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Caldwell v. Khou-TV

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 6, 2017

GERALD CALDWELL, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
KHOU-TV; GANNETT COMPANY, INCORPORATED, Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before PRADO, HIGGINSON, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.

          EDWARD C. PRADO, Circuit Judge:

         After being fired, Gerald Caldwell sued his employers, KHOU-TV and Gannett Company, Inc. (collectively, "the Defendants"), for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendants and Caldwell appealed. Because we find that Caldwell raised a genuine issue of fact over whether the Defendants' reasons for firing him were pretextual, we REVERSE and REMAND.

          I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Gerald Caldwell originally began working as a video editor at KHOU-TV ("KHOU") in 1995. Caldwell was disabled at the time he was hired by KHOU because he had suffered childhood bone cancer. Because of damage to his leg as a result of the cancer, Caldwell moved around with the assistance of crutches.

         At KHOU a video editor's work is split between two primary tasks: (1) editing scripts and (2) working in electronic digital recording ("EDR"). By late 2012, video editors began spending a much larger portion of their work time in EDR. Even though most editors were scheduled to work in EDR between two and three times a week, Caldwell was not. As Charlie Butera and Robert Kell, Caldwell's direct supervisors, testified, they felt it would be difficult for Caldwell to move around the EDR room because it is "tight in spots" and they "didn't want to put him in any health jeopardy because of all that."[1] In spite of this limitation, Caldwell would spend time in EDR when other editors went on break and testified that he took it upon himself to stay up-to-date on changes taking place in EDR.

         In March or April 2014, Caldwell told his supervisor and the human resources manager that he would need to take leave for two upcoming surgeries. Caldwell initially did not have a date for his second surgery because it depended on the outcome of the first, but promised to provide a date as soon as he had one. At the time, both Caldwell's supervisor and the human resources manager agreed to this arrangement. Caldwell was ultimately fired before this second surgery could take place.

         Also in 2014, Gannett Company, Inc. ("Gannett"), KHOU's parent company, mandated a reduction-in-force ("RIF") and required KHOU to eliminate two editor positions.[2] Philip Bruce, the news director, was charged with deciding who would be fired but was assisted by Kell, Caldwell's supervisor at the time, and Art Murray. Bruce testified that Kell and Murray provided him with specific information about "day-to-day operation[s]" and asked for their suggestions about who to fire given how the video editing positions were "going to continue to evolve over the coming months and . . . years." Based on input from Kell and Murray, Bruce made the decision to fire Caldwell and another editor, Parrish Murphy. Before the decision was made, Murphy had been individually informed of his inadequate performance per KHOU policy and had been given the opportunity to improve; Caldwell was not given equivalent forewarning or opportunity to improve his performance.

         In explaining the decision to terminate Caldwell, the Defendants initially stated that "Caldwell repeatedly made it very clear to his supervisors and his colleagues that . . . he preferred not to work in EDR." Later, Bruce likewise intimated that Caldwell was fired because he actively avoided taking on EDR work. In the Defendants' motion for summary judgment, however, the Defendants stated that "[a]fter reviewing all of the video editors, Bruce, Kell, and Murray believed that [Caldwell] had not taken the initiative to spend as much time in EDR as other members of the edit staff." And in spite of all this, Bruce also maintained that the decision to fire Caldwell had "[a]bsolutely nothing at all" to do with Caldwell's work ethic. Murphy, on the other hand, was fired because he not only had problems in EDR but also had been caught sleeping at work.

         Caldwell filed suit against the Defendants on February 3, 2015, alleging violations of both the ADA and FMLA.[3] The Defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the district court on June 3, 2016. Caldwell timely appealed.

         II. DISCUSSION

         This Court "reviews a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standards as the district court." Griffin v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 661 F.3d 216, 221 (5th Cir. 2011). Summary judgment is proper where "the movant shows that 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). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, factual inferences are viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Smith v. Reg'l Transit Auth., 827 F.3d 412, 417 (5th Cir. 2016). "[T]he salutary function of summary judgment in the employment discrimination arena [is that] summary judgment allows patently meritless cases to be nipped in the bud." Amburgey v. Corhart Refractories Corp., 936 F.2d 805, 814 (5th Cir. 1991) (quoting Thornbrough v. Columbus & Greenville R.R. Co., 760 F.2d 633, 645 n.19 (5th Cir. 1985), abrogated on other grounds by St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1993)).

         A. ...


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