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Bland v. SAM'S East Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Columbus Division

January 9, 2019

JOSHUA BLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
SAM'S EAST, INC., WAL-MART ASSOCIATES, INC., and WAL-MART STORES, INC., Defendants.

          ORDER

          CLAY D. LAND, CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Joshua Bland previously worked for Sam's East, Inc. (“Sam's”).[1] Sam's claims it terminated Bland for disrespectful conduct toward his manager. Bland alleges that he was terminated after he complained of a race-based double standard. He brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Sam's moved for summary judgment (ECF No. 20). For the following reasons, Sam's motion is granted as to Bland's discriminatory termination claim but denied as to Bland's retaliatory termination claim.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary judgment may be granted only “if the movant shows that 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). In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, drawing all justifiable inferences in the opposing party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A fact is material if it is relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit. Id. at 248. A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Bland, the parties' citations to the record reveal the following facts:

         I. Bland's Tenure at Sam's

         Bland is a white male. He started working at Sam's as a tire technician in January 2017. He reported to team leader Rebecca McCoy, who reported to assistant manager Walter Capozucca. Edgar Cornell Robinson, a black male, also worked as a Sam's tire technician. On April 24, 2017, Bland and Robinson argued and cussed at one another. During the argument, Robinson said he would “beat [Bland's] ass.” Bland Dep. 86:14-15, ECF No. 22. In response, Bland suggested they “go outside or do it right here.” Id. at 86:15-17. Robinson said he did not want to lose his job, so both Bland and Robinson walked away. Id. at 86:17-21. Robinson also called Bland a “dumbass, hillbilly, redneck, white boy” and threatened to damage his new rims. Id. at 87:11-20.

         After the argument, Robinson complained to management that the other technicians were arguing and not helping him enough. McCoy then requested statements regarding the incident from the tire technicians and told them Capozucca was on his way to talk to them. Id. at 89:14-18. All the technicians, including Bland, provided statements and handed them to Capozucca when he arrived. Id. at 89:17-19. Bland's statement included his complaint that Robinson had called him a “dumb redneck/hillbilly.” Id. at 97:4-11. Capozucca then gave the technicians a twenty-five second “pep talk” and encouraged them to work together. Id. at 86:23-25; 94:20-95:3. Capozucca did not specifically address the incident between Bland and Robinson or say anything about racial name-calling. Darden Dep. 20:4-13, ECF No. 27. Capozucca took no other action regarding Bland's complaint about Robinson's conduct.

         II. Bland's Termination

         The next day, Bland texted McCoy regarding his work schedule for the following day, April 26. See generally McCoy Dep. Ex. 46, Text Messages from J. Bland to R. McCoy (Apr. 25, 2017), ECF No. 26-1. McCoy told him he was scheduled to work with Robinson that day and encouraged him to behave himself and stay out of trouble. Id. When Bland reported to work the next day, he approached Capozucca and said, “[h]ey, just so you know, I'm opening with [Robinson].” Bland Dep. 102:8-9. Capozucca then pulled both Bland's and Robinson's statements from his pocket and told Bland that he and Robinson were “embarrassing” and should both be fired. Id. at 102:13-18. Bland replied that he was one of the best employees in the shop. He also told Capozucca that if Bland had used the “N word” during his argument with Robinson, he would have been fired immediately. Id. at 102:23-25. Bland complained that Capozucca had taken no action against Robinson for being racist toward him. Id. at 113:3-12; see also Bland Aff. ¶ 4, ECF No. 35-42. Capozucca then grew angry and directed Bland to clock out and go home. Bland Dep. 103:2-5.

         Bland called the store later that day and learned he had been terminated for being rude, disrespectful, and aggressive toward Capozucca. See id. at 120:11-25 (describing exit interview document which stated that Bland was “very aggressive” with Capozucca and “didn't know what might happen” between him and Robinson). Bland, however, felt he was not rude to Capozucca in any way. Id. at 114:2-10. He testified that he did not raise his voice, step forward or lunge toward him, or stand over him in a hostile way. Id. at 105:18-106:1. He also testified that he “particularly” was not trying to intimidate Capozucca and did not walk near him for that reason. Id. at 106:15-19.

         Other employees remembered the encounter differently. Bland's exit interview information states that when he arrived at work on April 26, he “was very aggressive and negative with [Capozucca] about another associate.” Exit Interview 1, ECF No. 22-4. It also stated that Bland “had very aggressive body language.” Id. After his termination, Bland also made a complaint to Sam's Ethics Hotline about his termination and the lack of discipline for Robinson. See Case Details Mem. 1-2 (May 2, 2017), ECF No. 35-16. Sam's opened an investigation and took another statement from Capozucca. Capozucca Dep. 60:13-16, ECF No. 28. In that statement, Capozucca noted that Bland came by “with a mean attitude” and complained about having to work with Robinson that morning. Capozucca Statement (May 16, 2017), ECF No. 35-21 at 3. Capozucca stated that Bland “looked like he wanted to fight [him] and [Robinson].” Id. Capozucca also claimed Bland had “his arms and hands like he was going to start with me. He disrespected me because I never talked to him in a bad tone or bad attitude towards him.” Id. Capozucca likewise testified that Bland “got really close” to him, causing him to step back because he “didn't know what was going to happen.” Capozucca Dep. 46:15-18. He thought it was possible that Bland would take a swing at him. Id. at 91:7-15. But Capozucca also testified that at the time of the interaction he “[c]ould have been” afraid that Bland would physically harm him, but that he did not know. Id. at 80:14-17.

         Another Sam's employee, Latasha Wims, was present at the time of the encounter. She likewise testified that Bland spoke to Capozucca about scheduling and “[t]hen from there he just, like exploded.” Wims Dep. 14:5-10, ECF No. 24. She stated that Bland was “saying bad things” to Capozucca, getting “aggressive, ” had “a bad attitude and filthy mouth, ” and “use[d] foul language.” Id. at 14:10-18.

         III. Video Footage of the Termination

         Cameras recorded video, but not audio, of the interaction between Bland and Capozucca. After he was terminated, Bland returned to the store several days later to try to speak with the store manager, Madeline Torres. When she refused to speak with him, Bland told her she would hear from his lawyer. Hayes Dep. 12:3-6, ECF No. 38 (describing conversation between Bland and Torres); see also Torres Dep. 39:12-40:6, ECF No. 31 (recalling the conversation). Bland also applied to the Georgia Department of Labor for unemployment benefits and explained to the state examiner that he was suing Sam's in federal court over his termination. See Email from J. Bland to V. Wilberd (June 2, 2017), ECF No. 35-26. The Department of Labor approved Bland's request for benefits, and Torres decided to appeal that decision, presumably having read Bland's rebuttal to the state examiner describing his prospective federal lawsuit. See Cooper Dep. 20:5-12, ECF No. 34 (explaining that Torres made the decision to appeal); Letter from T. Freeman to ...


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