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Lovett v. Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products, LP

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

October 3, 2019

BRANDON B. LOVETT, Plaintiff,
v.
GEORGIA-PACIFIC CONSUMER PRODUCTS, LP, Defendant.

          ORDER

          R. STAN BAKER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Presently before the Court is Defendant Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products' (at times, “Georgia-Pacific”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 31.) This action concerns Defendant's decision to terminate Plaintiff Brandon B. Lovett's employment for “sleeping at his desk” in violation of company policy. (See Doc. 1; doc. 33, p. 2.) Plaintiff filed his Complaint on March 31, 2017, alleging that he was discharged because of his race in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Doc. 1, pp. 6-7.) In support of this contention, Plaintiff identifies two white employees who he claims received “no disciplinary action” after they were investigated for similar behavior. (Id. at p. 5.) Defendant subsequently filed the at-issue Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition, (doc. 33), Defendant filed a Reply, (doc. 35), and Plaintiff filed a Surreply, (doc. 38). As explained below, however, the Court finds that the evidence presented by Plaintiff in this case is not enough for a reasonable jury to find that Defendant intentionally discriminated against him on the basis of race within the meaning of Title VII and Section 1981. Thus, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 31.) The Court DIRECTS the Clerk of Court to enter summary judgment in favor of Defendant and to CLOSE this case.

         BACKGROUND

         The material facts in this case are not in dispute. Plaintiff Lovett is an African-American male who worked for Defendant Georgia-Pacific at the Savannah River Mill facility in Rincon, Georgia, from 2013 until his termination in March of 2016. (Doc. 31-1, pp. 1, 4; doc. 33, p. 9.) At all times relevant to this action, Plaintiff worked as an “allocator.” (Doc. 33, p. 1.) Allocators worked within the logistics department and sat in a specific office called the “allocation room.” (Id. at pp. 1-2.) Pursuant to Defendant's policy, employees in the logistics department were permitted to take three breaks per shift-two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute break for lunch. (Id. at p. 5; doc. 33-1, p. 17.) When Plaintiff first started as an allocator, logistics employees generally took their breaks in the allocation room. (Doc. 31-2, pp. 20-23.) At times, employees napped during their breaks, but napping was not tolerated outside of designated break times. (Id. at pp. 59-60.) According to Dennis Bazemore, the performance and capability leader for the logistics department, Defendant had a “zero tolerance” policy for “sleeping on the job.”[1] (Id. at pp. 5-6, 12.) When an employee is accused of sleeping on the job, the matter is referred to Bazemore, who investigates the allegation prior to taking any disciplinary action. (Doc. 31-3, pp. 5-11.) Generally, employees are suspended “pending the outcome of [the] investigation.” (Id. at p. 12.)

         Bazemore testified that he considers the “whole picture” surrounding an incident to determine what consequence is appropriate. (Id. at p. 6.) In the context of sleeping at work, Bazemore explained that he looks to whether the employee was on a break and what evidence is available. (Id. at pp. 6, 11, 15.) Bazemore also stated that during his time at Georgia-Pacific, the “majority” of employees found to be sleeping on the job were terminated. (Doc. 31-3, pp. 7, 12.) For example, Defendant terminated Donald Cooper, a forklift driver, after two employees saw him asleep at the wheel. (Doc. 31-3, pp. 8-10.) Bazemore explained that the two employees' observations were “the main factor[s]” in his decision to terminate Cooper. (Id. at p. 11.)

         However, Bazemore also noted that investigations do not always reveal proof that an employee was sleeping on the job. In early 2016, Bazemore looked into the conduct of several individuals after receiving general reports that logistics employees were “sleeping at work.” (Id. at pp. 15-17.) Among those investigated were two white males-Justin Farmer and Daniel Burke-and one black male-Ricardo Edwards.[2] (Doc. 31, p. 4; doc. 31-2, p. 52.) In the course of his investigation, Bazemore spoke to other employees about Farmer, Burke, and Edwards' behavior, including Plaintiff. (Doc. 31-2, p. 50; doc. 31-3, p. 18.) Plaintiff told Bazemore that he saw people sleeping in the allocation room, but that he did not have any knowledge as to whether they were sleeping while on duty. (Doc. 31-2, pp. 52-53; doc. 31-3, p. 15.) Bazemore explained that the investigation did not reveal any other evidence “to confirm [that Burke, Farmer, or Edwards] were sleeping beyond a breaktime.” (Doc. 31-3, pp. 19-21.) Due to the lack of such evidence, the employees were not terminated.[3] (Id.) However, Edwards was demoted from his leadership role due to the nature of the position. (Id. at p. 19.)

         As a result of the investigation, Defendant changed its policies regarding break locations a few weeks prior to Plaintiff's termination. (Id. at p. 21; doc. 31-2, pp. 25, 51-52.) Defendant informed logistics employees that they were no longer allowed to take breaks in the allocation room.[4] (Doc. 31-2, pp. 21, 51-52.) Instead, they were to use official break rooms located throughout the building. (See id.; doc. 33-2, p. 18.) While the new policy restricted the employees' choice of locations, it seemingly did not restrict their ability to take naps while on break. Plaintiff testified that his supervisor, Tommy Evans, encouraged allocators to “go to the break room . . . and take about a 10, 15-minute nap” if they felt tired. (Doc. 31-2, p. 59.) Plaintiff further explained that he slept on his breaks about once per week and would usually “set [his] phone to wake [him] up.”[5] (Id. at p. 68.)

