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THERESA BILINGSLEA v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY

November 30, 2010

THERESA BILINGSLEA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Theresa Billingslea (hereinafter, "Billingslea") commenced this employment discrimination action by filing a Complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. (Docket No. 1.) Therein, she alleges that Defendant Ford Motor Company, Inc. (hereinafter, "Ford") discriminated against her based on her gender and race and retaliated against her. Billingslea brings this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. (hereinafter, "Title VII") and the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. EXEC. L. §§ 290 et seq. (hereinafter, "NYHRL").

Presently before this Court is Ford's Motion for Summary Judgment seeking dismissal of the Complaint in its entirety.*fn1 (Docket No. 24.) Billingslea opposes the motion.*fn2 For the reasons stated below, Ford's motion is granted.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Billingslea, an African American female, was hired at Ford's Buffalo Stamping Plant (hereinafter, the "Plant") in September 1986. (Def.'s Stmt.,*fn3 ¶ 1.) She started as an Automatic Tender Metal Press Line (hereinafter, "ATMPL") worker. (Id. ¶ 2.) In or about June 2003, Billingslea successfully bid for a Parts Material Handler Extra Heavy (hereinafter, "PMHEH") position. (Billignslea Aff. ¶ 4; Duke Aff., Ex. B.)

Since commencing employment at Ford, Billingslea has been a member of the United Auto Workers Union (hereinafter, the "Union"). (Def.'s Stmt., ¶ 1.) The Union and Ford entered into a Collective Bargaining Agreement (hereinafter, the "CBA"), whereby Ford has the discretion to assign daily work responsibilities to Union members as long as it is within their work classification. (Id. ¶ 4.) Employees who believe their assignments are outside their classification or who receive conflicting assignments can file a grievance with the Union. (Id. ¶ 7.) In accordance with the CBA, Billingslea received her daily PMHEH assignments from supervisors Dan Saldana (hereinafter, "Saldana") and Joe Rey (hereinafter, "Rey"). (Id. ¶ 5.)

The PMHEH position includes operation of a material handling vehicle, referred to as a tow-grip. (Id. ¶ 3.) A tow-grip connects to a basket of parts, and the operator moves the basket to and from the appropriate point on the assembly line. (Billingslea's Dep. 210:12-13, 21-22.) Federal and Ford standards require employees to undergo training and obtain a license, or safety permit, to operate a tow-grip. (Def.'s Stmt., ¶¶ 3, 8-9.) Billingslea completed the requisite training and was issued a safety permit prior to assuming her PMHEH position. (Id. ¶ 10.)

Pertinent to this litigation is Ford's "Two-Foot Vehicle/Pedestrian Rule" (hereinafter, "Two-Foot Rule"), which states that a tow-grip operator may not power on or move his/her vehicle until pedestrians are at least two feet away. (Id., ¶¶ 11-12.) Pedestrians also are responsible for maintaining a distance of two feet from industrial vehicles. (Id. ¶ 13.) Ford has a policy which mandates a minimum 90-day suspension of an operator's safety permit for a serious violation of safe practices. (Duke Aff. Ex. E.) Accidents involving personal injury may result in permanent suspension. (Id.) The only mitigating factor is where the injured employee (who is not the operator) takes full responsibility for the accident. (Def.'s Stmt., ¶ 17.) Since October 2001, the Safety Department has suspended or permanently revoked over 90 safety permits. (Id. ¶ 22.)

1. May 11, 2005 Accident

On May 11, 2005, Billingslea was operating her tow-grip on lines 22 and 23, as assigned by Saldana. (Pl. Aff ¶ 6; Pl.'s Stmt., ¶ 2.*fn4 ) Billingslea was waiting for two co-workers to finish loading parts into the basket attached to her vehicle when Saldana ordered her to disengage her tow-grip and move to a basket on line 24 that was already full. (Id. ¶ 25.) According to Billingslea, Saldana came from line 24 screaming at her to move to the basket on line 24 "right now." (Pl.'s Stmt., ¶ 2.) Billingslea replied that it was not her responsibility. (Id.) Billingslea attests that Saldana then got between the basket and tow-grip, trying to unhook the basket. (Id.) She stepped off her tow-grip and refused to move to line 24 until she first moved her basket on line 23. (Id.) Billingslea recounts that she and Saldana went back and forth-he would move away from the basket and she would get back on the tow-grip, then he would move back toward the basket and she would step off the tow-grip-at least five or six times. (Id.) Billingslea maintains she never engaged the tow-grip; however, Saldana states she did move the tow-grip forward, striking his leg with the basket. (Id. ¶ 2; Def.'s Stmt., ¶ 34.)

