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Hamilton v. Storer Equipment Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Shreveport Division

June 18, 2018




         Plaintiff Eddy Hamilton ("Hamilton") has raised Title VII claims against his former employer, Storer Equipment Co., Ltd., alleging that his termination was racially motivated and that Defendant provided negative references to prospective employers in retaliation for Hamilton's charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). [Record Document 1]. Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all claims. [Record Document 27]. Because the record, when read most favorably to Hamilton, reveals open questions of material fact regarding Defendant's motivation, the motion is DENIED as to Hamilton's discriminatory termination claim, but GRANTED as to the retaliation claim.

         I. Background

         Defendant is a company engaged in the sale, installation, and maintenance of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning ("HVAC") products. [Record Document 27-6 at 1]. On the basis of his years of experience in accounting positions and three interviews, Hamilton was hired by Defendant as an Accounting Specialist in January 2013. [Record Document 27-4 at 9-12]. At Defendant's instruction, he completed a behavioral assessment prior to being hired. [Id. at 11, 34-55]. The assessment specifically noted that he would require "clearly stated guidelines" and that he would only acquire more independence if allowed to make mistakes and then given "immediate constructive feedback." [Id. at 48, 52].

         Hamilton primarily handled accounts receivable, particularly older outstanding accounts. [Record Documents 27-4 at 12 and 27-6 at 1]. To collect on the accounts, Hamilton would research the account and then confer with managers so that he could adequately understand the account before contacting the customer. [Record Document 27-4 at 15]. When collecting severely past due accounts, Hamilton's supervisor, Robert Bundrick ("Bundrick") instructed him to have a manager or the CEO, Craig Storer ("Storer"), contact the customer. [Id. at 12-13].

         One of the managers with whom Hamilton interacted was Eddie Conrad ("Conrad"), the manager of Defendant's parts department. [Record Document 27-10 at 1]. Hamilton alleges that Conrad unfairly critici2ed him and "instituted a pattern of yelling at [him] and denigrating his race." [Record Document 1 at 2]. Conrad made at least two racially inflected remarks: (1) that black people ate chitlings and (2) that Conrad was pulled over by police for driving in a black neighborhood because he was assumed to be a drug dealer. [Record Document 27-4 at 15]. Hamilton also complains that Conrad mocked his speech patterns. [Id.]. More generally, Hamilton accuses Conrad of calling him "incompetent, " a fact that Conrad effectively admits. [Record Documents 27-4 at 16-17 and 27-10 at 1]. Although Conrad asserts that his frustration with Hamilton arose from the latter's unwillingness to resolve customer complaints on his own, Hamilton denies that Conrad showed him how to use Defendant's computer system to answer the questions that he would bring to Conrad and testified that he was specifically instructed to bring certain problems to management. [Record Documents 27-4 at 13, 16 and 27-10 at 1]. Hamilton also experienced conflict with another employee, Deegie Lawless ("Lawless"), who received complaints regarding Plaintiff s inability to communicate clearly with customers and his crediting of payments to the wrong accounts; she reported these complaints to Storer. [Record Document 27-9 at 1]. Both Conrad and Lawless yelled at Hamilton regarding his performance. [Record Document 27-4 at 16, 19].

         In March 2014, Defendant lost an important franchise with Trane, a leading provider of HVAC equipment. [Record Document 27-6 at 2]. By the end of the year, Defendant had reduced its employee headcount through a combination of resignations, retirements, involuntary terminations for cause, and involuntary terminations due to a reduction in force ("RIF"). [Record Document 27-8 at 5]. Despite the loss of the Trane franchise, Storer sent emails to all company personnel in June, September, and October 2014 touting the company's positive future prospects. [Record Document 29-1 at 5-7]. The September email mentions seven new hires; the October email describes an eighth. [Id. at 6-7]. In September, Storer claimed the company was "in a great position" and in October specifically noted, "our backlog in contracting is in excess of $2.5 million dollars and growing." [Id.]

