United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
JUDSON S. SPEARS, Plaintiff,
WATER & SEWAGE AUTHORITY OF CABARRUS COUNTY, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
D. SCHROEDER, District Judge.
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.
are construed in a light most favorable to Spears as the
nonmoving party, the facts are as follows.
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.)
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
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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
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.)
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.
Standard of Review
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).
ADA Wrongful Discharge
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)).
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.)
Spears could establish a prima facie case of wrongful
discharge under the ADA,  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.
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 ...