Billingslea states Saldana limped away to call the union, and then returned without a limp to line 24 where she had since moved. (Pl.'s Stmt., ¶ 2.) Saldana again approached the basket, preventing her from operating the tow-grip. (Id.) A co-worker finally told Saldana to stop, at which time Billingslea went back to line 23 and Saldana followed. (Id.) According to Billingslea, Saldana continued to interrupt her work until foreman Allison Jackson arrived. (Billingslea Aff. ¶ 22.) Foreman Jackson then took Billingslea to the Union hall, where she spoke to a union safety representative, who returned with her to her work area. (Id. ¶ 22-23.) Billingslea avers she became so upset by the incident that she started shaking, sweating, and became dizzy. (Id.) She went to see Ford's nurse and then left the Plant by ambulance. (Id.) Saldana received medical treatment for a contusion on his lower left leg, measuring 5 centimeters in circumference. (Def.'s Stmt., ¶ 29.)

Superintendent William LaRosa (hereinafter, "LaRosa") notified the Safety Department about the accident, and Billingslea was prohibited from operating the tow-grip pending an investigation. (Id. ¶ 30.) Billingslea contends LaRosa prevented her from obtaining any overtime work for a period of eleven calendar days after the accident. (Billingslea Aff. ¶¶ 30.)

Robert Duke (hereinafter, "Duke"), Regional Safety and Security Manager, conducted the investigation, which included viewing the accident scene, interviewing Saldana, Billingslea, and witnesses, and reviewing medical records. (Def.'s Stmt., ¶¶ 32-33, 39.) He subsequently concluded Billingslea struck Saldana while operating the tow-grip. (Id. ¶ 39.) Duke further concluded Saldana contributed to the accident by failing to observe the Two-Foot Rule. (Id. ¶ 40.) Saldana did not accept any responsibility for the incident. (Id. ¶ 35.)

On Mar 23, 2005, the Safety Department notified Billingslea that her safety permit would be suspended for 90 days. (Id. ¶ 43.) The suspension was retroactive to the date of the accident, May 11, 2005. (Id. ¶ 44.) Since Billingslea was unable to keep the PMHEH position without a safety permit, she was temporarily reclassified as an ATMPL worker. (Id. ¶ 45.) The ATMPL position paid $25.83 an hour, twenty-five cents more than she received in the PMHEH position. (Id.) Because Saldana was found to have contributed to the accident, he received a written reprimand from Ford's Personnel Relations, which was placed in his personnel file for one year. (Id. ¶ 48.) Billingslea concedes she was not disciplined, but contends the suspension of her license and loss of overtime were a demotion. (Billingslea Aff. ¶ 45.)

Billingslea was off work on medical leave from May 26, 2005 until September 6, 2005. (Id. ¶ 47.) When Billingslea returned to work in September 2005, she received a standard pay increase to $26.34 an hour. (Id. ¶ 46.) Her safety permit was reinstated on February 6, 2006, when her 90-day suspension expired. (Id. ¶ 47.)*fn5

2. Ford's Zero Tolerance Policy

Ford has a Zero Tolerance Policy regarding discrimination. (Def.'s Stmt., ¶ 64.) The policy has been in place for many years and is well-known to management and employees. (Id.) Supervisors are taught how to recognize, prevent, and respond to instances of discrimination or harassment. (Id. ¶ 68.) And, employees go through diversity training during new employee orientation. (Id. ¶ 69.) The Zero Tolerance Policy is posted throughout the Plant, including employee entrances and the cafeteria. (Id. ¶ ¶ 65, 67.) Ford also has established a "Diversity Council" to aggressively investigate and respond to diversity issues within the Plant. (Id.) Furthermore, the Plant Manager has an Open Door Policy, which encourages employees to report any concerns. (Id. at ¶ 66.)

Billingslea was familiar with Ford's anti-discrimination policy, and, in fact, received training on the prevention of workplace discrimination and proper reporting procedures on more than five occasions. (Id. ¶ 70.) Billingslea was aware of the options available to her if she felt discriminated against, including calling Ford's hotline, reporting incidents to supervisors, or filing a complaint with Labor Relations. (Id. ¶ 72.)

3. Disparate Treatment

Billingslea alleges Saldana engaged in disparate treatment because of her race (African American) and gender (female). Specifically, she alleges the following:

a. Supervisor Saldana assigned Billingslea extra work, while similarly situated Caucasian male employees were allowed to sit and do nothing; and

b. Supervisor Saldana faked an injury so that Billingslea's machine operator's license would be suspended and she would be forced to take another position at lower pay where she was excluded from receiving overtime. (Compl.,¶¶ 19, 28-30.)

Billingslea concedes that Saldana never used any derogatory language towards her, such as racial slurs or comments about her gender. (Billingslea Dep. 222:9-23, June 6, 2007). However, she contends her claims for race and gender discrimination are supported by the fact that she ...


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