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Sledge v. Graphic Packaging International, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 19, 2014

CYNTHIA JOYCE SLEDGE, Plaintiff,
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

N. CARLTON TILLEY, Jr., Senior District Judge.

This suit arises from Plaintiff's termination from her employment with Defendant subsequent to an injury suffered during the scope of her work. Plaintiff alleges violations of the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 95-240, et seq. ("REDA") and the North Carolina Persons with Disabilities Protection Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 168A-1, et seq. ("NCPDPA"). See generally Doc. #4.[1] Now before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #19). See Docket Entry dated Oct. 11, 2013. For the reasons that follow, the instant Motion will be GRANTED.

I.

The material facts, viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, are as follows. Defendant manufactures custom packaging products. At the time of the incident giving rise to this action, Plaintiff worked as a Sheeter Operator in Defendant's Greensboro, North Carolina, plant, which produces custom labels. See Doc. #19-2 at 26:15-18; Doc. #19-1, ¶¶ 1-3.[2] A sheeter is a machine that cuts paper into the appropriate size for Defendant's printing department to produce labels to its customers' specifications. See Doc. #19-1, ¶ 8. The sheeter machine itself is large - approximately 50 feet long and six to ten feet high. See id.; see also Doc. #21-1, ¶ 3.

The paper used in the sheeter is in rolls. See Doc. #19-1, ¶ 10. Two roll stands for the paper sit behind the sheeter. See id. Typically, a roll of paper is put on the forward roll stand and fed, or "webbed, " through the sheeter. See id.; see also Doc. #19-2 at 32:21-33:3. After passing through various rollers, the paper runs under a blade. See Doc. #19-1, ¶ 11. The cut paper then exits the front of the machine where is it stacked on a pallet. See Doc. #19-2 at 33:7-18. If two rolls of paper are run at the same time, the back roll stand is also used. See Doc. #19-1, ¶ 10. The paper running through the sheeter is referred to as the "web." See id., ¶ 12.

Because the paper is fed from rolls, it may retain curl after running through the sheeter. See Doc. #19-1, ¶ 14. To reduce curl, Plaintiff was accustomed to using a process whereby she and another employee would place a pallet on top of the cut paper and then would use a forklift to lift the paper and a clamp truck to flip the paper. See Doc. #19-2 at 35:21-25; Doc. #19-1, ¶¶ 17-18. To simplify this process, Defendant purchased a machine referred to as the EZ Flipper that flipped the paper without using a forklift or clamp truck. See Doc. #19-2 at 36:3-9. Plaintiff testified that she was not comfortable using the EZ Flipper. See id.

On March 31, 2012, Plaintiff began her shift at 7 p.m. At that time, Plaintiff was working on a new project that required running paper, thicker than normal, through the sheeter. See id. at 34:14-17. The paper had one slick side, considered the top, and one coarse side, considered the bottom. See Doc. #19-4 at 31:19-32:5. Due to the paper's thickness, it retained significant curl after running through the sheeter. See Doc. #19-2 at 34:15-17. In an effort to eliminate the need to flip the paper, Plaintiff attempted to run the paper through the sheeter upside down (i.e., coarse side up) and put the paper on the back roller instead of the front. See id. at 34:23-35:10. Although Plaintiff had run this paper through the sheeter on at least one prior occasion, she had never used this method. See id. at 34:19-20.

Shortly before midnight, after Plaintiff fed the paper through the sheeter and after the sheeter began operation, Plaintiff tapped the web with her hand to test the tension. See id. at 35:11-13.[3] When Plaintiff tapped the web, her hand was pulled between rollers in the sheeter. See id. Plaintiff was able to remove her hand and reported her injury first to a nearby fellow employee and then to Carolyn White, a member of Defendant's safety team. See id. at 45:4-46:2. Ms. White left a voicemail for Printing Department Manager Dan Grannan (see Doc. #21-3 at 1; Doc. #19-2 at 46:13-14) and also contacted Plant Manager Cindy Wyatt (see Doc. #19-2 at 46:3-12). After speaking with Ms. Wyatt, Ms. White drove Plaintiff to the hospital. See Doc. #19-2 at 48:8-11. X-rays taken at the hospital revealed that Plaintiff's hand was not broken and that it was "[m]ore swelling than anything." Doc. #19-2 at 50:6-9. The doctor recommended that Plaintiff keep her hand elevated and limited her to one-handed work. See id. at 50:8-24.

While Plaintiff was at the hospital, Mr. Grannan received Ms. White's message and traveled to the plant. See Doc. #21-3 at 1. There, he inspected the machine with maintenance technician Jimmy Smith and did not find any defects. See id. at 2. Mr. Grannan and Mr. Smith determined from the condition of sheets in the waste bin that Plaintiff's injury occurred while the sheeter was running. See id. Shortly after 2 a.m., Mr. Grannan spoke with Ms. White at the hospital and she informed him that Plaintiff did not have any broken bones but that her hand was badly bruised. See Doc. #21-3 at 2-3. Plaintiff returned to the plant at 4 a.m., and Mr. Grannan interviewed Plaintiff with respect to the events surrounding her injury. See Doc. #19-2 at 55:14-23. At that time, Plaintiff discussed her plan of filing a worker's compensation claim with Mr. Grannan. See Doc. #21-1, ¶ 7. After concluding his interview, Mr. Grannan told Plaintiff to go home and to take the remainder of that shift and the following day off. See Doc. #19-3 at 43:8-11; Doc. #21-1, ¶ 8.

Plaintiff returned to work on April 2, 2012. See Doc. #21-1, ¶ 11. At this time, Plaintiff did not work, but met with Human Resource manager Philip Tacy, who also interviewed Plaintiff regarding the circumstances surrounding her injury. See id. Plaintiff avers that at this meeting, she "asked more questions about workers' compensation and how [her] doctor's appointments would be paid for and whether [she] would receive pay for the days [she] could not work" and Mr. Tacy responded by telling her to go home. Id . Mr. Grannan informed Plaintiff the following day that they were continuing to investigate the accident and would contact her when that process was complete. See id., ¶ 12. On April 9, 2012, Ms. Wyatt called Plaintiff and informed her that she was terminated for violating one of Defendant's Safety Absolutes. See id., ¶ 13. By letter dated that same day, Mr. Tacy informed Plaintiff of the same. See Doc. #19-2 at 49.

A Safety Absolutes Policy document describes Defendant's Safety Absolutes as follows:

1. Lockout/Tag out violation
2. Intentionally bypassing, removing or disabling a safety device.
3. Reaching into moving equipment in violation of established safe ...

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