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Spears v. Water & Sewage Authority of Cabarrus County

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

May 24, 2017

JUDSON S. SPEARS, Plaintiff,
v.
WATER & SEWAGE AUTHORITY OF CABARRUS COUNTY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THOMAS D. SCHROEDER, District Judge.

         This is an action for wrongful discharge by Plaintiff Judson S. Spears, who was terminated by his employer, the Water & Sewage Authority of Cabarrus County (“WSACC”), on October 14, 2013. Before the court is WSACC's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 17.) The motion is fully briefed and ready for decision. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted and the complaint will be dismissed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As they are construed in a light most favorable to Spears as the nonmoving party, the facts are as follows.

         Spears was employed by WSACC in 1996 as an Electrical and Instrumentation Technician. His duties included the maintenance and repair of WSACC's wastewater facility, specifically the “difficult technical skilled work in the installation, maintenance, and repair of” control systems involved in the wastewater pumping and treatment at WSACC facilities. (Doc. 25-3 at 1; Doc. 34 at 4-5.) While Spears dealt mostly with electrical issues, he also served as a mechanic, responsible for fixing failing equipment. (Doc. 25-3; Doc. 34 at 4-5.)

         WSACC promoted Spears to Electrical and Instrumentation Supervisor around 2000. (Doc. 34 at 6.) The functions of this position generally include his previous responsibilities, but with an added management role of supervising electrical technicians. (Id.; Doc. 28-2 at 1.) Spears served in this role until he was terminated on October 14, 2013. (Doc. 34 at 8.) At one time, Spears managed up to three employees, but by 2010, he was only managing one, Lynn Ritchie. (Id.; Doc. 18-2 at 15; Doc. 36 at 12.) When the employees he was managing left, Spears' workload increased. (Doc. 34 at 12.)

         On September 9, 2013, Spears injured his back while at work. (Doc. 29-1; Doc. 29-2; Doc. 29-3; Doc. 29-4; Doc. 36 at 2-4.) He reported that his doctor gave him a “light work” restriction, limited to lifting no more than twenty pounds. (Doc. 18-3 at 6; Doc. 29-1; Doc. 29-2; Doc. 29-3; Doc. 29-4.) Spears' doctor filed a workers' compensation claim on his behalf on September 16, 2013. (Doc. 26-2; Doc. 29-1; Doc. 29-2; Doc. 36 at 3.) Spears also informed Mark Fowler and Chris Carpenter, his supervisors at the time of his injury, but said he felt the weight restriction was “excessive” and unnecessary. (Doc. 1 at 3, ¶ 19.)

         Spears did not ask for sick leave or medical leave (Doc. 36 at 5-6; Doc. 37 at 8), as he felt that he could not take any time off because of the workload (Doc. 36 at 11). He alleges that WSACC knew that he was routinely violating his restrictions in an effort to address a growing workload. (Id. at 12-13.) He did ask for additional assistance in performing his duties because of his injury but says that he never received assistance, with one exception. (Id. at 11-12.) He maintains that he was able to serve in some capacity - mostly “troubleshooting” electrical or equipment failures, without having to physically exert himself - but that his lifting restriction limited his ability to fully perform his duties. (Id. at 11-14.)

         During his off time, Spears continued to work on personal rental properties he owned. (Id. at 9.) At some time after injuring his back, a WSACC employee observed Spears lifting materials appearing to weigh more than 20 pounds while performing work at one of Spears' rental properties. (Doc. 18-3 at 25-27.) On September 27, 2013, Spears carried a piece of drywall that weighed more than twenty pounds at one of his rental properties and was filmed doing so by a private investigator hired by WSACC's insurance company. (Doc. 1 at 4; Doc. 18-5 at 4; Doc. 36 at 9-11, 14-15; Doc. 37 at 1.) WSACC terminated Spears on October 14, 2013, for fraud. (Doc. 25-1 at 5-6.)

         Spears' termination occurred in the midst of discussions concerning his job performance. In April 2013, Spears received his annual evaluation, covering his performance from April 3, 2012, through April 3, 2013. The assessment noted his inefficiency, lack of leadership skills, inability to prioritize work and staff projects, and ineffective communication. (Doc. 26; Doc. 26-1.) The evaluation specifically noted his repeated absence from work, which the evaluation explained by pointing to Spears' need to take time off from work to attend “an extraordinary number of appointments.” (Doc. 26-1 at 3.) But the evaluation also commended him for his overall competency and initiative. (Doc. 26; Doc. 26-1.) This followed Spears' 2012 evaluation, which contained similar remarks and an overall score of 3.93 out of 9 (1-3 is “unsatisfactory”; 4-6 is “expected”; and 7-9 is “exceptional”). (Doc. 27; Doc. 34 at 15-20; Doc. 37 at 4-5.)

         Spears' supervisors extended his 2013 evaluation period through July 2013 and met with him several times to discuss his performance. (Doc. 18-2 at 18-20; Doc. 18-3 at 10-11; Doc. 25-1 at 6-7.) During this time, Spears showed some improvement, but not with respect to his leadership abilities. (Doc. 18-3 at 10-11.) Spears disagreed with his 2013 evaluation and filed a grievance letter to appeal through an internal process. (Doc. 18-4 at 6-9) WSACC convened a hearing panel to address Spears' appeal but ultimately decided to affirm his 2013 evaluation. (Doc. 39 at 12-14.)

