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Singleton v. Young Men's Christian Association of Greater Houston

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

June 26, 2019

REBECCA SINGLETON, Plaintiff,
v.
YOUNG MEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION (YMCA) OF GREATER HOUSTON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SIM LAKE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Rebecca Singleton, brings this action against defendant, Young Men's Christian Association ("YMCA") of Greater Houston, asserting a claim for employment discrimination based on race (African-American) in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a) (1) ("Title VII").[1] Pending before the court is Defendant YMCA's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defendant's MSJ") (Docket Entry No. 48), Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defendant's Memorandum") (Docket Entry No. 49), and Plaintiff's Motion to Strike Portions of Defendant's Summary Judgment Evidence ("Plaintiff's Motion to Strike") (Docket Entry No. 51). For the denied as moot, Defendant's MSJ will be granted, and this action will be dismissed with prejudice.

         I. Undisputed Facts

         Plaintiff is an African-American woman who began working for the YMCA on a part-time basis in January of 2009 as a group exercise teacher at the Orem YMCA in Houston, Texas. She remained a part-time employee until 2011 when she moved to the Tellepsen YMCA in downtown Houston to serve as Healthy Living Director.[2]

         In December of 2011 or 2012 Chad Swirczek became the plaintiff's supervisor when he was hired to be Executive Director of the Tellepsen YMCA.[3]

         In February of 2013 Swirczek recommended plaintiff for promotion to Senior Healthy Living Director. Plaintiff was interviewed by Swirczek and Vice-President of Human Resources, Jennifer Lopez, who approved her for promotion. Plaintiff was promoted and received a pay increase to $57, 000.00 making her one one of the three highest paid employees at the Tellepsen YMCA.[4]

         In April of 2013 plaintiff took leave allowed by the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") .[5] While plaintiff was on FMLA leave she had a telephone conversation with Swirczek during which Swirczek raised his voice and after which plaintiff lodged a complaint against Swirczek to the defendant's Human Resources office.[6]

         On May 3, 2013, Swirczek gave plaintiff an Employee Counseling Report.[7] The Employee Counseling Report stated:

         You are being issued this final written warning for several infractions of company policy and standard codes of conduct:

1. The repeated offense of adj us ting your employees timecards and not noting the comments for the adjustment.
2. [P]er Standards of Conducts #10, [f]or threatening your staff to keep information related to your daughter and who she dates to themselves or that you would make their Y career very bad.
3. [P]er Standards of Conducts # 9, [f]or not completing the staff schedule/forecast per our conversation on March 4th in a timely manner. Note that the Y was informed of your FMLA on Thursday, March 28th as well you took off March 7th, which informed me on March 4th and took off March 11 which you informed me on Sunday March 10th at 10:22 p .m.
4. For the 2nd time, I have been made aware that you are directly spreading rumors and gossip about me and other employees. According to our Workplace Bullying policy, the YMCA does not tolerate any form of bullying and anyone engaging in workplace bullying can be terminated.
5. Not calling members back within 2 4 hours or 1 Business Day, for example Jena Turner.[8]

         Plaintiff signed the Employee Counseling Report without writing any comments in the section titled "Employee's Comments."[9]

         In January of 2014 the YMCA reorganized the salaried employees at the Tellepsen YMCA. Pursuant to the reorganization, plaintiff's title changed from Senior Healthy Living Director to Senior Program Director and the number of employees under her direct supervision increased from one to three, but her salary of $57, 000.00 remained the same.[10] Laura Wilson ("Wilson”), a white woman, who similarly received the title of Senior Program Director and experienced an increase in the number of employees under her direct supervision during the reorganization, received an annual salary increase to $53, 000.00 .[11] Following the reorganization Swirczek moved plaintiff - against her wishes - out of an office on the fourth floor and into a cubicle on the second floor.[12]

         On March 26, 2014 the defendant terminated the plaintiff's employment for failing to meet the standards and expectations of the YMCA for a senior management position.[13]

         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., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en bane) (per curiam) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553 (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. "[T]he 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 her on the basis of race (African-American) in violation of Title VII by terminating her employment.[14] Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's claim because plaintiff is unable to present evidence capable of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination or to show that the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for which her employment was terminated, is a pretext for race discrimination.[15] Quoting Reeves, 120 S.Ct. at 2109, plaintiff argues that Defendant's MSJ should be denied because she has established a prima facie case, and a "plaintiff's prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find that the employer's asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the employer unlawfully discriminated. "[16]

         A. Applicable Law

         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). Plaintiff may establish claims for employment discrimination in violation of Title VII 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). Plaintiff relies on the McDonnell Douglas framework to establish her claim.[17]

         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. If the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must adduce evidence capable of establishing that the defendant's articulated reason is false and is, instead, a pretext for discrimination. Id. at 1825.

