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Laska v. Kelley Manufacturing Co.

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

September 26, 2019

JAMES LASKA, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff James Laska, a former employee of Kelley Manufacturing Co. d/b/a KMC Manufacturing Company (“Kelley Manufacturing Co.” or “KMC”), filed this lawsuit pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”), alleging that Defendant terminated his employment in retaliation for Plaintiff reporting what he believed to be discriminatory conduct. Now before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 28). After reviewing the pleadings, briefs, depositions, and other evidentiary materials presented, the Court concludes that there is no genuine dispute of the material facts and finds that Defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.


         Kelley Manufacturing Co. is an employee-owned manufacturing company located in Tifton, Georgia. (Doc. 28-10, ¶¶ 2-3). The company is managed by an Executive Committee, which is comprised of the Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”), Lanier Carson, the President, Bennie Branch, and the Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”), Jimmy Tomberlin. (Branch Dep., p. 9; Doc. 28-19, ¶¶ 8, 37). The Executive Committee reports to the Sole Shareholder and the Trustees, [1] which in turn report to a Board of Directors. (Branch Dep., p. 9; Doc. 28-19, ¶ 37).

         Toward the end of 2016, KMC’s long-time Vice President of Sales and Marketing announced his retirement. (Laska Dep., p. 107). As the company began its search for a replacement, Plaintiff’s wife Debra Laska, who served as KMC’s Director of Human Resources, discussed the possibility of Plaintiff applying for the position with Lanier Carson. (Id.). Plaintiff submitted his resumé in December 2016. (Id. at p. 108). On January 5, 2017, KMC extended a formal written offer to Plaintiff. (Doc. 28-7, p. 29). Per the terms of the offer, Plaintiff would be hired as the Director of Sales and Marketing. (Id.). Additionally, after an opportunity to acclimate to the equipment and culture of the business, KMC would promote Plaintiff to Vice President of Sales and Marketing and offer him a seat on the Board of Directors. (Id.). Plaintiff accepted the terms of employment on January 9, 2017, and began working for KMC on February 1, 2017. (Doc. 28 7, p. 30). Plaintiff’s title changed from Director to Vice President some time shortly thereafter. (Laska Dep., p. 120; Carson Dep., p. 35).[2]

         As the Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Plaintiff was accountable for a number of responsibilities. (Doc. 28-7, p. 31). Plaintiff coordinated and managed the activities of KMC’s Territory Managers, Field Service Representatives, Distributers, and Advertising Manager. (Id.). He was responsible for determining staffing needs, including the hiring and firing of new personnel, with the approval of the company’s President. (Id.). Additionally, Plaintiff’s job entailed developing, editing, and publishing price lists and updates; disseminating marketing and sales information; accounting for lost sales; monitoring margins on all products; providing adequate and timely availability of finished goods; and other related tasks. (Id.).

         Kelly Peele, who first began working for KMC as the Advertising Manager in 2011, resigned her position on June 30, 2017. (Peele Dep., p. 7-8; Laska Dep., p. 184). Prior to her resignation, Peele received an e-mail from a woman named Erica Thrift, who worked for Black Crow Media. (Peele Dep., p. 46-47). Thrift expressed an interest in meeting with Peele to discuss potential advertising opportunities. (Id.). Peele scheduled a meeting with Thrift but resigned prior to the meeting taking place. (Id. p. 48-49; Laska Dep., p. 214).

         About a week following Peele’s resignation, Thrift contacted Plaintiff and asked if he would keep the appointment Thrift previously scheduled with Peele. (Laska Dep., p. 214). Thrift also inquired whether KMC intended to fill the Advertising Manager position. (Id.). Plaintiff set an appointment with Thrift for July 10, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. (Id.). Plaintiff met with Thrift and another male salesperson from Black Crow Media on July 10 to discuss agriculture-related advertising programs. (Id. at p. 215, 217). At the conclusion of the meeting, Thrift again asked about the Advertising Manager position. (Id. at p. 218). Plaintiff suggested that she e-mail her resumé. (Id.).

         Thrift e-mailed Plaintiff at 10:33 a.m. on July 10, once more expressing an interest in the marketing position and asking whether she could send him her resumé. (Doc. 28-7, p. 63). Plaintiff responded to Thrift at 11:19 a.m., directing her to send her resumé to his wife, Debra Laksa, in Human Resources. (Id.). Thrift then e-mailed Debra Laska at 2:54 p.m. (Id. at p. 64-67). Mrs. Laska testified that after receiving Thrift’s resumé, she provided a copy to Plaintiff. (D. Laska Dep., p. 158). She also printed a copy and placed it in Lanier Carson’s box, along with numerous other resumés for various positions open throughout the company. (Id. at p. 158-160).

