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Pearson v. Augusta

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division

March 9, 2017

MELINDA BEASLEY PEARSON, Plaintiff,
v.
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA through its Mayor Hardie Davis, Jr., in his official capacity, and its commission, in its official capacity et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE J. RANDAL HALL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case arises out of Plaintiff's employment with Defendant Augusta, Georgia. After over thirty years of service, Augusta demoted Plaintiff for violating workplace policies. It then, according to Plaintiff, forced her into retirement. In response, Plaintiff sued Augusta and three Augusta employees under a number of federal employment statutes and the Fourteenth Amendment. But because the Court does not sit as a "super-personnel department assessing the prudence of routine employment decisions, " Flowers v. Troup Cty., Ga, Sch. Dist., 803 F.3d 1327, 1338 (11th Cir 2015) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted), most of Plaintiff's claims fail. Only her Title VII retaliation claim will proceed.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff began working for Augusta in 1980. Eventually, she became an operations manager in the Recreation, Parks, and Facilities ("Parks and Recreation") department. As part of her duties, Plaintiff managed over twenty employees and was responsible for the day-to-day operations of over sixty city facilities. And as an operations supervisor, Plaintiff was classified as an exempt employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). Thus, she did not receive overtime compensation for working more than forty hours in a workweek. But according to Plaintiff, she also performed a significant amount of manual labor, which she believed entitled her to overtime pay under the FLSA.

         At some point, certain Parks and Recreation officials began allowing exempt employees to accrue "comp time" when they worked more than forty hours in a workweek. When employees worked certain special events that ran late into the night, for example, Parks and Recreation would allow them to record that time. The employees would later be permitted to use the comp time as paid time off from work. Plaintiff participated in this program.

         In 1999, Plaintiff asked her supervisor for permission to use some of her comp time. But Plaintiff's request was denied because, as an exempt employee, she was not permitted to accrue comp time. (Doc. 31, PI. Dep. at 83-86.) Plaintiff contested this decision to the director of human resources, who allowed Plaintiff to use the time she had accrued. (Doc. 31-4.) Specifically, in a letter to the director of Parks and Recreation, the human-resources director noted that Plaintiff was in fact prohibited from accruing comp time because she was an exempt employee. (Id.) But he determined that because Plaintiff had been allowed to accrue the time, "there [was] no other option other than to compensate her for this time." (Id.) Thus, Augusta permitted Plaintiff to use the time she had accrued.

         Following this incident, the director of Parks and Recreation, Tom Beck, instructed Plaintiff to stop recording comp time on her payroll records. (PI. Dep. at 87.) Mr. Beck told her that she was instead required to record only 7.5 hours, regardless of how many hours she worked in a day. (Id. at 89.) Plaintiff disagreed with Mr. Beck's instruction, so she implemented her own method for tracking comp time. (Id. at 8 9-90.)

         Employee timecards at the time contained three sheets - a white sheet, a blue sheet, and a yellow sheet. On the white copy, Plaintiff would record the 7.5 hours she was required to record. (Id. at 8 9.) This copy went to the payroll department. On the blue and yellow copies, Plaintiff would record the actual time she worked. (Id. at 90.) And when Plaintiff wanted to use her comp time, she would fill out a request form and request her supervisor's approval.[1] (Id. at 93.) Plaintiff followed this practice from 1999 until 2012, when she was demoted.

         In 2000, Augusta adopted an ordinance that created an employee policy manual. (Doc. 31-5.) In 2011, Augusta amended its policy manual. (See Doc. 31-7.) The 2011 version specifically provides that "comp time shall only be applicable to non-exempt employees." (Doc. 31-8 at 20.)

         In July 2011, Plaintiff took a leave of absence from work for medical reasons. (PI. Dep. at 118-19.) She received leave with pay from early July until August 19, 2011. (Id. at 119.) But in August, Plaintiff ran out of leave time. (Id. at 120.) Plaintiff then attempted to use the comp time she had purportedly accrued to continue her leave with pay. (Id. at 123.) Her request was denied, however, because the human-resources department did not have a record of her comp time. (Id. at 128.)

         Because Plaintiff had run out of sick leave, some of her coworkers donated leave to her through Augusta's catastrophic-leave program. (Id. at 148-49.) Under this program, employees could request leave donations from other employees. But out-of- work employees were permitted to make these requests only if they had exhausted all of their own leave. Plaintiff received catastrophic-leave pay from September 9 through December 2. (Id. at 153.) She returned to work on December 5, 2011. (Id. at 154-55.)

