United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division
HUGH LAWSON, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Jackie Robinson, an African-American man, brings this action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), and under the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("§ 1981") asserts that Defendants Colquitt EMC, Dixie Lightfoot, and Doug Loftis discriminated against him on the basis of his race. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants impermissibly targeted him for discipline based on his race alone and treated him differently than other similarly situated Caucasian employees. Plaintiff also claims that Defendants permitted racially derogatory conduct to permeate the employment landscape, creating a hostile work environment and subjecting Plaintiff to the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 54). After reviewing the pleadings, briefs, depositions, and other evidentiary materials presented, and determining that there is no genuine dispute of the material facts, the Court finds that Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law and grants Defendants' motion.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff Jackie Robinson ("Plaintiff") worked for Defendant Colquitt EMC ("Defendant") from January 16, 2002 until his termination on July 2, 2012. Defendant maintains a progressive discipline policy and terminated Plaintiff following a documented series of disciplinary actions for substandard work, inappropriate conduct, safety issues, carelessness, and failure to respond timely when on call. Plaintiff contends that Defendant applied its disciplinary procedures unevenly, holding him and other African-American employees to a different standard of conduct than their Caucasian counterparts. Plaintiff further asserts that Defendant permitted certain racially-motivated behaviors to pervade the workplace, creating a hostile work environment for Plaintiff. The facts viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff are as follows.
A. Plaintiff's Disciplinary History and Termination
Defendant is a not-for profit consumer-owned electrical distribution system that provides energy to members in Berrian, Brooks, Colquitt, Lowndes, Tift and Worth Counties. The company is headquartered in Moultrie and operates district offices in Valdosta and Tifton and branch offices in Adel, Nashville, and Quitman. Plaintiff began working as a Groundman out of Defendant's Valdosta office on January 16, 2002. Plaintiff worked without incident for the first seven years of his career with Defendant, receiving regular positive performance evaluations accompanied by corresponding raises in pay. Plaintiff gradually moved from Groundman to Lineman Apprentice to Lineman, and finally was promoted to Senior Lineman in April 2009.
Plaintiff received his first written warning in October 2009. Disciplinary action resulted from a September 17, 2009, incident during which Plaintiff failed to follow proper procedures for installing a mechanical jumper while splicing wire. This mistake caused a 20-minute power outage. Defendant placed the written warning in Plaintiff's personnel file. The company took no other disciplinary action against Plaintiff in relation to this event.
Plaintiff was not disciplined again until March 17, 2011, when he received a written warning along with a four day suspension without pay resulting from his failure to secure properly a hot phase while working in the bucket of a truck on March 14, 2011. Defendant temporarily reassigned Plaintiff from the Valdosta office to the Moultrie office following this episode and warned him that a future incident would result in disciplinary action, including days off without pay, reassignment, demotion, or termination. Plaintiff's crew leader, Ray Parish, who is Caucasian, also received a four day suspension for failing to notify management about the incident.
Two months later, on May 3, 2011, Plaintiff was involved in a work-related car accident. Plaintiff was driving Defendant's truck #30 when the boom knuckle of his truck hit the rear of truck #2103, driven by Leslie Hunt. Neither Plaintiff nor Hunt reported the accident to their employer. Plaintiff provided inconsistent statements about the cause of the accident. He admits that he possibly made a statement to his crew supervisor that the damage to the truck resulted from hitting a transformer. He also admits that he might have reported that he bumped another truck while driving to the job site. Plaintiff later confessed to his dishonesty and to violating company policy regarding failure to report the accident and lying to cover up the property damage. Consequently, on May 5, 2011, Plaintiff received a written warning and a five day suspension. Additionally, Defendant demoted him from Senior Lineman to Lineman. Plaintiff's co-worker, Leslie Hunt, a Caucasian male, was suspended but for a shorter period of time because he had no recent prior incident and because Defendant determined that Plaintiff was at fault for the accident and initiated the cover-up.
Plaintiff next was written up for tardiness on September 15, 2011. Plaintiff forgot to set his alarm on September 14, 2011, and, as a result, was late to work. Shortly thereafter, Defendant transferred Plaintiff back to the Valdosta office.
The next disciplinary event occurred on October 18, 2011, when Plaintiff failed to secure a neutral line while working in the bucket of a truck. The line fell down the pole and sprang back up, creating the potential for serious injury both to Plaintiff and others on the job site. As a result, on October 27, 2011, Defendant issued Plaintiff another written warning and suspended him for four days. Defendant further cautioned Plaintiff that the "next incident of sub-standard work, conduct, safety, disobedience, or carelessness will result in immediate termination." (Doc. 62, p. 68).
Following the October 2011 incident, Plaintiff met with Doug Loftis, Manager for Human Resources and Corporate Services for Defendant; Dixie Lightfoot, District Manager in Defendant's Valdosta office; Sidney Zipperer, Operations Manager; and Ronnie Caldwell, District Operations Superintendent for the Valdosta office. Management reviewed Plaintiff's recent rash of conduct resulting in disciplinary measures. Loftis inquired why Plaintiff was having difficulty performing his job. Plaintiff responded that the recent death of his sister was on his mind and creating a distraction. At the conclusion of the meeting, Loftis instructed Plaintiff that he would have to be an "exemplary Lineman" for the next several years.
