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White v. Buckeye Fire Equipment Co.

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

May 21, 2018

MARGARET L. WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
BUCKEYE FIRE EQUIPMENT COMPANY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Max O. Cogburn Jr. United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the court on defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Having considered this motion and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following Order.

         I. Background

         Defendant develops and manufactures fire protection products. Plaintiff is a former employee of defendant's. Plaintiff obtained her welding certification while in prison, but does not have any certifications allowing her to weld on tanks graded by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (“ASME”). In July 2014, plaintiff began working for defendant as a welder through a temporary agency. On October 13, 2014, defendant hired plaintiff as an at-will welder in its wheeled engine department, with a pay rate of $12.00 per hour.

         On February 3, 2015, defendant hired Carolyn Lanier as its Human Resources Manager. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff asked Lanier for a raise, expressing displeasure and a belief that others were receiving raises but she was not. Plaintiff thought that employees received a raise after 90 days of employment, but Lanier told plaintiff that defendant only issued pay increases based on merit. However, after Lanier heard from more employees expecting raises after 90 days, she discussed providing merit raises with Plant Manager Gerald Culp. As a result, defendant issued merit raises. On June 15, 2015, plaintiff's hourly rate was increased from $12.00 to $13.00.

         On September 16, 2015, plaintiff was using a disc grinder to grind a piece of rod stock and the machine caught the gloves she was wearing, pulling her hand into the machine and partially amputating her finger. Lanier proceeded to initiate a workers' compensation claim for plaintiff. Plaintiff was out of work due to her finger injury until October 12, 2015, when she returned with lifting restrictions. Lanier told Culp about the restrictions and asked if any accommodations or open positions were available, since plaintiff's welding position required regular and repeated lifting of at least 25 pounds. Defendant lacked the staff to provide plaintiff with the frequent lifting assistance required for her to remain in her welding position, so Culp placed plaintiff in the CO2 department to accommodate her, since that role only required lifting up to ten pounds. Plaintiff continued to be paid $13.00 per hour. On December 17, 2015, plaintiff's lifting restriction remained at ten pounds, so she remained in the CO2 department.

         Plaintiff's first year of employment with defendant was rife with disciplinary problems, with six disciplinary actions ranging from written verbal warnings to a 3-day suspension. Much of plaintiff's discipline resulted from her poor cooperation, the creation of a hostile work environment, and arguments with co-workers. Plaintiff's disciplinary problems continued into the CO2 department. On November 10, 2015, plaintiff received a written warning following a verbal altercation with co-worker Danny Weaver. The same day, plaintiff received a second written warning after she left defendant's facility without clocking out.

         During the investigation into the Weaver incident, plaintiff reported to Lanier that she felt she had been targeted by other welders because she was the only female welder in the wheeled engine department. Lanier promptly investigated plaintiff's report. Although Lanier could not substantiate plaintiff's claim, Lanier discovered that much of plaintiff's prior discipline resulted from reports made by employees who had since been terminated, and Lanier decided to remove the prior discipline in the wheeled engine department from plaintiff's personnel file. The discipline from the CO2 department, for the Weaver incident and failing to clock out, remained.

         On January 26, 2016, plaintiff slipped and fell on ice in the parking lot. Plaintiff was written out of work until January 29, 2016. Plaintiff was already scheduled to undergo a second surgery on her injured finger on February 2, 2016. Defendant gave plaintiff time off between her January 29 release and the February 2 surgery.

         On February 18, 2016, plaintiff was released to return to work with a lifting restriction of no more than 5 pounds. Upon receiving the restriction, Lanier immediately asked Culp whether any accommodations or open positions were available. Culp informed Lanier that all positions require employees to lift at least ten pounds, and that defendant lacked sufficient personnel to provide White with lifting assistance. Lanier then informed plaintiff's workers' compensation case manager, and plaintiff received full workers' compensation benefits while out of work.

         On March 1, 2016, plaintiff filed suit with the EEOC, alleging sex discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation for engaging in protected activity, and Equal Pay Act (“EPA”) violations. On March 14, 2016, White also filed North Carolina Department of Labor (“NCDOL”) Complaint No. 148-16, alleging a violation of the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (“REDA”).

         On April 4, 2016, White provided a doctor's note increasing her lifting restriction to 7 pounds. Lanier asked Culp whether any accommodations or open positions were available. Culp again informed Lanier that all positions require lifting of at least ten pounds, and that defendant lacked sufficient personnel to provide White with regular lifting assistance. On April 6, 2016, Lanier told plaintiff that defendant could not accommodate her lifting restriction, and assured her that she would continue to receive full workers' compensation benefits.

         Plaintiff amended her charge with the EEOC on April 18, 2016, now claiming additional acts of disability discrimination based on defendant's alleged failure to accommodate her disability and retaliation for filing with the EEOC and NCDOL.

         Plaintiff's 7-pound lifting restriction continued until June 28, 2016, when plaintiff emailed Lanier a doctor's note releasing her to full duty. Lanier instructed plaintiff to report to work on July 5, 2016, at 6:00 A.M., after the Fourth of July holiday. Plaintiff then emailed Lanier a new doctor's note, dated June 30, 2016, stating that she was to remain out of work until her Functional Capacity Evaluation. Plaintiff admitted in her ...


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