         On the night of March 11, 2016, Plaintiff was working a twelve-hour shift. (Doc. 31, p. 2; doc. 31-1, p. 1.) Around 4:40 a.m., Evans walked by the allocation room where Plaintiff was working. (Doc. 33-1, pp. 26-27; doc. 31-4, p. 42.) Evans and Willie Ferguson, another employee, saw that Plaintiff was asleep at his desk. (Doc. 33, p. 2; doc. 31-1, p. 3.) When Plaintiff woke up, Evans told Plaintiff to gather his things because Defendant's policy required an employee found sleeping on the job to leave the premises immediately. (Doc. 31, pp. 2-3.) Plaintiff initially resisted Evans' instructions and asked to see the policy that mandated his departure, at which point Evans called Bazemore to report both the incident and Plaintiff's noncompliance.[6] (See Doc. 31-2, pp. 71-72; doc. 31-3, pp. 23-24.) Bazemore informed Evans that Plaintiff needed to go home and encouraged him to seek assistance from Larry Barnes, another supervisor, if Plaintiff refused to do so. (Doc. 31-3, pp. 23-25; doc. 31-4, p. 43.) Evans then contacted Barnes, and Barnes walked to the allocation room to reiterate that Plaintiff needed to leave. (See id.; doc. 31-1, p. 3.) Plaintiff complied, and the two supervisors escorted him out of the building. (Doc. 31-2, p. 73.)

         Plaintiff was subsequently placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into Evans' allegations. (Doc. 31-3, pp. 22-24.) Specifically, the investigation was focused on whether Plaintiff “was sleeping in the Allocator office on Friday, March 11th, 2016.” (Doc. 31-4, p. 41.) The “investigation team, ” comprised of Bazemore and Ashley Splittgerber, a Human Resources Generalist, spoke with Evans, Barnes, Ferguson, and Plaintiff. (Doc. 31, p. 3.) The discussions were memorialized by the investigation team and ultimately became a part of the “Investigation Plan & Summary, ” the official investigation file. (Doc. 31-4, pp. 32, 41-51.) In their interviews, Evans, Barnes, and Ferguson recounted the events described above, and there is no evidence that they participated in or influenced the investigation beyond the conversations contained in the investigative file. (See id.; doc. 31-1, p. 5.) In Plaintiff's interview with the investigative team, he stressed that he “[h]appened to doze off” and “wasn't asleep for more than five minutes.” (Doc. 31-4, p. 46.) At the end of the investigation, the team concluded that the “claim of [Plaintiff] sleeping in the Allocator office was substantiated, ” and ultimately decided to terminate Plaintiff's employment. (Id. at p. 41; doc. 31-1, p. 4.)

         On March 25, 2016, Defendant notified Plaintiff of his termination and advised him of his right to appeal the decision. (Doc. 31-1, p. 5.) Plaintiff chose to exercise this right and wrote a letter in support of his appeal. (Id.; doc. 31-2, pp. 93-94.) In his letter, Plaintiff emphasized that this was his “first offense, ” noting that his work record was devoid of prior infractions. (Doc. 31-2, pp. 93-94.) The letter does not refer to race or discrimination, but Plaintiff did state that he felt the “case was not handled properly” and that the decision to terminate him was “not right” in light of his “pointing out the false accusations that were clearly the basis for [his] termination.”[7] (Id. at pp. 77, 93-94.) After he submitted his appeal, Plaintiff met with Rob Shaw, the Vice President of Manufacturing Operations at Defendant's Savannah River Mill facility. (Id. at p. 78.) The pair spoke for a few minutes, and Shaw listened to Plaintiff's concerns. (Doc. 31-1, p. 6.) Following the meeting, Plaintiff received a letter from Shaw. (Id.) Shaw explained that, after looking into the investigation, talking to “many of the people involved, ” and reviewing “all of the circumstances around [Plaintiff's] incident, ” he decided to uphold Plaintiff's termination. (Id.)

         Plaintiff then filed a charge of racial discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (Doc. 31-2, pp. 87, 96.) The charge states that while Plaintiff was terminated for sleeping on the job, two Caucasian employees, Burke and Farmer, were “found sleeping on the job but were not discharged.” (Id.) Plaintiff received his Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC on January 17, 2017 and filed the present Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 action on March 31, 2017. (Doc. 1, pp. 1, 12.) Plaintiff's Complaint reiterates the basis for his EEOC charge but also alleges that Evans “regularly made comments displaying his belief that African[-]American people were lazy or did not want to work.” (Id. at 19.) According to Plaintiff, this allegation stems from two separate instances where employees informed him that other employees heard Evans make racial remarks.[8] (Doc. 31-2, pp. 38-44.) It is undisputed, however, that neither Plaintiff nor the employees who told Plaintiff about the comments heard these statements themselves. (Id.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment “shall” be granted if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” FindWhat Inv'r Grp. v. FindWhat.com, 658 F.3d 1282, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the “evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         The moving party bears the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Williamson Oil Co. v. Philip Morris USA, 346 F.3d 1287, 1298 (11th Cir. 2003). Specifically, the moving party must identify the portions of the record which establish that there are no “genuine dispute[s] as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Moton v. Cowart, 631 F.3d 1337, 1341 (11th Cir. 2011). When the nonmoving party would have the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may discharge his burden by showing that the record lacks evidence to support the nonmoving party's case or that the nonmoving party would be unable to prove his case at trial. See id. (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of fact does exist. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257.

         In determining whether a summary judgment motion should be granted, a court must view the record and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the record in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Peek-A-Boo Lounge of Bradenton, Inc. v. Manatee County, 630 F.3d 1346, 1353 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Rodriguez v. Sec'y for Dep't of Corr., 508 F.3d 611, 616 (11th Cir. 2007)). However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party only if there is a ‘genuine' dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. (citation and emphasis omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Title VII and 42 U.S.C. ยง 1981 Race ...


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