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Burrs v. Walter Kidde Portable Equipment, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 30, 2018

JONATHAN BURRS, SR., Plaintiff,
v.
WALTER KIDDE PORTABLE EQUIPMENT, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          CATHERINE C. EAGLES, DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, Jonathan Burrs, contends his employer, Walter Kidde Portable Equipment, Inc., retaliated against him by creating a hostile work environment leading to his constructive discharge. The Court will grant Kidde's motion for summary judgment because the evidence does not show a hostile work environment or a causal connection between the allegedly protected activity and the allegedly retaliatory acts. Nor has Mr. Burrs rebutted Kidde's evidence of legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for its conduct.

         THE EVIDENCE

         At summary judgment, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Burrs, the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962).[1] Therefore, the Court will not recite conflicting evidence supporting Kidde's view of the case, unless helpful to provide context. The Court has included Kidde's evidence that Mr. Burrs has not contradicted.

         Mr. Burrs, a black man, was a business analyst in Kidde's customer service department from May 2014 until November 2015. Doc. 53 at ¶¶ 3, 64, 122. In September 2014, Karol Fritz, an IT Manager, denied Mr. Burrs access to a “fat client software utility.” Doc. 50-2 at 16-21. Mr. Burrs emailed Ms. Fritz's boss, asserting that Ms. Fritz had access to a fat client when she worked as a business analyst and questioning why he was being treated differently. Doc. 53 at ¶¶ 55-56. Mr. Burrs then asked someone else in IT for access to the fat client. Doc. 50-19 at ¶¶ 6-7.

         On October 12, 2014 Ms. Fritz began an investigation into Mr. Burrs for violating protocol. Doc. 53 at ¶ 60. The next day, she berated him in a meeting. Id. at ¶ 61. On October 14, Mr. Burrs told Human Resources Manager Curtis Thornton that Ms. Fritz was treating him differently because he was black. Doc. 50-2 at 32; Doc. 53 at ¶¶ 62-67.[2]

         In November 2014, Mr. Burrs sent an email to the Human Resources Director, Andrea Sirko-Delancey, in which he criticized the professional abilities of Ms. Fritz and Mr. Thornton. Doc. 50-7 at 9; Doc. 50-2 at 52-54. In December, Mr. Burrs sent another email to Ms. Sirko-Delancey criticizing IT management. Doc. 50-7 at 5-8. He copied Jim Ward, the Division President, and Nancy Davis, the Vice President and Chief Information Officer, on the email. Id. at 5; Doc. 50-2 at 58-60. He did not complain of gender or race discrimination in either email. Doc. 50-7 at 5-9.

         Ms. Sirko-Delancey and Suzanne Turner, Mr. Burrs' second line supervisor, met with Mr. Burrs twice in January 2015 to discuss the emails, Doc. 50-2 at 64; they criticized him as “arrogant” and a poor communicator. Doc. 53 at ¶ 70. Mr. Burrs had an anxiety attack after the January 16 meeting and left work early. Id. at ¶ 74. On January 27, Mr. Thornton sent Mr. Burrs an email addressing his late arrival to work the day before and his early departure on January 16. Doc. 50-8 at 6. Mr. Burrs admits he was late to work on January 26 and left early on January 16. Doc. 53 at ¶¶ 74-76.

         In February 2015, Ms. Turner gave Mr. Burrs a negative rating on his 2014 performance evaluation. Doc. 50-2 at 71-72; Doc. 50-8 at 9-10. Later that month, Mr. Burrs filed an Ombudsman complaint asserting that the bad performance review was in retaliation for his reporting of Sarbanes Oxley violations. Doc. 50-8 at 13-14; Doc. 50-19 at ¶ 3. In March, Mr. Burrs complained of race and gender discrimination while meeting with Ombudsman Investigator Stephanie Murphy. Doc. 53 at ¶¶ 89-90; Doc. 50-2 at 119.

         Around late March 2015, Mr. Burrs applied for an “IT Leader” position. Doc. 53 at ¶ 88. He was not hired, but says that he was qualified. Id. at ¶¶ 88, 100. Mr. Ward made the hiring decision for the position. Doc. 50-2 at 124.

         On August 18 and 19, 2015, Mr. Burrs again sent several emails directly to Mr. Ward, the Division President. Doc. 50-9 at 3-6. Ms. Turner told Mr. Burrs that “sending emails and copying folks who have no reference or context as to what you are sending is not productive” and advised him to talk with people who could help resolve the issues “rather than launching grenades via email.” Id. at 6. She also expressed “concern” that Mr. Burrs was “reverting back to using ineffective forms of communication that we addressed earlier this year.” Id. When he again copied Mr. Ward on an email, Ms. Turner instructed him to stop and said that she would meet with him to discuss his poor judgment. Id. at 4. Mr. Burrs left work after receiving her email, saying he was suffering from anxiety. Id. at 3-4.

         Mr. Burrs never returned to work, instead taking medical leave from August 20 through late-October. Doc. 50-2 at 79, 112-14. He resigned in early-November 2015. Doc. 50-9 at 2-3. He says his resignation was “involuntary.” Id. at 2.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Mr. Burrs filed his EEOC charge on December 8, 2015, Doc. 21, and this lawsuit followed in 2016. Doc. 1. In April 2017, this Court granted Kidde's motion for judgment on the pleadings as to all claims except the retaliation-by-hostile-work-environment claim. Doc. 22. ...


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