         When Plaintiff returned to work, she immediately began having trouble working with another employee, Sam Smith, with whom she had previously had issues. (See id. at 160-61.) Plaintiff spoke with Dennis Stroud, her supervisor at the time, about Mr. Smith the first day she returned, but this proved unproductive. Two weeks later, she approached Mr. Stroud again. (Id. at 170-71.) This time, Plaintiff and Mr. Stroud got into a heated argument, and Plaintiff left work. (Id. at 171-72.) When she got home, Plaintiff called Mr. Stroud and asked to use her accrued comp time so she could have a few days to clear her head. (Id. at 172.) Mr. Stroud agreed, and Plaintiff took four days off. (Id. at 178.) Notably, while she was out, Plaintiff's timecard showed that she worked those days. (Id. at 180.)

         In the spring of 2011, the human-resources department began an investigation into Plaintiff's use of comp time. According to Bill Shanahan, the interim director of human resources and of the Parks and Recreation department, Lisa Hall, an employee from Parks and Recreation, complained to human resources about Plaintiff's use of comp time. (Doc. 41-1, Shanahan Dep. at 18.) Specifically, Mr. Shanahan contends that Ms. Hall questioned why Plaintiff was able to use comp time after returning to work when Plaintiff had previously requested catastrophic leave, which is only available when an employee has exhausted all other leave options. (Id. at 18.) Ms. Hall denies that she made this complaint and instead claims that others complained to her about Plaintiff's use of comp time. (Doc. 91-1, Hall Dep. at 26-27.)

         In any event, Plaintiff learned about the investigation in February 2011 when Mr. Shanahan and other human-resources employees arrived at her office to review Plaintiff's records. (PI. Dep. at 180.) Soon thereafter, Plaintiff spoke with Mr. Shanahan and explained her timekeeping process to him. (Id. at 187.)

         As a result of Mr. Shanahan's investigation, Plaintiff was demoted to the position of maintenance worker. (Id. at 190.) She began work in that position in early May 2011. (Id. at 204-205.) Around the same time, Plaintiff also appealed her demotion. (Id. at 190.) As part of the appeal process, Plaintiff was granted a hearing in front of Fred Russell, Augusta's administrator. (IcL at 194.) At the hearing, however, Mr. Russell did not allow Plaintiff to present witnesses. (Doc. 37-1, Russell Dep. at 33-34.) Mr. Russell claims that the appeal was an "administrative review" and that Plaintiff should have been afforded an opportunity to present witnesses at a prior hearing. (Id. at 34.) But Mr. Russell was apparently unaware that Plaintiff had not been given a prior hearing.

         Plaintiff worked as a maintenance worker until May 31, 2011. (PI. Dep. at 213.) At that time, she went out of work with an injury. (Id. at 219.) Plaintiff remained out of work for over a year, and in late 2012, she underwent back surgery. (Id. at 223-25.) Not long after her surgery, someone from Augusta contacted Plaintiff and requested that she return to work by January 2013. (Id. at 225-26.) She did not return in January, and in February 2013, Plaintiff met with someone in Augusta's human-resources office. (Id. at 226.) During that meeting, Plaintiff claims that she was presented with three options: (1) she could "retire and freeze [her] pension"; (2) she could retire and face a penalty for drawing from her pension early; or (3) she could choose not to act, in which case Augusta would choose for her. (Id. at 227.) Whether on purpose or not, Plaintiff apparently chose option three because she soon learned that Augusta had retired her without her permission.[2] (Id. at 228.)

         II. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff began this litigation in May 2014 when she filed suit against Augusta, Fred Russell, Bill Shanahan, and Sam Smith. In her complaint, she alleges that: (1) she was retaliated against in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA")[3]; (2) she was retaliated against in violation of the FLSA; (3) she was denied due process; and (4) she was denied equal protection.

         Plaintiff's complaint, however, did not include all of the claims she intended to bring. In November 2012, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that her demotion was the result of race and gender discrimination and retaliation. (Doc. 28-7.) In April 2013, Plaintiff filed a second EEOC charge alleging that she was fired based on her disability and in retaliation for filing her first EEOC charge. (Doc. 28-10.) Plaintiff did not receive her right-to-sue letters until January 2015. (Doc. 28-14.) So Plaintiff filed a second lawsuit against Augusta in August 2015. (CV 115-123.) In her second complaint, Plaintiff alleges: (1) that Augusta discriminated against her based on her race and gender in violation of Title VII; (2) that Augusta discriminated against her based on a disability; (3) that Augusta retaliated against her for filing her November 2012 EEOC charge; and (4) a claim of hostile work environment. (CV 115-123, Doc. 6.)