         After consultation with Bundrick and Defendant's human resources director, Storer decided to involuntarily terminate Hamilton in December 2014 as part of a RIF. [Record Document 27-6 at 2]. Storer selected Hamilton because he "did not have the disposition for aggressively collecting past due accounts" and "demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to do the research necessary to understand collection issues and resolve them." [Id.]. In support of Hamilton's termination, Bundrick points to a particular metric: the average monthly "Days Sales Outstanding" ("DSO"), which tracks the number of days delinquent accounts have been overdue. [Record Documents 27-5 at 11 and 27-7 at 2-3]. The DSO reached its peak in 2014. [Record Document 27-7 at 2]. Bundrick and Lawless also testified that Hamilton made errors such as incorrectly crediting funds received. [Record Documents 27-5 at 5 and 27-9 at 1]. After Hamilton was discharged, Lawless assumed his duties. [Record Document 27-6 at 2].

         Following his termination, Hamilton listed Bundrick as a reference when applying for accounting positions at other companies. [Record Document 27-4 at 23]. Hamilton also filed a charge of discriminatory termination with the EEOC, which issued notice of the charge to Defendant on January 14, 2015. [Record Document 29-2 at 8]. After interviewing Hamilton, Wholesale Pump and Supply ('Wholesale") contacted Bundrick for a reference. [Record Documents 27-4 at 23 and 27-5 at 8-9].[1] When Wholesale did not extend a job offer, Hamilton hired a reference check service, which contacted Bundrick on March 9, 2015. [Record Document 27-4 at 23-24, 70-73]. Out of fourteen items scored on a scaled of one to five about which the service inquired, Bundrick gave only one rating lower than a three; he also explicitly stated that he would rehire Hamilton though not necessarily in the same position. [Id. at 70, 72]. Bundrick has testified that the reference he gave to Wholesale was substantially identical to the comments he made when speaking to the reference check service. [Record Document 27-5 at 8-9]. Believing that the service's report of Bundrick's comments indicated that Bundrick had given a negative reference to Wholesale, Hamilton amended his EEOC charge to add a retaliation claim. [Record Document 29-2 at 13].

         After the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter, Hamilton filed the instant suit. [Record Documents 1 and 1-1]. Following discovery, Defendant moved for summary judgment. [Record Document 27]. Because Hamilton has responded and Defendant has replied, this matter is ripe for adjudication. [Record Documents 29 and 30].

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) directs a court to "grant summary judgment if 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."[2] Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, answers to interrogatories, admissions, depositions, and affidavits on file indicate that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). When the burden at trial will rest on the non-moving party, the moving party need not produce evidence to negate the elements of the non-moving party's case; rather, it need only point out the absence of supporting evidence. See Id. at 322-23. However, "if the movant bears the burden of proof on an issue, ... he must establish beyond peradventure all of the essential elements of the claim or defense to warrant judgment in his favor." Fontenot v. Upjohn Co., 780 F.2d 1190, 1194 (5th Or. 1986).

         If the movant satisfies its initial burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute of material fact, the nonmovant must demonstrate that there is, in fact, a genuine issue for trial by going "beyond the pleadings" and "designating] specific facts" for support. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (citing Celotex, Ml U.S. at 325). "This burden is not satisfied with some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, " by conclusory or unsubstantiated allegations, or by a mere "scintilla of evidence." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). However, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., Ml U.S. 242, 255 (1985) (citing Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158-59 (1970)). While not weighing the evidence of evaluating the credibility of witnesses, courts should grant summary judgment where the critical evidence in support of the nonmovant is so "weak or tenuous" that it could not support a judgment in the nonmovant's favor. Armstrong v. City of Dull, 997 F.2d 62, 67 (5 th Cir. 1993).

         Additionally, Local Rule 56.1 requires the movant to file a statement of material facts as to which it "contends there is no genuine issue to be tried." The opposing party must then set forth a "short and concise statement of the material facts as to which there exists a genuine issue to be tried." W.D. La. R. 56.2. All material facts set forth in the movant's statement "will be deemed ...

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