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Woodward v. Jim Hudson Luxury Cars, Inc.

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

September 30, 2019




         Before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 22.) In this action, the Clerk of Court gave Plaintiff notice of the motion for summary judgment and informed her of the summary judgment rules, the right to file affidavits or other materials in opposition, and the consequences of default. (Doc. 23.) Thus, the notice requirements of Griffith v. Wainwright, 772 F.2d 822, 825 (11th Cir. 1985) (per curiam), are satisfied. The time for filing materials in opposition has expired, and the motion is ripe for consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, Vickie Woodward, began working for Defendant, Jim Hudson Luxury Cars, Inc., on March 10, 2014. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, Doc. 22-5, ¶ l.)[1] At the outset, Defendant employed Plaintiff as a service advisor in the new car service department at its Lexus store. (Id.) The following year, Defendant promoted Plaintiff to Assistant Service Manager. (Id. ¶ 2.)

         A. Plaintiff's Transfer from New to Used Car Center

         In August 2015, Plaintiff received a breast cancer diagnosis and informed Defendant in September 2015 that she required leave to undergo a double mastectomy. (Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, Doc. 27-1, ¶¶ 6, 7.) Upon learning of Plaintiff's forthcoming surgery, Marcus Wideman, Defendant's Service Manager, commented to Plaintiff that he wanted to "hug the girls" before Plaintiff's operation. (Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 8.) Following Plaintiff's disclosure of her diagnosis to Defendant's General Manager, Bill Gibbs, Mr. Gibbs made the decision to relocate Plaintiff from the new car service center to the used car service center. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 9; Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶¶ 2, 11.) Mr. Gibbs instructed Mr. Wideman to inform Plaintiff of the transfer. (Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 11.) Although the Parties seemingly disagree to some degree on the date of the transfer, it occurred sometime between October 1, 2015, and October 5, 2015. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 9; Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 17.)

         The Parties dispute the implications of and reasons for Plaintiff's employment move. According to Plaintiff, the transfer equated to a demotion in terms of reputation, prestige, compensation, and duties and Defendant demoted her because of her cancer diagnosis and requested leave. (Id. ¶ 10; Woodward Dep., Doc. 22-2, at 278:1-14, 279:21-280:19, 295:4-24; Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, Doc. 27-3, ¶ 17 (citing Woodward Dep., Doc. 22-2, at 274:17-276:7).) Defendant, on the other hand, disagrees with Plaintiff's classification of the transfer as a demotion because she operated under the same title and she experienced no reduction in pay. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 11; Hooks Aff., Doc. 22-1, ¶ 9.) Furthermore, Defendant provides three reasons for the transfer, none of which involve Plaintiff's cancer diagnosis: (1) the used car service center had no managers and needed Plaintiff's experience; (2) Defendant recently transferred the top service advisor in the new car service department to the used car service department resulting in a negative impact on Plaintiff's commissions; and (3) conflict between Plaintiff and Mr. Wideman caused a drop in morale and customer service scores in the new car service department. (Id. ¶¶ 5-7.) Plaintiff disputes the legitimacy of each of Defendant's reasons for the transfer. (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶¶ 17-19.)

         B. Plaintiff's Leave

         Plaintiff went on leave effective October 27, 2015, and returned December 15, 2015. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶¶ 29-30.) Post surgery, chemotherapy side effects forced Plaintiff to take additional leave beginning January 12, 2016. (Id. ¶ 36.) Plaintiff stated she needed leave extending until July 1, 2016, however, her twelve weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act leave expired February 15, 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 37, 39) At that point, Defendant granted Plaintiff fourteen weeks of additional leave under Defendant's company policy. (Id. ¶ 41) On May 25, 2016, Angela Hooks, Defendant's Controller and Director of Human Resources, mailed Plaintiff to inform her that she had exhausted her discretionary leave and her "eligibility to participate in [Defendant's] group health plan as an active employee . . . [would] end [ ]" on May 31, 2016. (Io\. ¶ 44; May 25, 2016 Letter, Doc. 22-1, at 15.)

         Plaintiff did not immediately respond to Ms. Hooks's letter but subsequently informed Defendant that she received medical clearance to return to work on July 18, 2016. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 45; Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 45; Woodward Dep., at 286:22-287:5; Medical Clearance, Doc. 22-2, at 130.) During Plaintiff's leave, Defendant demolished the used car service center to construct a new dealership building. (Hooks Aff., ¶ 24.) On July 18, 2019, Plaintiff returned to the dealership. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 46; Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 46.) Plaintiff met with Warren Spooner, Manager of the former used car service center and current "Lot 3." (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 47; Hooks Aff., ¶ 25.) Mr. Spooner asked Plaintiff to return the following week to allow him time to work on a position for her. (Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 31.) Ms. Hooks, however, intervened and asked Plaintiff to return the following day, July 19, 2016. (Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 33.)

