individuals from discrimination by an employer based on the "individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (a) (1) . "Section 21.051 [of the Texas Labor Code] is effectively identical to Title VII, its federal equivalent, except that Title VII does not protect against age and disability discrimination." Mission Consolidated Independent School District v. Garcia, 372 S.W.3d 629, 633 (Tex. 2012). Plaintiff may establish claims for employment discrimination and retaliation in violation of § 1981, Title VII, and § 21 of the Texas Labor Code by using direct evidence or by using the indirect method of proof set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 93 S.Ct. 1817 (1973). See Body by Cook, Inc. v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance, 869 F.3d 381, 386 (5th Cir. 2017), cert. denied, 138 S.Ct. 1009 (2018) ("The analysis of discrimination claims under § 1981 is identical to the analysis of Title VII claims."); Specialty Retailers, Inc. v. DeMoranville. 933 S.W.2d 490, 492 (Tex. 1996) (per curiam) ("Because one purpose of the Commission on Human Rights Act is to bring Texas law in line with federal laws addressing discrimination, federal case law may be cited as authority."). Because plaintiff argues that he has cited "sufficient circumstantial evidence" to defeat Defendant's MSJ, [22]the McDonnell Douglas framework applies to his claims.

         Plaintiff's initial burden under the McDonnell Douglas framework is to establish a prima facie case. 93 S.Ct. at 1824. If plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Id. The defendant may meet this burden by presenting evidence that would support a finding that unlawful discrimination and/or retaliation was not the cause of the employment action. If the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must adduce evidence that the defendant's articulated reason is false and is, instead, merely a pretext for discrimination and/or retaliation. Id. at 1825. If plaintiff can raise a genuine issue of material fact as to pretext, he can avoid summary judgment. Plaintiff may also avoid summary judgment on his discrimination claims by presenting evidence that the defendant's reason for its actions, while true, is only one of the reasons for its conduct, and that another "motivating factor" was the plaintiff's protected characteristic(s). See University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2526 (2013). To avoid summary judgment on his retaliation claims plaintiff must cite evidence capable of establishing that the defendant would not have taken the adverse action but for his protected activity. Id. at 2534. See also Hernandez v. Yellow Transportation, Inc., 670 F.3d 644, 657, 660 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 136 (2012); Navy v. College of the Mainland, 407 S.W.3d 893, 901-02 (Tex. App. -Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.).

         B. Application of the Law to the Undisputed Facts

         1. Plaintiff's Discrimination Claims Fail.

         Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's discrimination claims because plaintiff is unable to establish a prima facie case with respect to those claims. Alternatively, defendant argues that plaintiff was terminated for the legitimate, non-discriminatory reason of poor performance, and that plaintiff is unable to present evidence capable of showing either that the defendant's reason for terminating his employment was not true or that it was a pretext for discrimination.[23]

         (a) Plaintiff Fails to Establish a Prima Facie Case.

         A prima facie case of discriminatory termination requires a showing that the plaintiff (1) was a member of a protected class, -(2) was qualified for the position he held; (3) suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) was treated less favorably than similarly situated employees who were not members of his protected class(es). See Alkhawaldeh v. Dow Chemical Co., 851 F.3d 422, 426 (5th Cir. 2017) (citing McDonnell Douglas, 93 S.Ct. at 1824). See also Paske v. Fitzgerald, 785 F.3d 977, 985 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 536 (2015).

         Defendant does not dispute that plaintiff has satisfied three of the four elements required to establish a prima facie case of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and religion, i.e., plaintiff belongs to four protected classes (South-Asian, dark-skinned, Pakistani-born, and Muslim), plaintiff was minimally-qualified for his position, and plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action when the defendant terminated his employment.[24]Defendant argues that plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination because he cannot demonstrate that he was treated less favorably than other similarly-situated employees who were outside of his protected classes.[25]

The "similarly situated" prong requires a Title VII claimant to identify at least one coworker outside of his protected class who was treated more favorably "under nearly identical circumstances." This coworker, known as a comparator, must hold the "same job" or hold the same job responsibilities as the Title VII claimant; must "share[] the same supervisor or" have his "employment status determined by the same person" as the Title VII claimant; and must have a history of "violations" or ...

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