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Sorapuru v. Cornerstone Chemical Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 25, 2018

TRACY SORAPURU
v.
CORNERSTONE CHEMICAL COMPANY

         SECTION: "N"(5)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          MICHAEL B. NORTH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the Court is the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, Cornerstone Chemical Company (“Cornerstone”). (Rec. doc. 18). Plaintiff, Tracy Sorapuru (“Sorapuru”), filed an opposition (rec. doc. 29)[1], and the Court heard oral argument on the motion on July 11, 2018. (Rec. doc. 34). Having considered the parties' briefs, the exhibits attached thereto, and the argument of counsel, the Court rules as follows.

         Factual Background[2]

         Cornerstone's Fortier Plant is located on the Mississippi River in Waggaman, Louisiana. At Fortier, Cornerstone manufactures “building block” chemicals for both its own use and for sale to other companies. The plant employs approximately 450 union employees who are represented by Steelworkers Local 13-447. Sorapuru was one of those employees.

         Sorapuru was a shift firefighter for Cornerstone. The duties of a shift firefighter include making rounds throughout the plant to check on all fire protection and suppression systems. Sorapuru was one of four shift firefighters who worked alternating 12-hour shifts that were either 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. Cornerstone considered shift firefighters to be “on duty” for their entire shift. The position is self-directed with little immediate supervision or oversite.

         On August 26, 2014, then Warehouse Manager Andreas Hatch (“Hatch”) informed Sorapuru that he had found a document belonging to her on the warehouse printer. When Sorapuru came to pick up the document on August 28, 2014, Hatch informed her that the document he found was real estate-related and that she was forbidden from using Cornerstone's equipment to carry on her real estate business. Hatch then threw the document away and informed Sorapuru that he did not want to see any real estate-related documents again. Additional discipline against Sorapuru was not pursued.[3]

         On March 20, 2015, Sorapuru's supervisor, Stephen Bull (“Bull”) informed Employee Relations Manager, Aaron Marques (“Marques”), that another real estate document had been found on the firehouse printer. On March 23, 2015, Marques requested that Tim Plunkett (“Plunkett”), Cornerstone's IT Director, pull the internet logs and search the computer records for all four of the shift firefighters. Plunkett copied the electronic profiles of all four shift firefighters and turned them over to Marques. A review of Sorapuru's secure profile revealed a significant number of real estate documents. According to Cornerstone, no non-Cornerstone commercial work documents were found on any of the other three shift firefighter's unique login credentials or partitions.

         Under Sorapuru's secure profile on the firehouse computer, Marques also found pictures of real estate in her photos folder, “.pdf” files labeled as real estate documents and contracts, and folders entitled “clients” and “misc.” Marques believed that, because these documents were not related to Cornerstone's business, they were unauthorized.

         On March 27, 2015, Marques discussed the matter with Bull. At that time, Sorapuru was on vacation until April 5, 2015. Prior to her return, Marques continued to investigate the contents of Sorapuru's profile and internet usage logs. The results of the investigation revealed that Sorapuru's profile contained numerous documents related to real estate, one of which was identical to the document found on the firehouse printer on March 20th.

         After reviewing the documents, Marques concluded that all of the documents were real estate documents, unrelated to Cornerstone's business. Marques also checked the Xerox equipment in the warehouse and found a number of these documents had been scanned to the network server or Sorapuru's email address. The documents were subsequently downloaded onto Sorapuru's secure profile.

         On April 14, 2015, Marques requested that Sorapuru meet with him to discuss the results of the Company's investigation into the real estate document found on the firehouse printer. Sorapuru was accompanied at that meeting by union representatives. At the meeting, Marques presented Sorapuru with the document that was found on the firehouse printer. She denied ever seeing the document and stated that it did not belong to her. As a result of the meeting and what Marques believed was Sorapuru's failure to cooperate in the investigation, Marques presented Sorapuru with a “Letter of Suspension Pending Final Disposition.”

         On April 21, 2015, Marques met with Sorapuru and union representatives for a “Final Disposition” meeting. During the meeting, according to Cornerstone, Sorapuru continued to deny that she engaged in any form of work related to her real estate job while she was on duty at Cornerstone. The meeting concluded with Marques informing Sorapuru that she was terminated for using Cornerstone's IT system to engage in activities in furtherance of her outside real estate employment while on duty and being paid by Cornerstone.

         Marques further determined that Sorapuru's use of Cornerstone's resources and equipment in connection with her outside job violated the company's Code of Conduct policy, and the amount of real estate business that she engaged in while on duty as a shift firefighter as evidenced by the volume of documents found on her secure profile, as well as the activity on her internet search log, amounted to a gross disregard of Cornerstone's Code of Conduct.

         Following the April 21, 2015 meeting, Marques provided Sorapuru with a “Final Disposition Letter” confirming her termination for performing work in furtherance of her outside employment while on duty.

         Steelworkers Local 13-447 subsequently filed a Grievance on Sorapuru's behalf, stating that her discharge was not for “just cause” and that she should be reinstated. The matter proceeded to arbitration, where Sorapuru was represented by counsel.

         Arbitrator Daniel Jennings (“Jennings”) was mutually selected by Steelworkers Local 13-447 and Cornerstone to arbitrate Sorapuru's grievance. On September 23, 2015, Jennings conducted the arbitration hearing at which both parties were represented by counsel. The issue presented for arbitration was framed as: “Was [Sorapuru] terminated (discharged) for just cause? If not, what is the appropriate remedy?”

         At the hearing, the parties were afforded the opportunity for the introduction of evidence, examination and cross-examination of witnesses, and oral arguments. The parties also submitted post-hearing briefs. In the Opinion and Award of the Arbitrator, Jennings noted that “both parties were well represented for the case at bar.” After the evidentiary hearing and submission of post-hearing briefs, Arbitrator Jennings determined that:

In summary, based on all the evidence presented during the present arbitration hearing and the Parties' post hearing briefs, this Arbitrator is convinced that [Sorapuru] has been discharged for just cause.

(Rec. doc. 18-8, p. 61).

         Jennings was further “convinced that [Sorapuru] used Company computer equipment to support her activities as a real estate agent while on Company time.” (Id. at p. 60).

         Prior to the issuance of the Opinion and Award of the Arbitrator, on April 23, 2015, Sorapuru had filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. That charge made two allegations: (1) wrongful discharge based on age and/or sex discrimination and (2) hostile work environment based on age and/or sex discrimination. On May 1, 2017 the EEOC issued a no-cause determination and dismissed Sorapuru's charge. (Rec. doc. 18-10). Sorapuru then filed this lawsuit pro se on August 3, 2017.

         In her original complaint, Sorapuru complained of retaliation, harassment, and age discrimination. (Rec. doc. 1). On January 3, 2018, Sorapuru, still acting pro se, filed an amended complaint, adding claims of gender discrimination and hostile work environment. (Rec. doc. 9). Current counsel for Sorapuru, Natalie Blackman, moved to enroll as counsel on June 1, 2018. (Rec. doc. 17). Cornerstone filed the instant motion for summary judgment the following day. (Rec. doc. 18). On June 4, 2018, Ms. Blackmon was enrolled as counsel of record and on July 3, 2018, she filed an opposition memorandum on behalf of Sorapuru. (Rec. docs. 19, 29). In that opposition, Sorapuru abandoned all claims in the case save her claim for gender discrimination. (Rec. doc. 29, p. 7).

         APPLICABLE LAW

         I. Summary Judgment Standard

         “A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense - or the part of each claim or defense - on which summary judgment is sought.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by:

(A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), ...

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