         At Plaintiff's request, the Court consolidated her two cases. The Court also allowed the parties time to complete discovery and file dispositive motions on the claims raised in the second case before ruling on the dispositive motions that were already pending in the original case. All of the parties' motions are now ripe for review.

         III. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate only if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Facts are "material" if they could affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986), and must draw "all justifiable inferences in [its] favor." United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991) (en banc) (internal punctuation and citations omitted).

         The moving party has the initial burden of showing the Court, by reference to materials on file, the basis for the motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). How to carry this burden depends on who bears the burden of proof at trial. Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993) . When the non-movant has the burden of proof at trial, the movant may carry the initial burden in one of two ways - by negating an essential element of the non-movant's case or by showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the non-movant's case. See Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 606-08 (11th Cir. 1991). Before the Court can evaluate the non-movant's response in opposition, it must first consider whether the movant has met its initial burden of showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Jones v. City of Columbus, 120 F.3d 248, 254 (11th Cir. 1997) (per curiam) . A mere conclusory statement that the non-movant cannot meet the burden at trial is insufficient. Clark, 929 F.2d at 608.

         If - and only if - the movant carries its initial burden, the non-movant may avoid summary judgment only by "demonstrat[ing] that there is indeed a material issue of fact that precludes summary judgment." Id. When the non-movant bears the burden of proof at trial, the non-movant must tailor its response to the method by which the movant carried its initial burden. If the movant presents evidence affirmatively negating a material fact, the non-movant "must respond with evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial on the material fact sought to be negated." Fitzpatrick, 2 F.3d at 1116. If the movant shows an absence of evidence on a material fact, the non-movant must either show that the record contains evidence that was "overlooked or ignored" by the movant or "come forward with additional evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency." Id. at 1117. The non-movant cannot carry its burden by relying on the pleadings or by repeating conclusory allegations contained in the complaint. See Morris v. Ross, 663 F.2d 1032, 1033-34 (11th Cir. 1981). Rather, the non-movant must respond with affidavits or as otherwise provided by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.

         In this action, the Clerk of the Court gave the parties notice of the motions for summary judgment and informed them of the summary-judgment rules, the right to file affidavits or other materials in opposition, and the consequences of default. (Docs. 59, 60, 139, 142.) Thus, the notice requirements of Griffith v. Wainwright, 772 F.2d 822, 825 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam), are satisfied.

         IV. Discussion

         As noted, Plaintiff asserts a number of claims. Defendants move for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims, and Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on two of the claims. The Court addresses the parties' arguments below. A. Race and Gender Discrimination Plaintiff contends that Defendants[4] discriminated against her based on her race and gender. She asserts equal protection claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (and the Fourteenth Amendment) and employment-discrimination claims under Title VII. Because Plaintiff's gender- and race-discrimination claims are based on the same facts, the Court addresses them together. And the Court analyzes Plaintiff's equal protection and Title VII claims together because "the analysis of disparate treatment claims under § 1983 is identical to the analysis under Title VII where the facts on which the claims rely are the same." Crawford v. Carroll, 529 F.3d 961, 970 (11th Cir. 2008). Also, Plaintiff asserts her claims both under a single-motive theory and a mixed-motive theory, and the Court addresses these theories separately below.

         1. Plaintiff's single-motive theory

         In a disparate-treatment case based on circumstantial evidence, such as this one, courts apply the familiar burden-shifting framework derived from McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under this framework, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination, which requires that she show: (1) that she belongs to a protected group; (2) that she suffered an adverse employment action; (3) that her employer treated similarly situated employees outside of her class more favorably; and (4) that she was qualified for the job. See Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1562 (11th Cir. 1997). Comparators under the fourth prong must be "similarly situated in all relevant respects." Id.

         If a plaintiff successfully establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. See Brown v. Ala. Dep't of Transp., 597 F.3d 1160, 1174 (11th Cir. 2010). But "[t]he employer need not persuade the court that it was actually motivated by the proffered reasons." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). Rather, once the employer articulates a nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, then the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the reason was merely pretext for discrimination. See id.

         This burden-shifting analysis, however, is not "the sine qua non for a plaintiff to survive a summary judgment motion in Title VII cases." Flowers v. Troup Cty., Ga., Sch. Dist., 803 F.3d 1327, 1336 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). It does not "relieve Title VII plaintiffs of their burden to put forth evidence of discrimination, " id., and "[t]he critical decision that must be made is whether the plaintiff has "'create [d] a triable issue concerning the employer's discriminatory intent, " id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         a. Plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

         Only the fourth prong of the prima facie case is contested in this case: Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to identify any similarly situated employees outside of her protected class who were treated more favorably. In response, Plaintiff names a number of other employees who she claims were treated more favorably. Plaintiff specifically names (1) Donnell Conley, (2) Chris Scheuer, (3) Ron Houck, and (4) Sam Smith. These individuals, however, are not similarly situated.

