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Little v. Cline

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

October 7, 2019

JERMI LITTLE, Plaintiffs,
v.
TIM CLINE HANES INDUSTRIES LYNN MATTHEWS, Defendants.

          ORDER

          KENNETH D. BELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jermi Little was a production employee and a truck driver at Defendant Hanes Industries (“Hanes”), until he was terminated in December 2015. Little alleges in this action that he was discriminated against because of his race (bi-racial) and religion (Jehovah's Witness) and that he is the victim of unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”). Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on all claims (Doc. No. 20).

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny it in part. As a matter of law, the individual defendants, Tim Cline and Lynn Matthews, are entitled to summary judgment because Title VII claims cannot be asserted individually against a defendant company's employees. Also, Hanes is entitled to summary judgment on Little's religious discrimination and retaliation claims. However, the Court finds that there are disputed issues of material facts on Little's claim of racial discrimination, so Hanes is not entitled to summary judgment on that claim. Therefore, whether or not Little was subject to unlawful racial discrimination must be decided by the jury at the trial of this matter, if the case is not resolved earlier by the parties.[1]

         I. 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. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 827 F.3d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013)).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact through citations to the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions or affidavits in the record. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003). “The burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing' ... an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Once this initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party. The nonmoving party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial, ” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in his pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324.

         When ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must view the evidence and any inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 657 (2014); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. “Summary judgment cannot be granted merely because the court believes that the movant will prevail if the action is tried on the merits.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568-69 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting 10A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2728 (3d ed.1998)). “The court therefore cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Id. at 569 (citing Mercantile Peninsula Bank v. French (In re French), 499 F.3d 345, 352 (4th Cir. 2007)).

         However, “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (internal citations omitted). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Also, the mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. Id. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment is appropriate. Id. at 249-50.

         In the end, the question posed by a summary judgment motion is whether the evidence as applied to the governing legal rules “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 252.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Little grew up and currently resides in Hickory, North Carolina. He is bi-racial, with an African American mother and a Caucasian father. Little served in the U.S. Army for three years, from 2001 to 2004, and drove a fuel truck during his military service. Following his honorable discharge, he was employed from 2004 to 2010 with a military defense subcontractor in the Middle East, including Iraq and Kuwait, where his duties included working in the motor pools and driving tractor trailers with full length (53') trailers. Over the course of those nine years, Little spent approximately three years driving large trucks.

         Little began as a full-time employee at Hanes in Conover, North Carolina in June 2011 and worked there until December 15, 2015, when he was terminated. At Hanes, he held production positions until he became a truck driver in November 2015. With respect to Little's employment, Hanes alleges that “although Little performed more or less satisfactorily in most of his production positions, he was viewed as somewhat of a ‘loner' and had a number of negative interactions with co-workers of all races.” Little disputes Hanes' adverse allegations with specific explanations of his conduct, along with corroborating affidavits from other employees.

         Defendant Tim Cline is plant manager of Hanes' Conover, NC facility and Defendant Lynn Mathews is the plant's Human Resources manager. Both are Caucasian. There is no dispute that Cline, Matthews and other relevant Hanes employees knew Little's race because he has both a white uncle and a black cousin working at Hanes. Indeed, Cline has allegedly admitted that he knew Little was bi-racial.

         A. Allegations Related to Religious Discrimination

         The factual circumstances related to Little's religious discrimination claim involve his attendance and conduct at the company's 2012 year-end event, which Little refers to as a “Christmas party” and Hanes calls a “year-end business dinner.” When he applied to be a truck driver in 2014, Little was not selected for an interview and it is generally undisputed that he was told that the reason was “because of his attitude.” Specifically, Little was told in this meeting that his behavior at the year-end dinner in 2012 had made a negative impression on senior management. There is, however, a substantial factual dispute about what happened at the dinner. Hanes alleges that during the dinner Little refused to sit down with his co-workers and instead paced around the room while the president of the company was making a presentation. Little denies this and has proffered affidavits of two witnesses who support his version of what happened.[2]

         In any event, Little replied to the criticism of his conduct at the Christmas party / dinner by saying, “I don't have to participate in a religious holiday to be considered for a job.” To which Cline allegedly said, “well, it don't look good.” Little then spoke with Joe Shuford, a supervisor who was also a family friend, to tell him what Cline and Matthews said and why he felt that was unfair. Shuford was aware that Little was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and Little alleges Shuford understood that this was the reason that Little did not want to go to the Christmas party.

