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Wilson v. Textron Aviation, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 11, 2019

AL F. WILSON, Plaintiff,
v.
TEXTRON AVIATION INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ERIC F. MELGREN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Al F. Wilson alleges that Textron discriminated and retaliated against him based on his race and disability. Before the Court is Defendant Textron Aviation Inc.'s (“Textron”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 33). For the reasons below, the Court grants the motion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[1]

         One of Textron's predecessor companies hired Wilson on November 13, 1997, as a sheet metal assembler. From January 5, 2009, to May 21, 2012, Wilson was a final line assembler for another of Textron's predecessor companies. From May 21, 2012, to May 9, 2015, Wilson was a sheet metal assembler at Textron, during which time Todd Meadows was his direct supervisor. Throughout the course of his employment at Textron and its predecessors, Wilson has only held the positions of sheet metal assembler and final line assembler. Since 2014, Textron no longer has the position of final line assembler, although it does have a similar position titled “assembly installer.” Throughout his employment with Textron, Wilson has been a member of a Union and is governed by its Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”). Under the CBA, Wilson is entitled to a medical leave of absence of up to 12 months, during which he can receive medical and other benefits. If an employee seeks a transfer to another position (whether or not that employee is on leave), a transfer request is not granted unless (i) there are no laid off employees in the job classification involved who have recall rights, and (ii) there are no other transfer requests submitted by employees in the applicable employee subdivision with greater seniority rights who are currently or were previously in the job classification involved. Under the CBA, Textron can only consider transferring employees to positions which they have previously held. Because of these CBA seniority provisions, the only positions Textron could have considered transferring Wilson to in 2014, 2015, and 2016 were sheet metal assembler or assembly installer, since those were the only positions Wilson ever held.

         The position of sheet metal assembler includes the following tasks: cleaning parts and work areas; assembling, sealing, drilling, sanding, and painting sheet metal; installing fasteners; bucking rivets; countersinking; using hand and power tools, and fitting jigs. All those tasks require frequent forceful handling, grasping, gripping, and hand manipulation. The similar position of assembly installer requires less frequent forceful gripping but more constant handling, grasping, and hand manipulation.

         A. History of Wilson's Complaints and Textron's Evaluations

          Beginning in 2003, Wilson had problems with his hands, eventually resulting in surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome and subjecting him to permanent restrictions in his job duties. To meet these permanent restrictions, Textron rotated Wilson between tasks within his position. These task rotations effectively accommodated Wilson's disability for a time. However, beginning in the first quarter of 2014, Wilson complained about pain in his hands, wrists, and right shoulder. To address this pain, he began regularly visiting Textron's Health Services Department and a company doctor. In at least six separate instances from October 2014 to March 2015, Textron evaluated Wilson's medical issues and considered possible accommodations.

         First, on October 24, 2014, representatives from Textron's Ergonomics and Environmental, Health, and Safety Departments evaluated Wilson's job duties to identify the risks of his position. Second, on November 10, 2014, representatives from Textron's Health Services and Ergonomics Departments, as well as Wilson's supervisor, Todd Meadows, conducted a job site visit to review the different tasks required in Wilson's position. During this visit, Textron's representatives gave Wilson a chance to describe what his job entailed. Textron's representatives informed Wilson that he could request a job transfer if he thought he was physically incapable of performing his current job.

         Textron conducted a third evaluation on January 12, 2015, where Wilson completed a Functional Capacity Exam (“FCE”) that identified permanent restrictions preventing him from reaching above his shoulders and limiting him to only occasional forceful grasping, fine hand manipulation, and simple grasping. These permanent restrictions were more severe than Wilson's prior restrictions from 2003. Members of Textron's Representatives met in February 2015 to follow up on Wilson's FCE and new permanent restrictions. They agreed to conduct more job site visits to determine if his current position complied with his updated permanent restrictions.