         C. The Social Media Posts

         Defendant received an email sometime around July 11, 2016, enclosing a posting Plaintiff allegedly made, associated with her Facebook profile, on an online arte. (Def.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 51; Pl.'s St. of Mat. Facts, ¶ 37; Social Media Emails, Doc. 22-2, at 131-32, 172-74.) The post appears to include Plaintiff's name, Plaintiff's place of employment, and the message: "HANDS UP; THEY WON'T SHOOT!!! Maybe white people understand proper English and simple direction better." (Social Media Emails, at 131-32, 172-74.) The record also contains three relevant social media posts allegedly made by current and former employees of Defendant.

         First, Mr. Spooner purportedly posted a meme that states, in part, "all lives matter" and "put your race card away." (Spooner Post, Doc. 22-2, at 159.) Second, Mark Licklider posted an image on his Facebook page containing the caption, "It's not about color. It's about the law."[2] (Licklider Post, Doc. 22-2, at 161.) Third, Charles Cook posted an image depicting a Confederate flag and black men with sagging pants. The caption above the flag reads ''this does not offend me" and below the men read "but this bullshit does." (Cook Post, Doc. 22-2, at 171.)

         D. Plaintiff's Termination

         Plaintiff returned to the dealership on July 19, 2016, and met with Karyn Heimes, Defendant's Chief Financial Officer, and Ms. Hooks. (Def.'s St. of Material Facts, ¶ 52.) According to Defendant, at this meeting, Ms. Heimes and Ms. Hooks informed Plaintiff that her employment was terminated because her position no longer existed. (Hooks Aff., ¶ 26.) Further, Defendant claims Ms. Heimes and Ms. Hooks notified Plaintiff that her online post made her ineligible for rehire. (IdJ Plaintiff recalls that Ms. Heimes and Ms. Hooks told her that she was terminated in light of her online post but said nothing about her eligibility for rehire. (Woodward Dep., 187:23-188:4, 299:11-20.) At that point, Plaintiff was presented a severance agreement that she refused to sign. (Severance Agreement, Doc. 22-2, at 133-35; July 27, 2016 Email, Doc. 22-2, at 136.)

         E. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

         Plaintiff sent the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") an unverified letter, dated April 1, 2016, stating she was discriminated against based on her gender and disability. (April 1, 2016 Letter, Doc. 22-2, at 142.) The EEOC responded with a letter on July 13, 2016, informing Plaintiff the April 1, 2016 letter contained insufficient information. (July 13, 2016 Letter, Doc. 22-2, at 144.) The letter enclosed a questionnaire and informed Plaintiff that if she did not respond within thirty days of receiving the July 13, 2016 letter, the EEOC would conclude a lack of intent to file a charge of discrimination. (Id.) Plaintiff completed the questionnaire, signed it, and dated it August 3, 2016. (EEOC Questionnaire, Doc. 22-2, at 146-52.) The questionnaire depicts an intake stamp dated October 17, 2016. (Id. at 145.) The EEOC then sent Plaintiff a Form 5 charge, which Plaintiff signed and dated February 7, 2017. (EEOC Form 5 Charge, Doc. 22-2, at 153.) The EEOC received the completed Form 5 on February 15, 2017, and following investigation, the EEOC notified Plaintiff of its dismissal and Plaintiff's right to sue. (Right to Sue, Doc. 22-2, at 154-58.) Plaintiff filed the present action on February 15, 2018. (Compl., Doc. 1.)


         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), and a dispute is genuine "if the non[-]moving party has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict in its favor." Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., Inc., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001). The Court must view factual disputes 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 [the non-moving party's] favor." United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991) (en banc) (citation, internal quotation marks, and internal punctuation omitted). The Court should not weigh the evidence or determine credibility. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

         The moving party has the initial burden of showing the Court, by reference to materials in the record, the basis for the motion. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Because the standard for summary judgment mirrors that of a directed verdict, the initial burden of proof required by either party depends on who carries the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23. When the movant does not bear the burden of proof at trial, it 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) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144 (1970); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. 317) . The movant cannot satisfy its initial burden by merely declaring that the non-moving party cannot meet its burden at trial. Id. at 608.