         Shuford told Little to talk with Samantha Howell (Hanes VP for Human Resources). Little told Howell what Cline and Matthews said to him, and why he felt that was unfair. She allegedly told him that it “wasn't handled properly, ” apologized to him and said she would talk with Cline and Matthews. Regarding the Christmas party, Little said to her, “I don't have to participate to be considered for a job, ” and “it doesn't matter what religion I am, and whether I participate in a Christmas party or not.” Little also alleges that he had a similar conversation with Cline in 2015, which Hanes denies.

         Little alleges that he is a Christian who believes in the practices of Jehovah's Witnesses and states that because of those beliefs he does not celebrate Christmas. The parties disagree on how much the Hanes supervisors knew about the beliefs Little held as a Jehovah's witness. Hanes denies that Cline or Matthews knew Little had a religious objection to the dinner and further alleges that Little never requested any religious accommodation related to the dinner. On the other hand, Little alleges that he and one of his supervisors, Darrell Steele, were a part of the same congregation and attended services together at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall in Hickory, North Carolina for many years. He says that another supervisor, Joe Shuford, was familiar with Little's Jehovah's witness beliefs because he was a close family friend.

         B. Allegations Related to Racial Harassment

         While Little has now withdrawn his separate claim based on racial harassment, he continues to allege racial harassment as evidence that supports his remaining claims. Little was one of Hanes' few black employees and its only black truck driver. He alleges that he was verbally harassed by his co-workers. For example, it is undisputed that after Little's termination he received calls from an unnamed caller using the Hanes' phone number who giggled and asked “hey, half-breed, you find a job yet?” Also, Little claims that Hanes employee Dustin Valko was a “known racist” whose Facebook page was notable for its rebel flags. Little says he complained about that racism to a plant supervisor, and even showed that supervisor photos. There is, however, no evidence that Hanes management knew about, participated in or condoned the post-termination calls or that Valko expressed any racial animosity towards Little.

         C. Little's Efforts to Become a Truck Driver and Termination

         Little wanted to be a Hanes truckdriver. He had a commercial driver's license (“CDL”) when hired by Hanes, as well as his three years' experience as a truck driver in the Army and with the defense contractor in the Middle East. Little first applied for a Hanes driving job in 2011, but the job was given to an employee who had been out sick and was coming back to work. Little does not complain about not being chosen at that time.

         As discussed above, Little sought a truck driving position again in 2014, but was not selected for an interview. He applied later in 2014 and also during 2015, sometimes failing the driving test, and when he did pass he was not given the job because of the absence of a timely drug test (a situation for which Hanes appears to take responsibility but claims was just an unfortunate error).[3] Ultimately, Little passed the driving test and the other administrative /drug testing requirements at the same time and was offered a truck driving position in November 2015.

         Most relevant to the pending motion, Little testified that, “before I was allowed to start driving, both Tim Cline and Lynn Matthews called me into their office on my first day on the driving job. They told me if anything happened on the job, good or bad, I was to report it to Jeff Rinehart and to make sure that I did not get into it with the customer and not to bring anything negative to the customer.” Further, Little says that Cline admitted Little was told that he was to inform his supervisor if there were any issues with a customer. Finally, Little states that Matthews admitted that “we did tell him eventually when we did give him the truck driver position that if he went into a customer and there was an issue not to get into it with the customer but to call in or come back and let us know there was a problem and we'd take care of it. ”

         Hanes does not deny these statements but asks the Court to interpret them differently. Cline testified that he and Matthews continued to be concerned in 2015 about Little's ability to interact effectively with Hanes' customers. As a result, before allowing Little to take his final road test to become a customer-facing driver, Cline counseled him to avoid negative interactions with customers, instead notifying his supervisor if there were a problem. Hanes says that Cline only had in mind “customer care” issues, such as complaints about the quality of Hanes' products or the timeliness of deliveries and did not mean to imply that Little should not immediately tell a customer about an accident on the customer's property that had caused damage. However, Hanes has not offered any evidence that Little was told that ...


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