         Textron conducted a fourth evaluation on February 5, 2015, where its representatives, Meadows, a union steward, and the plant chair visited Wilson's job site to review the tasks required to work on the outboard composite doors and the inboard aluminum doors. Textron followed up with its fifth and sixth evaluations on February 9 and 11, 2015. During these visits, Textron's representatives evaluated Wilson's work on the speed-brake and left-hand inboard door.

         After the six aforementioned evaluations and job-site visits, Textron's representative met on February 25, 2015, to evaluate Wilson's situation and permanent restriction, and consider potential accommodations. They determined that no reasonable accommodations could satisfy Wilson's heightened restrictions.

         On March 2, 2015, Textron's representatives evaluated transferring Wilson to the only other available sheet metal assembler positions, ultimately determining that those positions also failed to comply with Wilson's restrictions. Textron therefore concluded that a job transfer was not a possible accommodation. On March 5, 2015, Textron's representatives evaluated Wilson's prior position on the upper-forward and center cowling assembly and determined that position was also not a match for his restrictions.

         By early March 2015, Textron concluded that: (i) Wilson's existing position as sheet metal assembler did not comply with his permanent restrictions and that the only way Wilson could perform the essential functions of his existing position was to exceed his permanent restrictions; (ii) the work environment, manner, and circumstances in which Wilson's existing position was performed, and tasks required in it, could not be modified to allow him to perform the essential functions of that position while still complying with his permanent restrictions; (iii) there were no other sheet metal assembler or assembly installer positions at Textron that were open and which complied with Wilson's existing permanent restrictions; and (iv) no sheet metal assembler or assembly installer positions at Textron would, even with reasonable accommodations, comply with Wilson's permanent restrictions.

         Under Wilson's prior permanent restrictions from 2003, Textron was able to reasonably accommodate his disabilities through task rotation. However, Wilson's 2015 FCE established permanent restrictions that were more severe than before. After it completed its evaluation process, Textron concluded that task or job rotations would not comply with Wilson's permanent restrictions. In addition, Wilson's CBA limited Textron to transferring Wilson only to positions which he previously held. To comply with the CBA, Textron could only consider Wilson for the sheet metal assembler or assembly installer positions, since those are the only positions he ever held. Textron concluded that neither of these positions, with or without reasonable accommodations, would comply with Wilson's permanent restrictions. As a result, Textron determined that a medical leave of absence was the only reasonable accommodation for Wilson's permanent restrictions.

         On March 9, 2015, Textron's representatives met with Wilson to review his permanent work restrictions and Textron's evaluation process. Textron advised Wilson that it could not accommodate his restrictions in his current position. Textron asked Wilson for his input on potential accommodations for his current position and he suggested that he should be transferred to his old position with the upper center and forward cowling assembly-which would also not comply with his FCE restrictions-or be put in charge of “the whole shop.” Following that meeting, Textron placed Wilson on a medical leave of absence. This decision was made collectively by individuals in Textron's Health Services, Human Resources, and Labor Relations Departments, as well as Meadows. While on his medical leave of absence, Wilson did not advise Textron that his permanent restrictions had changed. No. other positions became available during that period that complied with Wilson's permanent restrictions or CBA provisions. On March 14, 2016, Textron sent Wilson a letter informing him that he was two weeks away from the one-year anniversary of his medical leave of absence. Textron also inquired whether his medical condition had changed, in which case Textron would reengage in the interactive process to evaluate reasonable accommodations.

         On April 22, 2016, Textron sent Wilson a follow-up letter requesting that Wilson sign and return a medical records release so that Textron could review his recent medical records and evaluate whether he could return to work. After Wilson provided his signed release, Textron had Wilson take a physical ability test to determine whether there had been a change in his permanent restrictions. In May 2016, Wilson took the test which identified no restrictions preventing him from returning to work. Wilson returned to work at Textron on May 23, 2016, in the position of sheet metal assembler.