         If - and only if - the movant carries its initial burden, the non-movant must "demonstrate 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 carries its initial burden. For example, 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 v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1116 (11th Cir. 1993). On the other hand, 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 1116-17. 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 reaching its conclusions herein, the Court has evaluated the Parties' briefs, other submissions, and the evidentiary record in this case.


         Defendant initially asserts that Plaintiff's late-filed EEOC charge, dated February 7, 2017, time-bars her Title VII and ADA claims. Plaintiff claims that her initial letter to the EEOC, dated April 1, 2016, constitutes a charge making all claims timely. The Court addresses the Parties' competing arguments.

         A. Timing of EEOC Charge

         "It is settled law that, under the ADA, plaintiffs must comply with the same procedural requirements to sue as exist under Title VII." Zillyette v. Capital One Fin. Corp., 179 F.3d 1337, 1339 (11th Cir. 1999). "Prior to filing a Title VII action, ... a plaintiff must first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC." Gregory v. Ga. Dep't of Human Res., 355 F.3d 1277, 1279 (11th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) . 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e) (1) requires the plaintiff to file the charge within 180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred. Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 421 F.3d 1169, 1178 (11th Cir. 2005) ("Under ... 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1), only those 'unlawful employment practices' that are complained of in a timely-filed charge of discrimination to the EEOC can form the basis for Title VII liability."); Wilkerson v. Grinnell Corp., 270 F.3d 1314, 1317 (11th Cir. 2001) (noting that as a non-deferral state, Georgia has a 180-day deadline); see also 42 U.S.C. § 12117(a) (applying procedures set forth in section 2000e-5 to ADA actions) . The practice “occurred' on the day it 'happened.'" Ledbetter, 321 F.3d at 1179 (quoting Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 109 (2002)).

"[D]iscrete acts of discrimination" such as "termination, failure to promote, denial of transfer, or refusal to hire" are easy to identify, and each "constitutes a separate actionable 'unlawful employment practice.'" . . . Because each is an identifiable violation of Title VII, "each discrete discriminatory act starts a new clock for filing charges alleging that act."

Id. (quoting Morgan, 536 U.S. at 114). Courts in this circuit have interpreted demotion, reduction in pay, and termination as discrete acts of discrimination. See, e.g., Fenderson v. Ala. Bd. of Pardons & Paroles, No. 2:13cv51-CSC, 2014 WL 1017805, at *13- 14 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 17, 2014); Nzundu-Andi v. NCO Fin. Sys., Inc., No. 1:09-CV-2138-CAP-JFK, 2009 WL 10701239, at *3 n.2 (N.D.Ga. Dec. 14, 2009); Thomas v. Ala. Council on Human Relations, Inc., 248 F.Supp.2d 1105, 1115 (M.D. Ala. 2003). Therefore, the Court must analyze Plaintiff's filings with the EEOC and determine whether Plaintiff filed a timely charge for each discrete employment action.

         "A charge shall be in writing and signed and shall be verified." 29 C.F.R. § 1601.9. In addition, a "charge should contain": (1) "The full name, address and telephone number of the person making the charge"; (2) "The full name and address of the person against whom the charge is made"; (3) "A clear and concise statement of the facts, including pertinent dates, constituting the alleged unlawful employment practices"; (4) "If known, the approximate number of employees of the respondent employer"; and (5) "A statement disclosing whether proceedings involving the alleged unlawful employment practice have been commenced before a State . . . agency." 29 C.F.R. § 1601.12. The EEOC enjoys "broad discretion to determine in what form a charge must come and what information it must contain." Wilkerson, 270 F.3d at 1318. The burden of establishing a timely filed charge of discrimination falls on the plaintiff. Jordan v. City of Montgomery, 283 Fed.Appx. 766, 767 (11th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citing Jackson v. Seaboard Coast Line R.R. Co., 678 F.2d 992, 1010 (11th Cir. 1982)).

         Although the requirement that a plaintiff file a charge with the EEOC prior to filing a lawsuit is not jurisdictional, Fort Bend Cty. v. Davis, 139 S.Ct. 1843, 1850 (2019), "the filing of a charge of discrimination with the EEOC is a condition precedent to the bringing of a civil action under Title VII." Sanchez v. Standard Brands, Inc., 431 F.2d 455, 460 (5th Cir. 1970). Keeping the foregoing in mind, it is well-established in the Eleventh Circuit that courts are "extremely reluctant to allow procedural technicalities to bar claims brought under Title VII." Gregory, 355 F.3d at 1280.

         1. Demotion and ...

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