United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division
TIAWANDA D. HAMPTON, Plaintiff,
MACON BIBB COUNTY TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Defendant.
MARC T. TREADWELL, District Judge.
Plaintiff Tiawanda Hampton, an African-American female, alleges she was fired by Defendant Macon Bibb County Transit Authority because of her race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Before the Court is the Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 35). For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED.
The Plaintiff began working for the Defendant in 2007 as a bus operator. (Docs. 29 at 220:2-3; 36 at ¶ 1). Several months later, she was promoted to an executive assistant position. (Doc. 36 at ¶ 2). When Richard Jones became the Defendant's Chief Executive Officer and General Manager in July 2009, the Plaintiff began serving as his executive assistant. (Doc. 36 at ¶ 3). She did so until he fired her in April 2013. As discussed below, the Plaintiff was fired because of events that occurred during and following the day John Alligood, the Defendant's Human Resource Manager, brought his AR-15 rifle to work. (Docs. 30 at 24:15-22; 36 at ¶ 23). Alligood, who is Caucasian, was not fired. (Doc. 29 at 220:2-3).
When Alligood brought his gun to work on March 28, 2013, he first showed it to Sarita Thomas, the on-duty security guard who sits at a desk in the lobby outside of the Defendant's offices. (Docs. 30 at 34:8-18; 33 at 11:17-12:4; 36 at ¶ 26). Both Alligood and Thomas recall joking about the gun, with Alligood saying something like, "Don't piss me off today." (Docs. 30 at 34:21-35:2, 36:10-22; 33 at 22:2-12). Once inside the Defendant's office, Alligood showed his gun to several employees, including Jade Daniels, the Director of Operations, and June Slaughter, the Paratransit Manager. (Doc. 36 at ¶ 29). While Alligood was showing Daniels his gun in her office, the Plaintiff walked by, saw it, and then left to report it to Thomas. (Docs. 29 at 96:8-15, 122:22-123:4; 36 at ¶ 31). The Plaintiff told Thomas that Alligood "had a big gun in the building and that [she] was scared, [she] felt unsafe, and [she] didn't feel comfortable being there." (Doc. 29 at 123:13-15).
Thomas went to investigate while the Plaintiff stayed at Thomas's desk. (Docs. 29 at 123:17-19; 33 at 32:11-12). Thomas saw Alligood showing off his gun, returned to the Plaintiff, and asked her if she was not comfortable with what Alligood was doing. (Doc. 33 at 32:13-18). The Plaintiff replied that she was not. (Doc. 33 at 32:16-18). Thomas then asked the Plaintiff if she had talked to Jones, and she replied that she had not. (Doc. 33 at 32:21-23). The Parties dispute what happened next. According to Thomas, she asked the Plaintiff if she would talk to Jones, and the Plaintiff replied that she would not call him. (Doc. 33 at 33:10-12). According to the Plaintiff, Thomas told her to call Jones, and she called his office phone but he did not answer. (Doc. 29 at 123:22-24). In any event, the Plaintiff provided Thomas with Jones's cell phone number, and Thomas called Jones, who said he was "on the way" and would "handle it." (Docs. 29 at 123:24-124:4; 33 at 33:10-21, 34:12-13). According to the Plaintiff, Thomas then told her that "Jones [was] aware of [Alligood] bringing the gun [and] that [he knew] that [Alligood] [was] bringing the gun." (Doc. 29 at 124:12-14).
While Thomas called Jones, the Plaintiff called Craig Ross, Chairman of the Board of Directors. (Docs. 29 at 124:14-15; 33 at 74:9-11; 36 at ¶ 41; 40-1 at ¶ 41). After the Plaintiff finished talking with Ross, Daniels and Slaughter approached her. (Docs. 29 at 125:19-22; 37-1 at ¶ 8; 37-2 at ¶ 7). According to the Plaintiff, they told her Jones "knew that [Alligood] was bringing the gun because he okayed it." (Doc. 29 at 125:22-25). The Plaintiff did not return to the Defendant's offices until Alligood was gone. (Doc. 29 at 126:8-10). Once he left, the Plaintiff returned, gathered her belongings, and left. (Doc. 29 at 126:23-127:1). The Plaintiff testified that she left because she "was still afraid" and she did not know "what this man [was] capable of doing." (Doc. 29 at 127:2-4).
Both the Plaintiff and Alligood returned to work the following day, a Friday, and Jones instructed them to write a statement about the incident. (Docs. 29 at 168:7-20; 30 at 68:11-13). According to Jones, Alligood did not have a reason for bringing his gun to work. (Doc. 31 at 71:23-72:2). Still, according to Jones, Alligood was "as apologetic as anybody I've ever seen that has committed a violation." (Doc. 31 at 71:6-10). Under the employee handbook, bringing a gun to work could result in either a ten-day suspension or termination. (Doc. 36 at ¶ 54). Alligood received a ten-day suspension. (Docs. 30 at 71:8-13, 72:2-18; 31 at 74:21-75:1).
The following Monday, April 1, Jones asked to meet with the Plaintiff. (Doc. 29 at 171:3-9). In addition to the policies set forth in the employee handbook, Jones had the authority to issue directives that employees were required to follow. (Docs. 36 at ¶ 16; 40-1 at ¶ 16). Jones believed the Plaintiff had violated his directive that all of the Defendant's employees must follow the chain of command and notify him directly - and not contact members of the Board of Directors - if there are any significant events at the Macon Bibb County Transit Authority. (Docs. 31 at 106:1-4; 36 at ¶ 17; 40-1 at ¶ 17). The Plaintiff admitted she knew about this directive, knew it was important to Jones, and knew she could be disciplined for not obeying it. (Docs. 36 at ¶¶ 20-21; 40-1 at ¶¶ 20-21). Jones also testified that he was concerned about the Plaintiff's violation because it indicated a "lack of trust." (Doc. 31 at 106:24-107:5). Thomas informed Jones that the Plaintiff said she would not call him, and Jones felt the need to find out why his executive assistant would say such a thing. (Doc. 31 at 48:1-5, 76:18-25). As his executive assistant, Jones "depend[ed] on her more than [he] [did] anybody else there." (Doc. 31 at 48:6-7). Thus, Jones testified that the purpose of speaking with the Plaintiff was to "find out why she was uncomfortable calling me." (Doc. 31 at 78:8-11). He did not intend to discipline her. (Doc. 31 at 68:5-6).