         B. Wilson's Calls to the Employee Hotline

          Textron has an Ethics and Compliance Hotline (“the Hotline”) for employees to call to complain about work-related issues. The Network, Inc. (“TNI”) operates the Hotline. When a Textron employee calls the Hotline, a TNI employee answers the call and speaks with the caller. Neither TNI nor Textron record calls to the Hotline. After the conclusion of a call, TNI creates a report for Textron. In 2014 and 2015, Jan Chapmon-then a Textron HR Manager-received TNI's Hotline reports.

         On or about November 18, 2014, TNI provided Chapmon with a report of a call by Wilson to the Hotline on November 17 (the “Hotline Report”). TNI did not provide Chapmon with information regarding any call by Wilson to the Hotline other than the Hotline Report detailing the call on November 17, 2014. The Hotline Report included the following information: Wilson had problems with his hand and had asked Meadows to move or rotate him to a new position, which Meadows refused to do; Wilson claimed to have made a prior call to the Hotline in October 2014; someone with Textron had a meeting with Wilson and Meadows on November 14, 2014; Wilson and Meadows had a later meeting with the Human Resources Department; and Wilson felt that “Meadows is upset with him because he called and made a report, ” that Meadows is “trying to think of reasons to criticize him, ” that “Meadows may be trying to drive him into quitting, ” and that “Meadows is retaliating against him.” Chapmon also received a voicemail message from Wilson in late October or early November 2014, wherein Wilson made statements similar to those referenced in the Hotline Report as well as alleging Meadows's racial animus.

         Upon receipt of the Hotline Report, Chapmon reviewed and investigated the allegations, interviewing Wilson, Meadows, and other Textron employees. Chapmon then drafted a final report to document the findings of her investigation, in which she concluded that several of Wilson's allegations from the Hotline Report were false. Namely, Meadows did not retaliate against Wilson. Chapmon's notes of her investigation into Wilson's call to the Hotline say nothing about racial discrimination or retaliation. She considered Wilson's complaints to be solely about his alleged disability discrimination.

         C. Procedural History

         Wilson filed his first Charge of Discrimination against Textron with the Kansas Human Rights Commission (“KHRC”) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on October 26, 2015. Wilson filed his second Charge of Discrimination against Textron with the KHRC and EEOC on November 28, 2016. In those charges, Wilson alleged that Meadows did the following: spent more time checking Wilson's work area for problems than he spent on other Caucasian employees, especially when Wilson was gone from work; wrote Wilson up for not keeping tool drawers clean when his drawers were just as clean as Caucasian employees who were not written up; routinely criticized Wilson for not being in the work area when the bell sounded, even though Wilson was in the area; held Wilson “to every letter of the book;” told Wilson he could not eat during meetings in the breakroom in 2012 or 2013; reprimanded Wilson for coming to meetings or work late in 2012 or 2013; embarrassed Wilson during a meeting with other employees; failed to accommodate Wilson or follow his doctor's recommendations when Meadows did so with other employees, including failing to rotate Wilson to a different job or task; and finally, Wilson alleged that Meadows falsified documents, gave him bad reviews, and wrote him up with bad reports in 2012 and 2013.

         The EEOC issued Wilson a right-to-sue letter in February 2017. Wilson filed this case on November 15, 2017, asserting claims of race and disability discrimination and retaliation. Textron now moves for summary judgment on all of Wilson's claims.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[2] A fact is “material” when it is essential to the claim, and issues of fact are “genuine” if the proffered evidence permits a reasonable jury to decide the issue in either party's favor.[3] The movant bears the initial burden of proof and must show the lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim.[4]The nonmovant must then bring forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.[5] These facts must be clearly identified through affidavits, deposition transcripts, or incorporated exhibits- conclusory allegations alone cannot survive a motion for summary judgment.[6] The court views all evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment.[7]

         III. Analysis

         Wilson alleges that Textron discriminated and retaliated against him based on both his race and disability. The Court will first address Wilson's race discrimination and retaliation claims, and then address Wilson's ADA discrimination and retaliation claims.

