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Smith v. Formaspace Logistics Services, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, Austin Division

July 23, 2019

RODNEY SMITH and DE'QUON NICHOLAS, Plaintiffs,
v.
FORMASPACE LOGISTICS SERVICES, LLC and FORMASPACE, LP, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          SUSAN HIGHTOWER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         TO: THE HONORABLE LEE YEAKEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are Defendants Formaspace Logistics Services, LLC and Formaspace, LP's Motion for Summary Judgment, filed on May 15, 2019 (Dkt. No. 18) (“Defendants' Motion”); Plaintiffs Rodney Smith and De'Quon Nicholas' Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, filed on May 29, 2019 (Dkt. No. 19) (“Plaintiffs' Response”); and Defendants' Reply in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (“Defendants' Reply”), filed on June 12, 2019 (Dkt. No. 21). On May 31, 2019, the District Court referred Defendants' Motion to the undersigned for Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72, and Rule 1(d) of Appendix C of the Local Rules of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

         I. GENERAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs Rodney Smith and De'Quon Nicholas were hired by Defendant Formaspace, LP, a commercial office equipment manufacturer, in 2015 and fired in December of that year. Both men, who are African-American, allege intentional racial discrimination and retaliation for their complaints of race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, as well as discrimination on the basis of race and religion under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (“TCHRA”), § 21.001 et seq., Labor Code, Vernon's Texas Codes Annotated. Defendants allege that Plaintiffs were discharged based on video review showing that they were clocked in but missing from work areas for inappropriate lengths of time on the morning of December 5, 2015.[1]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment shall be rendered when the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials, and any affidavits on file show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-25 (1986); Washburn v. Harvey, 504 F.3d 505, 508 (5th Cir. 2007). A dispute regarding a material fact is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court is required to view all inferences drawn from the factual record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Washburn, 504 F.3d at 508. A court “may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence” in ruling on a motion for summary judgment. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254-55.

         Once the moving party has made an initial showing that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the party opposing the motion must come forward with competent summary judgment evidence of the existence of a genuine fact issue. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. Mere conclusory allegations are not competent summary judgment evidence, and thus are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007). Unsubstantiated assertions, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation are not competent summary judgment evidence. Id. The party opposing summary judgment is required to identify specific evidence in the record and to articulate the precise manner in which that evidence supports its claim. See Adams v. Travelers Indem. Co. of Conn., 465 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2006). If the nonmoving party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to its case and on which it will bear the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment must be granted. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate because neither Plaintiff can provide any evidence of racial discrimination or racial hostility; Plaintiff Nicholas admits that he does not believe the manager who fired him, William “Bill” Lambert, discriminated or retaliated against him on the basis of race; a retaliation case is impossible with respect to Plaintiff Smith because there is no evidence Lambert had any knowledge of any complaint raised by Smith; and neither Plaintiff has exhausted his administrative remedies to assert claims under the TCHRA.[2]

         Plaintiffs respond that they have exhausted their administrative remedies; the video footage produced by Defendants shows non-black employees clocked in while not working, but Defendants took no action against them; the video footage did not show Plaintiffs' complete work areas, and Plaintiffs also worked in other areas of the plant; and affidavits from Defendants' employees are inaccurate.

         A. Discrimination Claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the TCHRA

          Plaintiffs allege that Defendants discriminated against them by terminating their employment because they are African-American. The analysis of discrimination and retaliation claims under § 1981 and the Texas Labor Code is identical to the analysis of Title VII claims, so the Court analyzes the claims under Title VII. E.g., Shackelford v. Deloitte & Touche, LLP, 190 F.3d 398, 403 n.2 (5th Cir. 1999).

         Title VII prohibits discrimination against an employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. For cases based on circumstantial evidence, like this one, a court is to apply the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis. See Davis v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, 383 F.3d 309, 316-17 (5th Cir. 2004) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)). “A plaintiff relying on circumstantial evidence must put forth a prima facie case, at which point the burden shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment decision.” Berquist v. Wash. Mut. Bank, 500 F.3d 344, 349 (5th Cir. 2007). If the employer successfully articulates a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision, the burden returns to the plaintiff to offer evidence that the reason given by the employer is merely pretext for unlawful discrimination or that the employer's purported reason for its actions was only one of the motivating factors, and that another motivating factor was plaintiffs' protected characteristic. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 804-05; Autry v. Fort Bend Indep. School Dist., 704 F.3d 344, 346-47 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Vaughn v. Woodforest Bank, 665 F.3d 632, 636 (5th Cir. 2011)).

         Here, to establish their prima facie case, Plaintiffs must show that (1) they are members of a protected class; (2) they were qualified for the position; (3) they were subject to an adverse employment action; and (4) other similarly situated employees were treated more favorably. Standley v. Rogers, 680 Fed.Appx. 326, 327 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Bryan v. McKinsey & Co., 375 F.3d 358, 360 (5th Cir. 2004)).

         Defendants do not dispute that Plaintiffs have satisfied the first three elements of their prima facie case. The question before the Court is whether Plaintiffs have established a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating that other similarly situated non-class members were treated more favorably than they were. As the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has explained:

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; ...

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