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Williams v. Corecivic, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

December 31, 2019

CORECIVIC, INC., et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Kenneth Williams sued his former employer, Defendant CoreCivic, Inc., for race discrimination and harassment under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and retaliation under Kansas common law and the False Claims Act. His claims arise from his termination in January 2017.

         CoreCivic moves for summary judgment on all claims. Doc. 112. As discussed below, the Court finds that Williams has not demonstrated that the employment actions he complains of were taken because of his race, nor has he demonstrated that he engaged in protected conduct sufficient to state retaliation claims. Further, he has not demonstrated that the stated reason for his termination was a pretext for discrimination or retaliation, or that he was subjected to a racially hostile work environment. Accordingly, the Court grants CoreCivic's motion.

         1. BACKGROUND

         CoreCivic runs the Leavenworth Detention Center (“LDC”) in Leavenworth, Kansas. Doc. 119 at 7. Williams, who is African American, worked as a shift supervisor (also referred to as a captain) at the LDC from April 4, 2011, until he was terminated on February 8, 2017. Doc. 111 at 2. As a shift supervisor, Williams reported to the chief of security, who reported to the assistant warden, who in turn reported to the warden. Doc. 119 at 8. The chief of security during the relevant period was Roger Moore, who is white. Id. at 15-16. The assistant warden was Dwight Fondren, who is African American. Id. at 16. In 2016, Linda Thomas became warden at the LDC. Id. Thomas is African American. Id. Before that, the warden was Isaac Johnston, who is also African American. Id.

         Williams has worked in the prison setting for 27 years, and, before Thomas became warden, he never filed any complaints for discrimination or retaliation and had an excellent employment record. Doc. 131-2 at 1.

         A. Williams's PSNs

         1. September 2015 PSN

         Employee discipline at CoreCivic is documented on Employee Problem Solving Notices (“PSNs”). Doc. 119 at 11. In 2015, Williams received a PSN for allowing two correctional officers under his supervision to exceed a 16-hour work day. Doc. 119 at 18. Chief of Unit Management Kenneth Daugherty issued the 2015 PSN, and Fondren and Johnston approved it. Id. During that time, it was not uncommon for employees to exceed 16 hours in a work shift due to understaffing. Doc. 131-2 at 2. But no other shift supervisor was disciplined for allowing this, other than Williams. Id.

         2. January 2017 PSN

         Williams was scheduled to complete some training on September 19-22, 2016. Doc. 119 at 21. On September 22, Williams arrived at work but told trainers that he had to leave for a previously scheduled appointment. Id. Fondren later spoke with Williams about his absence and asked him to provide a doctor's note. Id. at 21-22. Williams later acknowledged that he was aware of the training on those days, and that he never mentioned his doctor's appointment before arriving on September 22 because he intended to attend at least some of the training that day. Id. at 33.

         Although a PSN was created around the time Williams missed the training, it was not served or issued to him at the time. Id. at 22-23. On November 8, 2016, Williams filed a grievance regarding the missed September training and alleged that he had been given a PSN in retaliation for various activities. Id. But the PSN for the September 22 absence was not finalized and served by Fondren until January 19, 2017. Id. at 24.

         Williams later testified that he filed the November 8 grievance because he had learned that there was an outstanding PSN on his record, and he believed it prevented him from getting a promotion. Id. at 22-23. Williams could not recall the promotion he had missed out on, but it was “maybe” in Phoenix, or at the very least, in the state of Arizona. Id. at 23.

         3. February 2017 Termination

         CoreCivic operates the LDC under a contract with the United States Marshals Service (“USMS”), as well as other state and local government agencies. Id. at 9. CoreCivic's contract with the USMS requires CoreCivic to perform in accordance with various standards, including the Performance-Based Detention Standards. Id. at 9-10. One of those standards, A.10.7., sets forth 40 hours of management and supervision training for supervisors in their first year of employment, and 24 hours each year thereafter. Doc. 119 at 12-13; Doc. 113-5 at 6.

         Failure to comply with the Performance-Based Detention Standards could result in a reduction of the contract price. Doc. 119 at 10. CoreCivic's contract with the USMS requires CoreCivic to “establish an overall written training program for all employees which incorporates, at a minimum, the training requirements set forth in the . . . Performance-Based Detention Standards.” Id. at 11-12 (emphasis added). The CoreCivic Learning and Development Policy 4-1 states that management and supervisory staff are to receive at least 24 hours of management training each year after their first year, referencing Performance-Based Detention Standard A.10.7. Id. at 13-14. In 2012, Williams also signed a document stating that “[r]equired training hours for those positions are specifically outlined in CCA[1] Policy 4-1” and that “unexcused absences for required training are causes for immediate separation of employment.” Id. at 14.

         The Learning and Development Manager at the LDC is Sandra Elliott. Id. at 21. On October 4, 2016, Elliott sent an email to Williams and another CoreCivic employee stating, “Due to scheduling issues, AW Fondren has directed that you be assigned the 24 hour supervisory training tract instead of attending the SFLL seminar. You can find these courses in LMS under Assigned Curriculums. . . . These classes need to be completed prior to December 1st. Let me know if you need anything.” Id. at 36-37 (ellipses in original). This meant that Williams and the other employee would have to complete the 24 hours of supervisory training online instead of attending a training course in person. Williams did not respond to Elliott.[2] Id. The LMS system referenced in Elliott's email is available 24 hours a day, though Williams contends that employees were not expected to complete training courses at home or when they were not at work. Id. at 37. Online courses on LMS could also be paused and returned to at a later time. Id.