When the Plaintiff went back to Jones's office, she asked him if she could have a witness or record the conversation. (Docs. 29 at 172:3-8; 31 at 88:7-8). Jones told her to go back to her desk, and a few minutes later, he came back and said he had procured a witness. (Doc. 29 at 172:8-14). The witness was Slaughter, and according to the Plaintiff, she was "[h]is witness, not my witness." (Doc. 29 at 172:12-17). The Plaintiff had a problem with Slaughter being the witness because "they thought it all was a joke[, ] [and] I didn't think it was a joke." (Doc. 29 at 172:18-25). Nevertheless, all three went into Jones's office and Jones asked the Plaintiff why she called Ross instead of him. (Docs. 29 at 172:14-17, 177:11-14; 31 at 78:14-16). The Plaintiff refused to answer his questions, sometimes by sitting in silence and sometimes by stating words to the effect of "I refuse to answer that question." (Docs. 29 at 177:15-17; 31 at 111:22-112:11; 36 at ¶ 65; 40-1 at 65; 37-1 at ¶ 14).
The Plaintiff admitted it was reasonable for Jones to ask her why she did not follow his directive. (Doc. 29 at 179:12-15). She also admitted she knew that by not answering Jones's questions, she was being insubordinate. (Doc. 29 at 48:25-49:2). However, the Plaintiff testified she did not answer Jones because she was scared and intimidated by Jones's heavy breathing and hitting on the desk. (Doc. 29 at 178:6-7, 179:16-180:3). Jones and Slaughter both claim that Jones was calm and did not raise his voice. (Docs. 31 at 78:12-13; 37-1 at ¶ 13). After the Plaintiff refused to answer Jones's questions, Jones instructed Slaughter to escort the Plaintiff to her desk and "to have her get her personal effects and to leave the building." (Docs. 29 at 181:13-14; 31 at 85:24-86:5; 37-1 at ¶ 15). Jones testified he did this because the Plaintiff refused to answer his questions. (Doc. 31 at 86:6-9). Slaughter understood Jones's statement "to mean that [the Plaintiff] had just been terminated." (Doc. 37-1 at ¶ 15). Jones too believed that he had just fired the Plaintiff, and he testified it was his intent to do so. (Docs. 31 at 113:2-9; 36 at ¶ 71). The Plaintiff, however, did not believe she had been fired, and she returned to work the following day, April 2. (Doc. 29 at 183:7-20).
As soon as Jones learned that the Plaintiff had returned to work on April 2, he asked that the Plaintiff be taken to the conference room. (Doc. 31 at 87:6-8). Jones testified the purpose of this second meeting was "to give her another opportunity" and that he was willing to, or was, "reconsidering" his decision to terminate her the previous day. (Doc. 31 at 113:10-21, 114:12-18). Jones asked the Plaintiff the same questions he asked the previous day. (Doc. 29 at 193:9-13). Again, the Plaintiff sat silently and refused to answer his questions. (Doc. 29 at 189:24-25, 193:14-22). Jones told the Plaintiff that if she did not respond, "it's considered insubordination... and is grounds for immediate termination." (Docs. 36 at ¶ 78; 40-1 at ¶ 78). After the Plaintiff refused to answer, Jones stated, "I have no other choice. You are terminated." (Doc. 36 at ¶ 86; 40-1 at 86). The Plaintiff testified she refused to answer Jones's questions because she believed she had already been terminated. (Doc. 29 at 190:2-25, 191:11-23). Prior to going into the conference room, Slaughter had approached her and told her that Alligood said to turn in her keys and her last paycheck would be mailed to her. (Doc. 29 at 184:12-22, 190:10, 191:18-23).
In considering the imposition of discipline, Jones considered factors like whether his employees intended to do wrong, whether they agreed they did something wrong, whether they promised they would not do it again, and whether they were willing to accept the consequences of their actions. (Doc. 31 at 71:11-22, 97:5-16). According to Jones, the Plaintiff "was unwilling to admit any fault [or] take any action to correct the issue that she had. She refused to answer any questions even after she was told that that was grounds for insubordination and grounds for immediate termination." (Doc. 31 at 99:5-12). Alligood, on the other hand, had no ill intent, and the fact that he was apologetic was a mitigating factor. (Doc. 31 at 71:6-22, 97:16-19). Jones also testified this was the first time in his career that an employee had refused to answer his questions. (Docs. 36 at ¶ 88; 40-1 at ¶ 88). He testified that if Alligood had refused to answer his questions, he would have "terminated him on the spot." (Doc. 31 at 98:10-11).
The Executive Committee of the Board of Directors, which had the authority to affirm, reverse, or modify Jones's decision to terminate the Plaintiff if it believed a change was warranted, retained a consultant, Dr. William Cummings, to independently review Jones's decision. (Docs. 36 at ¶ 96; 40-1 at ¶ 36; 37-4 at ¶ 10). Following Dr. Cummings's review, the Executive Committee unanimously decided to uphold the Plaintiff's termination. (Doc. 37-4 at ¶ 16). Jones hired ...