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Marshall v. General Motors LLC

United States District Court, D. Kansas

November 14, 2017

Cleatus Marshall, Plaintiff,
v.
General Motors LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against his employer, General Motors LLC (“GM”), alleging that GM demoted plaintiff from a supervisory position to a non-supervisory position on the basis of his race. Plaintiff's race discrimination claim is asserted under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Plaintiff further alleges that GM demoted him from a supervisory position to a non-supervisory position in retaliation for plaintiff's engaging in protected activity. Plaintiff's retaliation claim is asserted under Title VII. This matter is presently before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment (doc. 29). As will be explained, the motion is granted with respect to plaintiff's race discrimination claim and is denied with respect to plaintiff's retaliation claim.[1]

         I. Facts

         The following facts are uncontroverted, stipulated in the pretrial order, or related in the light most favorable to plaintiff as the nonmoving party. Plaintiff Cleatus “Skip” Marshall, an African-American male, has been employed with defendant General Motors LLC since 1995, when he began working as an hourly employee at defendant's automobile assembly plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. In 2009, the Janesville plant closed and plaintiff transferred to defendant's automobile assembly plant in the Fairfax district of Kansas City, Kansas. He has been employed at the Fairfax plant since August 2009.

         In December 2013, plaintiff became a “per diem” group leader. A per diem group leader is an hourly employee assigned to manage 30 to 40 hourly employees. Per diem group leaders may be terminated at the end of any shift on any day upon notice by management, but generally a per diem group leader assignment lasts at least 12 months. Prior to his selection, plaintiff submitted a resume and interviewed with Jean Manning and Danean Myers, both of whom were operations managers in the plant's quality department. Both Ms. Manning and Ms. Myers are Caucasian. Plaintiff was offered and accepted the per diem group leader position and was assigned to the Quality Department on the third shift. As a per diem group leader, plaintiff did not receive regular or periodic written performance evaluations.

         When plaintiff began his per diem assignment, he reported directly to Ms. Myers. The record does not reflect any performance-related issues that plaintiff had while working under Ms. Myers' supervision and plaintiff's personnel file contains no documentation of any performance deficiencies during the time period he was supervised by Ms. Myers. In July 2014, plaintiff began reporting to Ms. Manning. Ms. Myers did not inform Ms. Manning of any deficiencies in plaintiff's work performance. At that time, Ms. Manning supervised approximately 10 to 12 group leaders across three shifts, three of whom, including plaintiff, were African-American. The record contains no evidence of any performance deficiencies during the first seven months that plaintiff worked under Ms. Manning's supervision. Moreover, in December 2014, plaintiff's per diem assignment was extended for an additional 12 months and, in January 2015, plaintiff was selected to assist GM's Wentzville plant during a slow period at the Fairfax plant. Plaintiff worked at the Wentzville plant for approximately three weeks.

         In February 2015, Ms. Manning had a discussion with plaintiff regarding “VTIMs, ” which are jobs that are not properly processed by the driver on the CARE line. The CARE line is the final inspection station in the assembly process. Ms. Manning memorialized the discussion by writing that “it was obvious [plaintiff] did not understand the process, ” and that she had explained the process to him as well as the need to address the team member who had not properly processed the job.[2] The parties dispute whether this discussion was a one-on-one discussion between Ms. Manning and plaintiff or whether the discussion was a broader group discussion between Ms. Manning and other group leaders. Ms. Manning avers that this discussion occurred solely between herself and plaintiff. Plaintiff recalls only that Ms. Manning discussed VTIM issues with all group leaders. In any event, plaintiff agrees that as a group leader he would have some responsibility for addressing a team member's failure to properly process jobs. Approximately two weeks later, in late February 2015, Ms. Manning documented another incident in which plaintiff “[r]an out of Israeli export bags, ” which are utilized to wrap cars for overseas shipping and that he failed to remedy the situation by arranging for more to be ordered, causing the line to operate without the bags. It is unclear from the record whether Ms. Manning discussed this issue with plaintiff. Regardless, these are the first two performance issues documented by Ms. Manning in the first seven months of her supervision of plaintiff.

         During a cross-shift meeting on March 3, 2015, plaintiff was giving an end-of-shift report and discussed an incident in which a representative of the plant medical department had mistakenly contacted Edward Tyree, another African-American group leader, rather than plaintiff to report on the status of one of plaintiff's assigned employees. After plaintiff explained the situation and the apparent mistaken identity, Ms. Manning laughed and said: “Well, all you black guys look alike.” Ms. Manning testified that her comment was directed toward the person who had seemed to confuse plaintiff with Mr. Tyree, noting that individual's apparent inability to distinguish between two African-American supervisors.[3] Plaintiff testified that he felt humiliated by the comment, in part because Ms. Manning was laughing when she said it and then other members of management laughed in response. At the end of the meeting, plaintiff approached Ms. Manning and told her that he found her comment to be “derogatory.” Ms. Manning testified that she apologized to plaintiff at that time. Plaintiff testified that Ms. Manning merely stated that the comment “was a joke” and walked away without apologizing to him.