         Plaintiff argues that Mr. Conley, Mr. Scheuer, and Mr. Houck are all exempt employees who used comp time but were not disciplined. In an affidavit, Mr. Conley stated that, even though he was an exempt employee, he accrued comp time while Mr. Shanahan was the interim director of Parks and Recreation and that his coworkers in Augusta's Athletic Department routinely did the same. (See Doc. 68-1.) Mr. Scheuer similarly testified that exempt employees in the Athletic Department were routinely permitted to accrue comp time, including while Mr. Shanahan was the interim director. (See Doc. 114-1.) And Mr. Houck testified simply that he was aware that some exempt employees in the Parks and Recreation department were permitted to accrue comp time. (See Doc. 115-1.)

         At bottom, this evidence shows that some employees in the Parks and Recreation department had been permitted to accrue comp time. And some of these employees may have accrued and used comp time while Mr. Shanahan was the interim director of the department. But it does not show - nor does Plaintiff argue that is shows - that Mr. Shanahan approved of this behavior or that he was aware of any specific individuals who accrued or used comp time while he was the interim director. And more notably, Plaintiff has not shown that any of these individuals' timecards indicated that they were working when they were not.

         Plaintiff has likewise failed to show that Mr. Smith is an apt comparator. Plaintiff contends that, because Mr. Smith was not disciplined for his violations of Augusta's policies, he is a similarly situated employee who was treated more favorably. But Plaintiff has not pointed to any evidence that Mr. Smith engaged in similar conduct as Plaintiff. See Burke-Fowler v. Orange Cty., 447 F.3d 1319, 1323 (11th Cir. 2006) (per curiam) ("When a plaintiff alleges discriminatory discipline, to determine whether employees are similarly situated, we evaluate whether the employees are involved in or accused of the same or similar conduct and are disciplined in different ways." (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Rather, Plaintiff argues that Mr. Smith improperly covered up another employee's bad behavior and that he spent several hours at his home during work hours without permission. Plaintiff does not, however, argue that Mr. Smith ever improperly accrued or used comp time (with or without Mr.Shanahan's knowledge) or that he ever misrepresented whether he was working on his timecard. Furthermore, it is not clear from the record that Mr. Smith was not disciplined. Plaintiff instead argues that Mr. Smith was not demoted - that is, he did not receive the same punishment as Plaintiff. Thus, Mr. Smith is not similarly situated to Plaintiff.

         b. Plaintiff has failed to rebut Defendants' legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for demoting her.

         Even if Plaintiff could establish a prima facie case of discrimination, her claim would still fail because she has failed to show that Defendants' reason for demoting her was pretext for discrimination. Defendants argue that they demoted Plaintiff because she accrued and used comp time and submitted a timecard that fraudulently stated that she worked days that she did not. Plaintiff argues that Defendants' proffered reasons are pretext for discrimination because: (1) Mr. Shanahan lied about what triggered the investigation into Plaintiff's practices; (2) Mr. Shanahan and Mr. Russell knew that certain employees had previously received comp time; and (3) Mr. Shanahan and Mr. Russell did not adequately determine whether Plaintiff knew she could no longer use comp time.[5]

         To support her first argument, Plaintiff points out that Lisa Hall disputes Mr. Shanahan's position that Ms. Hall raised the concern surrounding Plaintiff's use of comp time. Thus, Plaintiff contends, Mr. Shanahan fabricated that interaction so he could launch an investigation into Plaintiff's employment practices for the sole purpose of having Plaintiff demoted. But there is no evidence that this is what happened. Instead, there is at worst a discrepancy in the record about who posed the question that prompted the investigation, which is insufficient to create a triable issue on pretext. See Flowers, 803 F.3d at 1339 ("Allowing the plaintiff to survive summary judgment would be inappropriate, for example, if . . . the plaintiff created only a weak issue of fact as to whether the employer's reason was untrue and there was abundant and uncontroverted independent evidence that no discrimination had occurred.'7 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         As for her second and third arguments, Plaintiff contends that, because Mr. Shanahan and Mr. Russell knew that some exempt employees were permitted to accrue comp time, they should have known that Plaintiff was acting innocently. She also argues that Mr. Shanahan and Mr. Russell may have known that she did not willingly violate any policy. She contends, for example, that Mr. Shanahan and Mr. Russell were not certain that Plaintiff ...


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