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Parks v. Louisiana-Pacific Corporation

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

August 20, 2019

JAMES PARKS, Plaintiff,
v.
LOUISIANA-PACIFIC CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENNETH D. BELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Louisiana-Pacific Corp.'s (“LP” or “Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 18), which Plaintiff James Parks (“Plaintiff” or “Parks”) opposes. The Court has carefully reviewed the motion and considered the parties' arguments, briefs and exhibits. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will GRANT the motion and enter Summary Judgment in favor of Defendant.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         This matter is a discrimination and hostile work environment action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Plaintiff filed this action against his former employer, LP, after he was terminated for failing to follow a written safety policy. Plaintiff asserts claims for hostile work environment, disparate treatment, and retaliation.

         LP is “one of the largest building products manufacturers in North America.” (Doc. No. 26, at 2.) Plaintiff was originally hired by LP on June 14, 2004 as a temporary utility worker at its Roaring River manufacturing facility in North Carolina. (Doc. No. 32, at 3.) In December 2005, LP transferred Plaintiff to the maintenance department. (Id.) Plaintiff worked in maintenance until his termination on March 23, 2015. (Id.) Over the course of his employment at LP, Parks received “various promotions and pay raises.” (Doc. No. 26, at 4.)

         A. Plaintiff's Safety Violation and Termination

         The parties agree that LP has a written “Lock out/Tag out” (“LOTO”) safety policy applicable to all employees who perform maintenance on machines in the manufacturing facility. The LOTO policy provides that, before performing any work on the machine, the employee must turn off the machine's energy source at the breaker and place a lock on the switch. (Doc. No. 26, at 2.) Second, the employee must verify that the machine has no power by attempting to switch it on before beginning any work. (Id.) Citing the language of the LOTO policy, LP states that violations of LOTO “will be viewed as an act of serious misconduct” but that “[i]n all cases where discipline is being considered, the facts and merits of the specific event will be thoroughly reviewed before corrective action is taken.” (Id. at 3.) Despite this written qualifier, Plaintiff takes the position that all employees were unequivocally told that any LOTO violation resulted in “automatic termination.” (Doc. No. 32, at 3.) Plaintiff cites deposition testimony from his son and fellow LP employee, Michael Lamont Houpe, in support of this assertion.

         The parties agree that on March 18, 2015, Plaintiff violated the LOTO policy. After receiving a work order for a machine, Plaintiff inadvertently locked out a breaker directly below the one that actually provided power to the machine. (Doc. No. 32, at 5.) The parties agree that Plaintiff then failed to verify the machine had no power before beginning to work. (Id.; Doc. No. 26, at 5.) Citing Plaintiff's deposition testimony, LP contends that a foreman noticed Plaintiff's mistake, and instructed Plaintiff to lock out the correct machine. (Doc. No. 26, at 5.) Again citing Plaintiff's deposition testimony, LP asserts that Plaintiff then locked out the correct machine, but again failed to perform the verification step of the LOTO procedure before beginning to work.[1] (Id.)

         The parties agree that LP immediately suspended Plaintiff and performed an investigation of Plaintiff s LOTO violation. (Doc. No. 26, at 5; Doc. No. 22-27.) The investigators deemed the violation “willful” because “the employee understands the lockout process and chose not to complete verification prior to beginning the task.” (Id.) Plaintiff was terminated on March 23, 2015. (Doc. No. 26, at 5.) LP states that when LP employees met with Plaintiff to terminate him, Plaintiff was informed that the LOTO violation was the sole reason for his firing. (Id.)

         B. Working Environment at LP

         Plaintiff also asserts that LP's Roaring River facility was “infested with racists” while he was employed there. He testified to the following facts as evidence of this assertion:

         • Racial Slurs:

1. Plaintiff testified that shortly after he j oined the maintenance department in 2005, he found a sign taped to his locker reading “We don't want n****rs in maintenance.” (Doc. No. 32-9, at 46.) Plaintiff does not recall whether he reported this to LP. (Id.)
2. Plaintiff testified that an LP employee named Eddie Dancy called him “bootlip” and “blue gum” on two different occasions. (Id. at 41-42.) Plaintiff testified he complained to Jimmy Purdue after both incidents, and that Purdue told Plaintiff he would “take care of it.” (Id.) Dancy later apologized to Plaintiff. (Id. at 43.) Plaintiff testified this occurred sometime around 2013 or 2014. (Id.)
3. Plaintiff testified he witnessed LP employees make racially derogatory jokes about African Americans. For example, Plaintiff witnessed LP employees reenact a comedy skit from the Dave Chappell Show in which an African American man is portrayed as a Ku Klux Klan leader. (Id. at 43-44.) Plaintiff testified he did not complain about this to LP. (Id.) Plaintiff could not remember which employees engaged in this activity. (Id.)
4. Plaintiff testified one LP employee named Rocky Edwards asked him if he was a drug dealer when the employee became aware Plaintiff lived in a nice area of town. (Id. at 45.) Plaintiff did not complain about this to LP (Id.) It is not clear from the deposition transcript when this incident occurred.
5. Plaintiff testified that an LP employee named Connelly Howard addressed him using the word “n****r.” Plaintiff complained about this incident to Larry Johnson, who told Plaintiff he would investigate. (Id. at 53.) Plaintiff testified this occurred in 2015. (Id.)