         B. Application of the Law to the Undisputed Facts

         Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's discrimination claim because plaintiff is unable to establish a prima facie case.[18] Alternatively, defendant argues that plaintiff was terminated for the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason of failing to meet the standards and expectations of the YMCA for a senior management position, [19] and that plaintiff is unable to present evidence capable of showing that the stated reason for terminating her employment was not true or was, instead, a pretext for race discrimination.[20]

         1. Plaintiff Fails to Establish a Prima Facie Case.

         A prima facie case of race discriminatory requires a showing that the plaintiff (1) was a member of a protected class; (2) was qualified for her position; (3) suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) was replaced by someone outside of her protected class or treated less favorably than other similarly situated employees who were outside of her protected class. See Alkhawaldeh v. Dow Chemical Co., 851 F.3d 422, 426 (5th Cir. 2017); (citing McDonnell Douglas, 93 S.Ct. at 1824); 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 race discrimination, i.e., plaintiff belongs to a protected class (African-American), plaintiff was qualified for her position, and plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action when the defendant terminated her employment.[21] Defendant argues that plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination because she cannot demonstrate that she was replaced by someone outside of her protected class or that she was treated less favorably than other similarly-situated employees who were outside her protected class.[22]

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 "infringements" similar to that of the Title VII claimant.

Alkhawaldeh, 851 F.3d at 426. See also Paske, 785 F.3d at 985 ("To establish the fourth element, [plaintiff must] show, inter alia, that his 'conduct that drew the adverse employment decision [was] "nearly identical" to that of the proffered comparator who allegedly drew dissimilar employment decisions.'"). Defendant argues that plaintiff is unable to satisfy the fourth element of a prima facie case because she has acknowledged that she "was not replaced by anyone, "[23] and because she cannot show that any other similarly situated employee was treated more favorably under nearly identical circumstances.[24]

         Plaintiff responds that she "has pointed to the disparate treatment of Laura Wilson - a white woman - at a similar position who was not terminated."[25] Plaintiff argues that

[t]he YMCA placed Ms. Singleton in the position of Senior Program Manager, increasing the number of departments who reported to her from one to four (like Ms. Wilson), but did not give her a pay raise and claims not to have considered this a "promotion", while Ms. Wilson was given a pay raise, and Ms. Wilson's position change was considered by the Y to be a promotion. As part and parcel to the reorganization, Ms. Singleton was made to retain personal training - a role with dozens of part-time trainers reporting to her, while also being placed in charge of multiple departments that she had no experience in managing. The glaring part of the reorganization was that the departments Ms. Singleton was put in charge of all had minorities in charge of them, while Laura Wilson, Ms. Singleton's white counterpart, was put in charge of departments all headed by (and was reported to by) white people except the lone head of child care. . . .
After complaining to members of the board, Ms. Singleton was moved by Mr. Swirczek from her office on the fourth floor - adjacent to the training floor where she could meet with members to confidentially talk about their health, fitness, and body image issues - and put in a cubicle on the second floor that was not adjacent to anyone she worked with (heads of departments she oversaw had offices on the first floor by the pool, or the second floor in a different area). Ms. Singleton could not meet with her team in her cubicle and could not meet with personal training clients in her cubicle, and Ms. Singleton could not oversee training on the fourth floor main workout area, to do her job. Ms. Singleton was the only management employee at her level without an office. Her office on the fourth floor was filled with equipment when she was moved.
Ms. Singleton was not replaced when she was fired. The organizational chart, implemented in January 2014, three months prior to her firing, was ostensibly not race-related, but instead to have many fewer direct reports to Mr. Swirczek. [ sic] When Ms. Singleton was fired and not replaced, all of her four reports then reported directly to Mr. Swirczek, essentially undoing half ...

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