         Spears filed the instant action against WSACC on October 15, 2015, advancing claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12112 and § 12117, as amended; the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (“REDA”), N.C. Gen. Stat. 95-240 et seq.; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq.; the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.; the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. 143-422.1 et seq.; and the North Carolina Persons with Disabilities Protection Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. 168A-11 et seq. (Doc. 1 at 1.) Spears seeks compensatory damages for lost wages, benefits, and pain and suffering; punitive damages; legal costs; treble damages pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-243; and a mandatory injunction forcing WSACC to implement procedures preventing illegal discriminatory activities. (Doc. 1 at 8-9.)

         On August 31, 2016, WSACC moved for summary judgment on all of Spears' claims. (Doc. 17.) Spears has responded (Doc. 23), and WSACC replied (Doc. 42). Each claim will be addressed in turn.[1]

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, affidavits, and other proper discovery materials demonstrate that no genuine dispute as to any material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-33 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of initially demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If this burden is met, the nonmoving party must then affirmatively demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact which requires trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). There is no issue for trial unless sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party exists for a factfinder to return a verdict for that party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 257 (1986). In addition, the nonmoving party is entitled to have the “credibility of his evidence as forecast assumed, his version of all that is in dispute accepted, [and] all internal conflicts in it resolved favorably to him.” Metric/Kvaerner Fayetteville v. Fed. Ins. Co., 403 F.3d 188, 197 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Charbonnages de France v. Smith, 597 F.2d 406, 414 (4th Cir. 1979)) (initial quotation marks omitted).

         B. Federal Claims

         1. ADA Wrongful Discharge

         Spears claims that WSACC discriminated against him by terminating him because he was disabled with a back injury. (Doc. 1 ¶ 42.) To make out a prima facie case of wrongful discharge under the ADA, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) he “was a qualified individual with a disability”; (2) he “was discharged”; (3) he “was fulfilling h[is] employer's legitimate expectations at the time of discharge”; and (4) “the circumstances of h[is] discharge raise a reasonable inference of unlawful discrimination.” Rohan v. Networks Presentations LLC, 375 F.3d 266, 273 n.9 (4th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks omitted). In order to survive summary judgment, a plaintiff must provide evidence supporting each of these elements. Reynolds v. Am. Nat. Red Cross, 701 F.3d 143, 150 (4th Cir. 2012). After a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant-employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973); Gillins v. Berkeley Elec. Co-op., Inc., 148 F.3d 413, 415-16 (4th Cir. 1998). If the employer does so, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the employer's stated reason was merely pretextual and that the employer was motivated, in fact, by a discriminatory purpose. See St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 515 (1993) (“[A] reason cannot be proved to be ‘a pretext for discrimination' unless it is shown both that the reason was false, and that discrimination was the real reason.” (emphasis in original)).

         WSACC argues that Spears cannot set forth a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA for three reasons. First, Spears cannot show that he was otherwise qualified for his job because of his alleged workers' compensation fraud. (Doc. 18 at 7.) Second, he cannot introduce evidence that he was terminated under circumstances that raise an inference of unlawful discrimination. (Id.) Third, even if Spears could make out a prima facie case, he cannot prove that WSACC's proffered reason for termination - his fraud in relation to his workers' compensation claim - was false. (Id. at 7-8.) Spears responds by arguing that the temporal proximity between him notifying his superiors of his back injury and his termination is proof of causation and sufficient to raise an inference of discrimination under the ADA. (Doc. 24 at 6-7.)

         Even if Spears could establish a prima facie case of wrongful discharge under the ADA, [2] he cannot establish that WSACC's proffered reason for terminating him was a pretext for discrimination. To do so, he must prove “both that the reason was false, and that discrimination was the real reason' for the challenged conduct.” DeJarnette v. Corning Inc., 133 F.3d 293, 298 (4th Cir. 1998) (quoting Jiminez v. Mary Washington Coll., 57 F.3d 369 (4th Cir. 1995) (emphasis removed)); see also Gillins v. Berkeley Elec. Coop., Inc., 148 F.3d 413, 416 (4th Cir. 1998) (stating that “[t]his court has adopted what is best described as the ‘pretext-plus' standard for summary judgment in employment discrimination cases”). Spears has failed to make such a showing.

         The record demonstrates that Spears' colleagues considered him to be generally honest and likeable. And he appears to have had few disciplinary issues over his 17-year career. But Spears fails to adduce evidence sufficient for the court to discard WSACC's proffered reason for the termination, conceding that he was violating his weight restriction when working on his rental properties while pursuing a workers' compensation claim. (Doc. 18-5 at 4.) Each of the WSACC employees deposed explained that he viewed Spears' actions as fraud and dishonesty and the exclusive reason for his termination. (Doc. 18-2 at 4, 9, 11, 19; Doc. 18-3 at 4, 11, 19; Doc. 25-1 at 6; Doc. 31 at 15, 18; Doc. 38 at 6.) Spears' direct supervisor, Carpenter, further explained that Spears violated his restriction even after affirming that he was ...


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