Plaintiff worked without incident from October 2011 until May 2012. Then, on May 8, 2012, Plaintiff received a three day suspension for failing to respond timely to a power outage on May 6, 2012. Plaintiff was on call on that date. When the dispatcher notified him about the outage, Plaintiff informed her that he was at a family reunion planning meeting. Upon further investigation, management determined that after placing the first call to Plaintiff, the dispatcher called again 45 minutes later, at which time Plaintiff said that he would respond in ten minutes.
Plaintiff met with Loftis, Lightfoot, and Caldwell on May 11, 2012. Management reviewed Plaintiff's disciplinary history and provided him with a memorandum explaining that he was at the "last chance" stage of Defendant's progressive discipline policy. Plaintiff was told that he was at the point of termination in every aspect of job performance, including substandard work, inappropriate conduct, safety issues, attendance problems, disobedience, and carelessness. Management emphasized that another incident of any sort would result in immediate termination. Loftis again told Plaintiff that he needed to be an exemplary employee in order to keep his job.
On June 30, 2012, Plaintiff again failed to respond to a call in a timely fashion. Plaintiff testified that on that date he had become overheated while cutting grass. (Doc. 59, p. 215). When the dispatcher called at 4:02 p.m., he informed the dispatcher that he was ill. (Id.) The dispatcher inquired whether he still could make the call, and Plaintiff replied in the affirmative. (Id.). He then fell back asleep. (Id.) Plaintiff recollects that the dispatcher called again at 4:45 p.m. (Doc. 59, p. 214). He then completed the call at 5:48 p.m., and returned home by 6:19 p.m. (Id.). In contrast, the dispatcher's log shows that the first dispatcher contacted Plaintiff at 4:02 p.m. (Doc. 82, p. 14, 16). A second dispatcher called at 5:48 p.m. (Id.). Plaintiff completed the call at 6:19 p.m. and returned home at 6:39 p.m. (Id.).
As a result of this final incident, Defendant terminated Plaintiff on July 2, 2012. Dixie Lightfoot signed the Separation Notice, but Danny Nichols, the General Manager, and Doug Loftis made the ultimate decision to relieve Plaintiff of his position. Defendant listed Plaintiff's position on July 5, 2012, and promoted Chris Bolling, a Caucasian male and existing employee, to fill the vacancy on August 16, 2012.
B. Plaintiff's Hostile Work Environment Claims
Plaintiff alleges that despite Defendant's policy prohibiting discriminatory and harassing conduct, during his tenure working for Defendant he was subject to a barrage of racially discriminatory and offensive conduct from other employees that created a hostile work environment. Plaintiff stated that when he first began working for Defendant, he heard someone say that Plaintiff would not make it as a Colquitt EMC employee. Early in his employment Plaintiff indicated that each February Andy Sykes would ask "What do Black people need Black History Month for?" or "What is Black History Month for?" After Barak Obama's election as President, Justin Brown, a Caucasian foreman, stated, "The Black people now got them a Black Jesus."
In 2004 or 2005, Herman Brasher, a non-supervisory employee of Defendant, told another Caucasian employee that "if the base closes, this will be nothing but a nigger town." Plaintiff was present when Brasher made the comment. Brasher later apologized to Plaintiff. From 2006 through 2007, Plaintiff worked under the supervision of a foreman by the name of Monty Cowart. Cowart regularly referred to Plaintiff as "colored" or "colored boy." Plaintiff at some point during this time frame verbally addressed Cowart's treatment to Lightfoot and Loftis. Following this conversation, the comments ceased. Cowart no longer supervised Plaintiff and eventually was relieved of his position as a foreman on September 16, 2007.
Justin Brown confessed to Plaintiff in 2009 or 2010 that he and Ray Parrish, another Caucasian foreman, burned a cross at Lowndes County High School more than 20 years ago. Plaintiff never raised this conversation with management, and he, Brown, and Parrish never spoke about the matter again.
Plaintiff complains of other intermittent comments made by other employees. He states that Brown regularly addressed him as "hey" or "you" rather than by his name, even though he referred to Caucasian employees by their given names. Parrish made comments along the lines of "What's the matter with you butterfingers?" or "Butterfingers, you can't keep your mind on what you're doing, " when Plaintiff would drop something while working in gloves. Plaintiff never instituted any complaint about these remarks and admits that the particular terminology employed by Brown and Parrish was not racially offensive.
Plaintiff heard other co-workers make what he perceived as racially charged declarations. Ronnie Caldwell once said, "I don't trust Nancy Pelosi and the clown that's running this county." Reid Ensley passed around his cell phone to share a picture of President Obama boarding Air Force One carrying a watermelon under his arm. David Sills upon pulling up to a work site once declared, "How in the world are we supposed to get in all this ...