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Pulliam v. Lowe's Companies, Inc.

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

February 15, 2019

MATHLON K. PULLIAM, Plaintiff,
v.
LOWE'S COMPANIES, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 regarding Plaintiff's claims of race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and wrongful termination in violation of public policy under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-422.2. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, an African-American male, holds both a master of science in chemical engineering and a master of business administration. Defendant Lowe's Companies, Inc. (“Lowe's”) is a multinational home improvement company based in Mooresville, North Carolina. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges Lowe's Vice President Doug Jennings (“Jennings”) treated him differently from his white colleagues by making an inappropriate remark and interfering with his ability to hire and manage his team. Conversely, Lowe's alleges Plaintiff's cited events were not motivated by discriminatory animus, and Lowe's ultimately terminated Plaintiff because he failed to demonstrate meaningful progress on the key initiative within Lowe's that he was hired to complete. Most significant to this Court, however, is the fact Plaintiff worked at Lowe's for less than seven months, and he was terminated by the same person who interviewed and hired him.

         In 2013, Lowe's reorganized and expanded a portion of its Finance department to create the Enterprise Measure and Evaluate Group (“Measure & Evaluate”). The new group focused on providing financial analyses and big data analytics. In early 2014, Jennings, who ran Measure & Evaluate, began recruiting for a Measure & Evaluate Director position. Jennings had previously filled two director positions by incumbent members of the former Finance department. (Jennings Decl. at 3-4). For the third director position, which was to be focused on Lowe's enterprise-wide activities, Jennings looked to external candidates. (Id. at 4). Jennings interviewed several candidates by phone for the director position, including Plaintiff, and Plaintiff was the only candidate invited for an in-person interview. (Id. at 4-5). After completing Defendant's formal interview process, Jennings hired Plaintiff to work at Defendant's corporate headquarters. While others were involved in the interview process, Jennings testified he had the final authority over whether or not to hire Plaintiff. (Jennings Dep. at 49). Plaintiff has neither presented nor forecast any evidence to contradict that testimony.

         As Director of Measure & Evaluate, Plaintiff's position involved developing and implementing financial strategy. More specifically, Plaintiff's job focused on Lowe's enterprise-wide activities. (Jennings Decl. at 3). Of these responsibilities, the parties agree Plaintiff's most critical task was developing a project called Business Case Best Practices (the “Project”), which was a Measure & Evaluate team goal. (Pulliam Dep. at 67; Jennings Dep. at 141). Moreover, Jennings believed Plaintiff's previous experience working in portfolio analytics, mergers and acquisitions, and finance at several large companies, such as Polypore International and Delhaize America, would provide Plaintiff with highly relevant experience he could leverage into completing the Project. (Jennings Decl. at 5).

         The Project was initially expected to be completed by September 2014, although Jennings testified that in July or August of 2014 there were clear signs Plaintiff was significantly behind schedule. (Jennings Dep. at 123). Jennings noted he was concerned because he “wasn't seeing any traction on any . . . tangible outcomes or any progress towards any outcome.” (Id.) Jennings complained that when asked about the Project, Plaintiff discussed the Project on a high-level perspective but did not demonstrate he was working through the details to deliver tangible results. (Jennings Decl. at 9). Jennings testified he then reached out to his human resources contact, an African-American woman named Kim Reynolds (“Reynolds”), to seek advice on managing Plaintiff's employment. (Jennings Dep. at 149). Jennings testified he subsequently met with Plaintiff in August 2014 to discuss concerns and explain Defendant's expectations for the Project. (Id. at 123). Plaintiff acknowledged that Jennings informed him during the meeting that Plaintiff's approach was too “hands off, ” and Plaintiff needed to be more directly involved in his projects. (Pulliam Dep. 98-99).

         Plaintiff, meanwhile, claims one of the issues causing the Project delay included a lack of sponsorship. Sponsors are high-level executives who advocate for a project internally and provide project oversight and guidance. While sponsorship is helpful for ensuring a project has the necessary resources needed for completion and managing resistance within the corporation, sponsors are not responsible for ultimately developing a project. (Jones Decl. at 3). Further, Plaintiff's alleged sponsorship challenges lack evidentiary support, as Plaintiff acknowledged he ultimately had two sponsors, Jay Rabello and Mike Jones, sponsoring and supporting the Project. (Pulliam Dep. at 71-72).

         Plaintiff also claims Jennings treated him differently from the white employees. Plaintiff points to evidence that Jennings stated during a business meeting “nobody gives a damn who you know at Ebony, ” apparently referring to Ebony magazine, a magazine marketed to African-Americans. (Pulliam Dep. at 64). Plaintiff further complained that Jennings frequently went to lunch with white colleagues in his department, but Jennings never extended an invitation to Plaintiff. (Pulliam Decl. at 4). Lastly, Plaintiff argues Jennings once prevented Plaintiff from hiring his former colleague, Trae Fletcher, to join Plaintiff's team and instead let another director hire Fletcher who had a more “urgent need.” (Pulliam Dep. at 51).

         Jennings noted that by mid-October, he had not received any templates, forms, or tools for the Project, and when asked for more information, Plaintiff gave Jennings a “one-page schematic” copied from what another employee had previously written on a whiteboard. (Jennings Decl. at 10-11). Moreover, on October 24, 2014-well into Q4-Plaintiff sent Jennings an email informing him the Project is “still an initiative, ” despite the original timeline mandating the Project be established by Q3. (Jennings Dep. Ex. 20). After receiving similar negative feedback regarding Plaintiff from other vice presidents and directors who had worked with him, and after consultation with Reynolds, Jennings made the decision to terminate Plaintiff.

         On November 3, 2014, Jennings terminated Plaintiff's employment for failing to meet expectations. (Pulliam Dep. at 39; Jennings Dep. at 227). Jennings testified that although he consulted with Reynolds first, it was Jennings' decision to terminate Plaintiff. (Jennings Decl. at 12). Plaintiff's employment had lasted less than seven months, from April 7 to November 3, 2014. Plaintiff's position was never filled after his termination, and the position was ultimately removed from Defendant's management structure.

         Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a complaint on November 22, 2017, in the Superior Court of North Carolina at Mecklenburg County, and Defendant removed the case to this Court on January 4, 2018. Defendant moved for summary judgment on October 5, 2018. (Doc. No. 13). A hearing was held to resolve the summary judgment motion on December 5, 2018, at which all parties were represented by counsel, and the Court issued an oral order granting Defendant's motion and advised the parties of this forthcoming Order.

         II.APPLICABLE STANDARD

         A. ...


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