         • Racial images:

1. Plaintiff testified he witnessed a vehicle in the LP employee parking lot displaying a bumper sticker stating “Obama/Osama, what's the difference?” and depicting a swastika. (Id. at 48.)
2. Plaintiff testified that after President Barack Obama was elected to office, someone taped a cartoon from the newspaper depicting a gunman shooting a caricature of President Obama to his locker. (Id.) Plaintiff testified he complained about this incident to an individual named Lam Nguyen, who told Plaintiff he would “look into it, ” but Plaintiff never heard anything more about it. (Id. at 47.)
3. Parks testified he was subjected to symbols of racism on a “daily basis, ” including images of the confederate flag, which he testified he views as a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. (Id. at 30.) He testified that individuals on the maintenance team had lunchboxes depicting the flag, and that he also saw images of the flag on hats, lockers, and in the bathrooms. (Id. at 30-31.) Plaintiff could not name any specific employees who displayed the confederate flag. (Id.) Plaintiff did not report this to LP. (Id.)
4. Park testified he saw the word “n****r” and the phrase “KKK” scratched into a bathroom stall in a bathroom he frequently used. (Id. at 31, 48.)

         • Pranks:

1. Plaintiff testified that someone placed a dead skunk in his locker and then welded it shut. Plaintiff could not recall the exact date of this incident, but stated that he complained to a former LP supervisor named Ernest Higgins, who retired in 2007. (Id. at 33-34.) Plaintiff stated that Higgins then held an emergency meeting about harassment “that same day.” (Id. at 34.)
2. Plaintiff testified that someone placed severed male deer genitalia on his personal belongings inside his locker. (Id.) Plaintiff could not recall the exact date of this incident, but testified that Higgins was still his supervisor at the time and that this incident occurred after the skunk incident. (Id.) Plaintiff testified he again complained to Higgins, who told Plaintiff he would “look into it, ” but that nothing else happened. (Id.)
3. Plaintiff testified that his tools were hidden in locations far from his work area on “six or seven times.” (Id. at 35.) Plaintiff testified that this was witnessed by an LP supervisor named Donnie Vanhoy. (Id.)
4. Plaintiff testified that in early 2015, when he returned to work after taking medical leave, he found his locker stuffed with hundreds of freeze pop wrappers. (Id. at 36.) Plaintiff testified he complained to an LP supervisor named Danny Gambill about this, and that Gambill told him that “if they didn't like you, they wouldn't mess with you.” (Id. at 39.)

         Plaintiff's Opposition also cites to Houpe's deposition testimony describing incidents in which LP employees used racial slurs. Houpe testified that he personally witnessed the following incidents:

1. Houpe was told by an unnamed LP employee not to trust a lot of people at LP because “they called [him] the N-word behind [his] back an awful lot.” (Doc. No. 32, at 6; Doc. No. 32-2, at 120.)
2. Houpe witnessed unnamed LP employees use the term “coon” and refer to Hispanic individuals as “wet backs” and “slick back n****rs.” (Doc. No. 32-2, at 126.)
3. Houpe testified he observed swastikas and the word “n****r” “all over the place” and specifically in the bathrooms at LP. (Id. at 128.) He further testified that LP repainted “everything” and removed the slurs, but that “beforehand, they would be removed and then, you know, maybe a week later, somebody would put something else up there.” (Id. at 128-29.)

         Houpe also testified that at some point after Plaintiff complained[2] about discrimination, LP stopped allowing employees to wear “articles of clothing with rebel flags” to work and “started cracking down on it a little bit more.” (Id. at 129.) Houpe testified that after Plaintiff complained about racism, LP “made this big thing” and “even had a safety meeting on it.” (Id. at 130.)

         Finally, Plaintiff cites to the deposition testimony of Shannon Parks, Plaintiff's wife, who also witnessed vehicles in the LP employee parking lot that displayed bumper stickers relating to President Obama, specifically one portraying President Obama being urinated on. (Doc. No. 32- 10, at 47-48.) She further testified that at least three vehicles had stickers on them that she viewed as racist, but could not recall specifics as to what made her interpret them as racist. (Id. at 51.) Parks testified she saw images that Plaintiff brought home from LP portraying President Obama with “monkey ears, ” and depicting a confederate flag. (Id. at 49, 52, 54.)

         The parties do not dispute that LP has adopted a written anti-harassment policy, anti-retaliation policy, equal employment opportunity policy, and affirmative action policy. (Doc. Nos. 22-12, 22-13, 22-14, 22-15.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment must be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. A factual dispute is considered genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Vannoy v. ...


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