         A. Race Discrimination

         Wilson has not presented direct evidence that Textron discriminated against him based on his race. When a plaintiff has no direct evidence of race discrimination, his claim is subject to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis.[8] Racial discrimination claims brought under either Title VII or § 1981 have the same elements.[9] As part of the McDonnell Douglas analysis, the plaintiff must first demonstrate a prima facie case of discrimination.[10] Then the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision.[11] Finally, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant's reason is pretextual.[12]

         1. Prima Facie Case of Race Discrimination

         To establish a prima facie case of race discrimination, a plaintiff must show that (1) he belongs to a protected class, (2) he suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.[13]Wilson is African-American and the parties do not dispute that he belongs to a protected class. The Court will thus consider whether Wilson has established the second and third elements of a prima facie case of discrimination.

         The Court concludes that Wilson has shown he suffered an adverse employment action. An adverse employment action “must be materially adverse to the employee's job status.”[14] Courts focus on the “materiality of the challenged action and the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position” so as to “screen out trivial conduct while effectively capturing those acts that are likely to dissuade employees from complaining . . . about discrimination.”[15] A written warning, or reprimand, is an adverse employment action “only if it effects a significant change in the plaintiff's employment status.”[16] A significant change in employment status includes hiring, firing, failure to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.[17] Inconveniences or annoyances that do not cause more than de minimis harm to a plaintiff's job status are not actionable adverse actions.[18] Moreover, “increased tension and unpleasant relationships between employees are not considered actionable adverse actions.”[19]

         The Court concludes that Wilson has failed to show that Meadows's actions were “materially adverse employment actions.” Wilson alleges that Meadows scrutinized Wilson's work more thoroughly than other employees' work, reprimanded Wilson for being late to meetings, criticized the cleanliness of Wilson's work station, and made offhand comments that embarrassed Wilson in front of others. Wilson does not allege that Meadows threatened Wilson's future employment prospects or current job status. Nor does Wilson allege that Meadows ever directly commented on his race or used racist language. Absent more direct evidence, the remaining evidentiary record does not indicate that Meadows's actions materially altered the status of Wilson's employment. While Meadows's actions may have been unprofessional or rude, Wilson has failed to show that they were materially adverse employment actions.

         On the other hand, Wilson argues-and Textron does not dispute-that Textron's decision to place him on unpaid medical leave constituted an adverse employment action. The Court agrees that a year-long, unpaid medical leave of absence constitutes a materially adverse employment action, since it is, among other things, a decision causing a significant change in benefits. As such, Wilson has satisfied the second element of a prima facie case for racial discrimination.

         However, the Court concludes that Wilson fails to establish the third element of a prima facie case of discrimination-that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. Wilson alleges that Meadows harbored racial animus against him and treated him differently from similarly situated employees by doing things like humiliating him during employee meetings. Wilson supports these assertions with testimony from coworkers characterizing Meadows's actions as discriminatory. Accepting these allegations as true for purposes of this motion, they may demonstrate that Meadows harbored racial animus against Wilson, affecting his decision to place Wilson on medical leave. However, Meadows was merely one member of the Textron team that decided to place Wilson on medical leave.

         Wilson fails to allege facts showing that any of the remaining members of Textron's evaluation team also harbored racial animus against him. The team consisted of representatives from Textron's Ergonomics and Environmental Department, Health Department, Safety Department, and Human Resources Department. Wilson alleges no facts indicating that any of these other Textron representatives racially discriminated against him. The Court cannot therefore infer that anyone other than Meadows may have harbored racial animus against Wilson.

         Furthermore, Wilson fails to show that Meadows influenced the remaining Textron representatives such that he co-opted the decision-making process. Meadows was not involved at every stage of the evaluation process. He did not lead the team during its final decision-making, nor is there any evidence that the team gave his opinions unequal weight. Wilson alleges that the other Textron representatives simply deferred to Meadows, letting him decide whether to task or job rotate Wilson. However, the undisputed evidence shows that the other representatives merely suggested that Meadows investigate such rotations. They did not entirely defer the decision to him. The other Textron representatives also considered the ...


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