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Dexter Roberts v. Fruit Fresh Up

July 7, 2011

DEXTER ROBERTS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FRUIT FRESH UP, DEFENDANT .



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

By order of United States District Judge Richard J. Arcara dated June 28, 2011 (Item 31), this matter has been reassigned to the undersigned for all further proceedings.

Plaintiff Dexter Roberts commenced this action against his former employer, defendant Fruit Fresh Up, Inc. ("FFU") on April 3, 2008, alleging that defendant failed to promote him and subjected him to a hostile work environment because of his race, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). On December 30, 2008, plaintiff commenced a second action against defendant (No. 09-CV-007-RJA) alleging that defendant terminated his employment in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge against defendant, in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). The actions have now been consolidated (see Item 30), and defendant has moved pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for summary judgment (Item 20) dismissing all claims.

For the reasons that follow, defendant's motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Dexter Roberts is an African-American male who was hired by defendant FFU, Inc. as a temporary employee in March 2004 (Item 26-2, ¶¶ 1, 2). FFU is in the business of providing prepackaged fruit and related products to supermarkets and grocery stores (Item 22, ¶ 3). Plaintiff was initially hired as a seeder and was trained to process food products on the assembly lines in the plant (id. at ¶ 6). In August 2004, plaintiff was promoted to line leader, a position in which he supervised workers on his assembly line (Item 26-2, ¶¶ 3, 4). As a line leader, plaintiff reported to three supervisors--the production manager, the production supervisor, and the distribution and warehouse manager (Item 26-3, ¶ 8; Item 27-2, ¶25).

From spring 2005 through June 2006, defendant sought to fill vacant production supervisor positions (Item 21-2, ¶¶ 8, 13). Plaintiff states that defendant's owner, Ronald Santora, announced at a plant meeting that he intended to promote line leaders to the vacant production supervisor positions (Item 26-2, ¶ 9). Plaintiff alleges that his production manager ("John K.") told him he was qualified for the promotion to production supervisor, and that he would recommend plaintiff for the promotion (Item 26-2, ¶ 8). Defendant's internal job description states that applicants for production supervisor "[m]ust have [a] 4 year college degree or [the] equivalent of 7-10 years of direct supervisor experience" (Item 21-3). Plaintiff did not have a four-year college degree, and he listed no prior management experience on his initial FFU application dated March 4, 2004 (Item 21-4). Defendant reviewed the credentials of its line leaders--including plaintiff's--and determined that none of its line leaders were qualified for the production supervisor position (Item 21-2, ¶¶ 14,15). Therefore, defendant did not promote plaintiff to a production supervisor position (Item 21-2, ¶ 9).

Instead, on June 12, 2006, FFU hired Daniel Beauchamp, a Caucasian, for the production supervisor position (Item 21-2, ¶ 13). At the time of his hiring, Mr. Beauchamp's resume reflected that he had over 31 years of supervisory experience, and held certificates in supervisor studies and management skills from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (Item 21-5, at 2-3). However, he did not have a four-year college degree (id.).

While defendant was searching for production supervisor candidates, all three plant supervisors were Caucasian (Item 26, at 3). Plaintiff alleges that defendant discriminated against him when defendant refused to promote plaintiff--an African-American male--to the position of production supervisor, and instead hired Mr. Beauchamp--a Caucasian who did not meet the education criterion for the position (Item 26, at 2).

In late 2006, defendant held a focus meeting in the plant to determine the cause of its low employee retention level (Item 26-3, ¶ 29). Of the six employees who participated in the focus meeting, three were minorities, including plaintiff (id.). Plaintiff stated that FFU employees were unhappy because of discrimination and favoritism in the plant (id. at ¶ 30). Specifically, plaintiff stated that Caucasian females were allowed to bypass the rotation among line leaders and perform easier tasks in the factory for line leader Kelly Carroll, a Caucasian female (id. at ¶¶ 32, 34). At the time of this alleged discrimination and favoritism, five of defendant's six line leaders were African-American, and the Caucasian females were paid at the same rate as the African-American employees (id. at ¶¶ 31,33).

Plaintiff alleges that he was subjected to offensive discriminatory comments at FFU. In one such instance, his supervisor told him that a minority co-worker in the plant called plaintiff a "bitch-ass nigger" (Item 24-3, at 143-45). In another instance, plaintiff's supervisor confronted him near the end of a workday, took papers from his hand, and said "give me those papers, bitch" (id. at 145-46). Plaintiff alleges that his supervisor called him "bitch" on "several occasions" (id. at 146-47), comments which plaintiff interpreted to be racist insults (Item 26-3, ¶ 39).

Plaintiff also alleges that defendant's Caucasian supervisors excluded line leaders from the supervisors' office for no reason (Item 26-2, ¶ 14), perpetuating a segregated workplace (id. at ¶13). Defendant contends that access was restricted solely to supervisors because the office contained employee job performance notes, evaluations, disciplinary notices, and other confidential information (Item 27-2, ¶¶ 27, 28). Defendant restricted access to the office because management became aware that employee personnel records were visible on the desk and were not being kept confidential; as a result, all non-management employees were prohibited from accessing the supervisors' office (id. at ¶¶ 28, 29). While plaintiff had access to the supervisors' office prior to the policy change, his position as a line leader did not require him to have office access (Item 26-3, ¶ 23). After the supervisors' office was restricted, defendant provided the line leaders access to a separate office area (id.).