         On March 23, 2015, Ms. Manning documented a discussion she had with plaintiff about the Business Plan Development (“BPD”) board not being up to date and about team leaders failing to complete Safety Observation Tour cards, for which plaintiff had responsibility. One week later, on March 30, 3015, plaintiff reported Ms. Manning's March 3, 2015 comment to Tiffany Brigman, a salaried personnel representative at the plant. One week after plaintiff's report, on April 7, 2015, Ms. Manning was issued a verbal counseling for making the comment. After she received a verbal counseling, Ms. Manning apologized to plaintiff for the comment.

         In May 2015, plaintiff was involved in an on-the-job dispute with Michael Peck, a Caucasian group leader. The dispute began when Mr. Peck stated that plaintiff's deficient leadership had contributed to plaintiff's shift failing a recent audit. During the discussion, Mr. Peck became visibly agitated, shouted profanities at plaintiff, and ultimately “chest bumped” plaintiff. Plaintiff reported the incident to Ms. Brigman and Ms. Manning. Ms. Manning responded to the incident by moving plaintiff to a different area within the quality department. Ms. Brigman responded by verbally counseling Mr. Peck (who denied any physical contact with plaintiff) and advising him that future incidents would result in more severe discipline. Shortly after the dispute, plaintiff went on paternity leave. When he returned to the plant, he sent an email dated July 16, 2015 to Rita Derencius, the plant personnel director, in which he pressed defendant to take action against Mr. Peck and questioned Mr. Peck's continued employment with defendant and defendant's commitment to its “zero tolerance” policy with respect to workplace violence. Plaintiff then met with Ms. Manning, Ms. Brigman, Rick Hinzpeter (Ms. Manning's supervisor), and Ms. Derencius about the incident and defendant's response to it. Ultimately, a memorandum was placed in Mr. Peck's file requiring Mr. Peck to participate in a conflict management webinar and to initiate an Employee Assistance Program counseling session.

         In the meantime, Ms. Manning continued to document issues relating to plaintiff's job performance, including plaintiff's alleged inability to understand various systems and processes; weak audit results; failure to execute a Performance Improvement Plan, and reluctance to hold hourly employees accountable for their work. In September 2015, plaintiff counseled Lisa Harris, an employee under his supervision, after she made mistakes relating to the entry of defects into a computer program utilized to track defects on the assembly line. On October 19, 2015, Ms. Manning, during an audit, was made aware of additional mistakes that Ms. Harris had made. Ms. Manning talked to plaintiff about the results of the audit and his failure to address Ms. Harris's performance appropriately. During this discussion, plaintiff told Ms. Manning that he believed she was “targeting” him in retaliation for his March 2015 report to Ms. Brigman about Ms. Manning's race-based comment.

         After meeting with Ms. Manning, plaintiff put Ms. Harris “on notice” of formal discipline for continuing to make errors with regard to the entry of defects into the computer program. As an hourly employee, Ms. Harris was entitled to a disciplinary interview before the assessment of formal discipline pursuant to paragraph 76(a) of the collective bargaining agreement. In his two years as a per diem group leader, plaintiff had never participated in a “76(a) interview” or assessed discipline against employees for anything other than attendance-related violations. Prior to conducting the 76(a) interview with Ms. Harris, plaintiff had a discussion with Tim Wells, another manager within the quality department, who reviewed the process for negotiating a disciplinary penalty with plaintiff. Mr. Wells suggested that plaintiff write up a draft of the disciplinary notice. Plaintiff asserts that he asked Mr. Wells for help, but Mr. Wells refused to provide it.

         During the 76(a) interview on October 26, 2015, Ms. Harris's union representative requested documentation of Ms. Harris's mistakes. Plaintiff did not have the documentation and spent 30 minutes looking for pertinent documents but could not find them. A labor relations representative present during the interview advised Ms. Manning that the interview was “the worst” he had witnessed. Mr. Wells advised Ms. Manning that it was “very unusual” that plaintiff had not issued any discipline for shop rules violations during his two years as a supervisor. Mr. Wells told Ms. Manning that plaintiff seems “resistant to disciplining hourly employees” and had a “very strong hourly mentality when it comes to accomplishing tasks in his day to day function.”

         After the 76(a) interview, Ms. Manning consulted with Mr. Hinzpeter as well as Ms. Brigman and Ms. Derencius. Ms. Manning recommended that plaintiff be removed from his group leader position. Management agreed with that recommendation and plaintiff was notified of that decision on November 5, 2015. In that notification, defendant asserted that it was returning plaintiff to his prior position as a Team Member in the body shop as a result of “continued performance issues” including “resistance/hesitant/not capable of assessing ...


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