         Elliott followed up with Williams on November 21, 2016, stating that “you have not completed any of your Supervisor training tract as notified on October 4th. The deadline to have these completed is December 1st - this is USMS audit required training and is not optional. Please get on this immediately.” Id. at 37-38 (emphasis in original). Williams again did not respond.[3] Id. at 38.

         On November 30, 2016, Moore emailed Williams and six other supervisors and reminded them that they needed to complete their online supervisor training by December 1. Id. at 38. In response, Williams and Moore had the following exchange:

Moore: “As a reminder supervisors needs [sic] to complete their online supervisor training by December 1st. There is no exception there has been plenty of time given to complete it. In addition I believe Mr. Lawson still has some online training that needs completed.”
Williams: “Will be completed by end of the year.”
Moore: “The suspense date given is December 1st. It was sent out in October that is when it needs to be done by”
Williams: “As discussed in your meeting on Tuesday and again tonight before you left for the day you asked when it will be completed.”
Moore: “Sir the e-mail makes it clear when it is due. I am done discussing this.”
Williams: “You are the one that requested at your meeting when it will on line computer work would be completed [sic]. Again before you left on Wednesday you asked me when it was going to be completed and I again I informed you of the completion date. It is you that followed up with an e-mail about the same issue.”
Moore: “Let me clarify this Training Manager Elliott put out a completion date of December 1st back in October. The email I sent out after the meeting on Tuesday was to reiterate the required completion date she set.”
Williams: “ok”

Doc. 113-26 (CoreCivic Exhibit 37); see also Doc. 119 at 38-40.[4]

         On December 28, 2016, Elliott emailed Williams and asked him to complete his required supervisor training before midnight on December 31, 2016, “as required.” Doc. 119 at 42. Williams did not respond. Id. at 42-43.[5] As of January 1, 2017, Williams had only completed 6 of the 22 assigned supervisor training courses. Id. at 43. Of the 52 supervisors at the LDC, Williams was the only one who failed to complete the training.[6] Id. at 44-45. On January 3, 2017, Elliott told Moore and Thomas that Williams had failed to complete his supervisor training, and Williams was placed on administrative leave. Id. at 46-47.

         CoreCivic subsequently investigated Williams's failure to complete the supervisor training. Id. at 47. During the investigation, Williams admitted he did not complete the training assigned by Elliott in October 2016. Id. at 48. On February 8, 2017, CoreCivic terminated Williams. Id.[7] Thomas made the decision based on Williams's failure to comply with the training requirements. Id. at 49.[8] Thomas was also aware of Williams's failure to respond to Elliott's emails about the training and his email exchange with Moore. Id. at 50.

         B. Williams's Complaints About LDC Management

         Jason Ellis is the Managing Director of Operations for several CoreCivic facilities. Id. at 25. In September 2016, Williams emailed Ellis to set up a time to talk about staff safety and the facility “not using sound correctional practices.” Id. At some point after that email, Williams and Ellis spoke by phone about “a gamut” of issues, including integrity, “unequal treatment of minorities and the diverse staff members, ” inmate safety, staff safety, discipline, shift assignment, and falsification of documents. Id. at 25-26.

         On October 4, 2016, Ellis sent Thomas a list of concerns that had been raised to him, but he never identified Williams as the source of the concerns. Id. at 27-28. Although Ellis never identified Williams as the source of the complaints, Thomas suspected that Williams might have been the one who spoke to Ellis. Id. at 28-29. Williams again emailed Ellis on October 23, alleging retaliation by Thomas and that leadership at the LDC had gone “from bad to worse.” Id. at 29. But Williams does not recall if he talked to Ellis again after that second email. Id.

         At some point, Williams also discussed “unsafe conditions” at the LDC with someone named Lieutenant Elmer Grayson, though it is not clear where Grayson works or who he is affiliated with. Id. Grayson gave Williams a business card for someone with the Bureau of Prisons. Id. Sometime between September 2016 and December 2016, Williams contacted the BOP employee and spoke about unsafe conditions at the LDC. Id. at 29-30. Thomas was not aware that Williams spoke to anyone from BOP. Id. at 30.[9] Williams also claims he talked to USMS employees. Specifically, when Marshals came to drop off inmates, Williams claimed that “we would just be talking, I discussed items with them.” Id. at 31. There is no evidence Thomas was aware of these conversations either. Id.[10]

         On October 24, 2016, Williams called the CoreCivic Ethics Hotline and complained about an unresolved grievance, denial of a leave request, and the unserved PSN (which was later served in January 2017). Id. at 32. He also alleged that he believed Thomas was retaliating against him for contacting Ellis. Id. Williams's allegations were investigated, but no evidence of retaliation was found. Id. at 33. Specifically, the actions that Williams challenged as retaliatory were determined to be legitimate and warranted management responses. Id. The investigation also concluded that, although Williams had alleged that several supervisors had conspired to retaliate against him, Williams provided no statements or corroborating evidence. Id. at 33-34.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate if 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). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The burden then shifts to the nonmovant to demonstrate that genuine issues remain for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). To carry this burden, the nonmovant “may not rely merely on . . . its own pleadings.” Nahno-Lopez v. Houser, 625 F.3d 1279, 1283 (10th Cir. 2010) (internal quotations and citations omitted). “Rather, it must come forward with facts supported by competent evidence.” Id. The inquiry turns on “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a ...

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