The record reflects that defendant disciplined plaintiff for job performance and behavioral problems on multiple occasions. For example, defendant issued plaintiff written warnings for negligently mislabeling product shipments to customers on October 20, 2006 and July 13, 2007 (Item 21-9; Item 21-13). On January 11, 2007, defendant issued plaintiffa written warning for an altercation with a minority employee which left the employee feeling threatened (Item 21-11). Defendant told plaintiff that verbal threats would not be tolerated at FFU (id.). On September 7, 2007, defendant issued plaintiff a written warning for insubordination for "using foul language and making accusing statements" to his manager (Item 21-14). Plaintiff was informed that "[t]his behavior will NOT be tolerated, [and] any further instances will result in immediate termination" (id.). Four days later, on September 11, 2007, defendant issued plaintiff yet another written warning for insubordination after he entered his manager's office and yelled in his face about the previous written warning (Item 21-15). However, plaintiff was not terminated at this time.

In September 2007, defendant began to experience financial difficulties due to a decline in sales from its largest customer, and subsequently planned to reduce its workforce and demote employees to reduce costs (Item 21-2, ¶¶ 39, 40). Layoffs were to be based on a point system that defendant's management staff explained to workers in a meeting in September 2007: line leaders would be rated by total performance, including communication, quality, efficiencies, knowledge, attitude, and attendance, and the employees with the highest points total would be laid off (id. at ¶¶ 41, 43; Item 21-16). Plaintiff alleges that this layoff evaluation system differed from defendant's past practice, in which defendant would determine layoffs by reviewing employees' attendance, and that evaluating employees using the subjective point system allowed defendant to unfairly implement the system and discriminate against African-American employees (Item 26-3,¶ 51). Furthermore, plaintiff points out that the Caucasian female line leader, Kelly Carroll, was not evaluated under this point system (id.).*fn1

Later in September 2007, plaintiff received "Unacceptable" or "Below Average" rankings in ten out of fourteen categories in his line leader review which, when combined with his attendance record, placed him with the second-highest points total among five line leaders, all of whom were African-American (Item 21-16; Item 21-2, ¶ 44). Willie Mae Hagans, the only line leader with a higher points total than plaintiff, was initially demoted by defendant (Item 21-2, ¶ 46). Hagans was not immediately terminated because December was a high-volume month in the plant and defendant's management was unsure of the severity of its declining sales (Item 27-2, ¶¶ 38, 39). However, Hagans was eventually terminated at the end of 2007 (id. at ¶38).

Plaintiff filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on October 3, 2007 ("EEOC discrimination charge") (Item 24-6, at 1). Plaintiff alleged that defendant refused to promote him to production supervisor because of his race, and instead hired a Caucasian candidate from outside the company for the position (id.). In addition, plaintiff alleged that he experienced a hostile work environment because defendant's managers "subjected [him] to unfair discipline and offensive comments because of [his] race" (id.). The EEOC dismissed the charge on January 11, 2008, finding that "[b]ased upon its investigation, the EEOC is unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes" (Item 24-7, at 1).

In January 2008, after defendant's end-of-the-year busy season, management evaluated its workforce needs and determined that defendant did not need more than three line leaders (Item 27-2, at ¶ 40). Defendant had previously terminated Hagans--the only line leader with a higher points total than plaintiff, and Carroll--the only Caucasian line leader, leaving defendant with four line leaders. Defendant terminated plaintiff on January 17, 2008, and three line leaders remained, all of whom were African-American (id. at ¶¶ 41,42).

Plaintiff filed a second discrimination charge with the EEOC on February 4, 2008 ("EEOC retaliation charge"), alleging that defendant terminated plaintiff "to retaliate against [him] for filing a charge of employment discrimination and to intimidate others who might consider filing employment discrimination charges" (Item 24-19, at 1). Plaintiff alleged that defendant terminated him six days after the EEOC discrimination charge was dismissed even though he had worked for defendant for longer "than about 90%" of its employees (id.). Plaintiff stated that he was a valuable employee because he was the only line leader able to run all of the processing lines (id.). Plaintiff also alleged that defendant historically based layoffs on points for absenteeism and tardiness, and that plaintiff had "fewer points for absence and tardiness than many or most of the other employees" (id.).

On April 3, 2008, before the EEOC completed its review of the retaliation charge, plaintiff filed this federal court action alleging that defendant failed to promote him because of his race, and subjected him to a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII (Item 1 at 7, 8).

On October 15, 2008, the EEOC concluded its review of the retaliation charge and issued plaintiff a "Notice of Right to Sue" which stated as follows:The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that violations of the statute(s) occurred with respect to some or all of the matters alleged in the charge but could not obtain a settlement with the [defendant] that would provide relief for [plaintiff]. In addition, the EEOC has decided that it will not bring suit against the [defendant] at this time based on this charge and will close its file in this case. This does not mean that the EEOC is certifying that the [defendant] is in compliance with the law, or that the ...


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