         In later correspondence with the Department of Labor, Plaintiff described Thrift’s physical appearance on the day of their meeting in great detail:

I must admit that when I turned the corner I was a bit surprised as I was greeted by an attractive dark tanned tall brunette in very fit condition wearing a snakeskin print pair of pants and very revealing tight black sleeveless shirt exposing quite a bit of cleavage. I also noticed there was a script tattoo on her left shoulder and arm that read “love me for who I am” and some other tattoo on her right arm. My first thought was this did not appear to be appropriate business wear for a woman to be calling on advertising clients.

(Doc. 28-7, p. 82; Laska Dep., p. 216-217).

         Plaintiff provided a similar description to Rhonda Pearman, Lanier Carson’s Executive Administrative Assistant, immediately after his meeting with Thrift. (Laska Dep., p. 200; Pearman Dep., p. 30-31). On the way back to his office, Plaintiff stopped by Pearman’s office and engaged in the following interchange:

I asked her, I said, “Did you happen to see that lady and man that just came by here with me?” And she said no. I said, “Yeah, well, ” I said, “in my opinion she wasn’t dressed correctly for a business engagement or business meeting.”
And she said, “Well, what do you mean by that?”
And I explained what I just did, a tube top, you know, she was a very fit, attractive young lady, very bosomy, and she had on this small tube top with the tattoos. Rhonda immediately blurted out, “What a whore.”

(Laska Dep., p. 220).

         Plaintiff testified that he promptly chastised Pearman, saying, “Rhonda, you cannot call people whore. You don’t know anything about this woman.” (Id. at p. 220-221). He further stated, “Now, she might have been just a visitor when she came in, but now she’s a job applicant.” (Id.).[3] Pearman responded, “Well, I’m telling you right now the old man [Carson] ain’t going to never let no bombshell like that work up in here.” (Id.). Plaintiff then reiterated, “You can’t discriminate against this woman, and you can’t prejudge her. . . . She’s got two kids, she’s struggling to make ends meet. And, you know, just because she looks different from other people, you can’t discriminate.” (Id.). Pearman then told Plaintiff to “[g]et the F out of my office now.” (Id.).

         Throughout the afternoon of July 10, Plaintiff recounted his experience with Thrift and Pearman’s reaction with employees in both the customer service department and the international sales department. (Id. at p. 225). While Plaintiff denies the allegation that when relaying his encounter with Thrift he referred to her as a “bombshell” and gestured with his hands to describe Thrift’s physical features, he admits that he described her attire in detail and referred to her as being “fit, very attractive, [and having] dark skin.” (Id. at p. 225-227). Plaintiff also admits that he repeated Pearman’s reference to Thrift as a “whore.” (Id. at p. 225).

         Jimmy Tomberlin, KMC’s CFO, testified that Plaintiff also relayed the incident to him. (Tomberlin Dep., p. 29). According to Tomberlin, Plaintiff came to his office and “described exactly what she was wearing. I remember he said she had on this fantastic leopard-skinned something, pants or outfit or something, tattoos in various places, very well-endowed, and was really – seemed excited to tell me about it.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff had a meeting with KMC’s President, Bennie Branch, and Charles Sumner on July 10 as well. At the conclusion of the meeting, Plaintiff asked the two gentlemen if they had seen the “bombshell” in his office that morning. (Branch Aff., ¶ 6). Branch thought perhaps Plaintiff was referring to a large equipment order, but then Plaintiff began describing the “well endowed, ” “very, very, very well built” female visitor. (Id.). Branch testified that he was embarrassed by Plaintiff’s comments. (Branch Dep., p. 62). Because the door to Branch’s office was open, and because Plaintiff was speaking so loudly, Branch was also concerned that Rhonda Pearman, whose office was next door, may be embarrassed by Plaintiff’s remarks as well. (Id.). Branch approached Pearman after the meeting and asked whether she heard Plaintiff’s comments. (Id. at p. 60). Pearman responded “that [Plaintiff] had already been up and down the hall that morning saying the same things to other people.” (Id. at p. 60-61).

         Branch wrote a statement concerning the interaction on July 10, 2017. (Id. at p. 59-60). He felt as though the situation was serious enough that he “wanted to make sure that the details were . . . accurate.” (Id. at p. 62). Branch also called Lanier Carson, who was not in the office at the time, to report the conversation with Plaintiff.[4] (Id. at p. 63; Carson Dep., p. 49). Carson said that he would handle it. (Id.). Carson testified that after receiving the call from Branch, he was concerned because “[o]ur company doesn’t have a reputation of having people dress like [Plaintiff] had described to Mr. Branch.” (Carson Dep., p. 51).[5] ...

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