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Gaines v. General Electric Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

February 10, 2017



          Joseph H. McKinley, Jr., Chief Judge

         This matter is before the Court on motions by Defendants, General Electric Company and Cherrie Webb, for summary judgment [DN 40, DN 41]. Fully briefed, this matter is ripe for decision.


         Before the Court may grant a motion for summary judgment, it must find that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of specifying the basis for its motion and identifying that portion of the record that demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies this burden, the non-moving party thereafter must produce specific facts demonstrating a genuine issue of fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

         Although the Court must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the non-moving party must do more than merely show that there is some “metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Instead, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require the non- moving party to present specific facts showing that a genuine factual issue exists by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. It is against this standard the Court reviews the following facts.


         Plaintiff Jason Gaines, an African-American, began working for Defendant, General Electric Company (“GE”), in June of 2012. During the relevant time period, Gaines was employed as a replacement operator in the old wire rack department in GE's Appliance Park Building Three on an assembly line making baskets that go into dishwashers. As a replacement operator, Gaines is responsible for filling in on the assembly line when another employee is absent or needs to leave the line to use the restroom or for other reasons. Gaines is still employed by GE and currently works as a building replacement operator.

         GE maintains a Fair Employment Practices Policy which instructs employees “[n]ot [to] engage in harassing or bullying behavior, including behavior that is directed at a person because of his or her race, religion, sex, etc.” (GE Fair Employment Practices Policy at 1.) Employees are required to “[p]romptly raise any concerns about a violation or possible violation of this policy.” Id. The policy provides that employees who violate the spirit or letter of GE's policies are “subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.” Id. In addition to the Fair Employment Practices Policy, GE also established additional rules in the Appliance Park Rules of Conduct which specifically list “[t]hreatening, intimidating, coercing or interfering with employees, supervision or Plant Security personnel, including harassing employees on account of their race, sex or disability” as a “serious offense” that “will result in time-off and if considered serious enough in the judgment of management, could also result in discharge on the first offense.” (Appliance Park Rules of Conduct at 3.)

         Gaines alleges that between March of 2014 and October of 2014, he was subjected to a racially hostile work environment by two female Caucasian co-workers at GE, Cherrie Webb and Ali Day.

         A. Cherrie Webb

         Gaines testified that on two occasions in 2014, he heard co-worker Cherrie Webb use a racial slur directed at him. First, Gaines testified that, as a replacement operator, he attempted to repair a machine on the line on which Webb was working. Gaines testified that Webb became frustrated with the machine and said: “This fucking machine. This shit is getting on my nerves. I got to get the fuck away from here.” (Gaines Dep. at 293.) According to Gaines, Webb then threw up her hands and said, “Niggers always get in my way.” (Gaines Dep. at 285, 292-294.) Gaines testified that he told the line supervisor, Beth D'Annunzio about the comment. D'Annunzio advised Gaines that she would speak with Human Resources Manager Kenny Yeager. (Gaines Dep. at 294.) Around the same time period, Gaines testified that Webb was sitting in a chair on the line about 12 to 15 feet from him, mumbling some stuff that Gaines did not hear, and then said, “Sometimes I just want to go get a shotgun and come in here and blow a nigger's head off.” (Gaines Dep. at 298.) Gaines testified that he believed her and took it as a very real threat. (Id. at 304.) Gaines reported the incident to his supervisor. Gaines also testified that Webb would also use the racial epithet when talking about her daughter's physically abusive boyfriend, who was African-American. (Gaines Dep. at 288-289.)

         Supervisor Beth D'Annunzio advised Kenny Yeager, GE Human Resource Manager, of Gaines' report concerning Webb. Yeager began an investigation of the matter. Yeager interviewed Gaines, other department employees, and Webb. When interviewed, Webb denied using the racial epithet in reference to Gaines, but admitted to using the term in reference to her daughter's abusive boyfriend. (Yeager Dep. at 26.) At the conclusion of the investigation, GE disciplined Webb for violating GE's Rules of Conduct prohibiting harassing conduct on the basis of race. (Cherrie Webb Code of Conduct Warning May 21, 2014.) The warning states that Webb's behavior was “very inappropriate and will not be tolerated.” Webb received a written warning and four-week suspension. She was also advised that future violations would result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination. Webb's union representative filed a grievance and sought to reduce the length of Webb's discipline. GE negotiated with union representatives and agreed to reduce Webb's suspension to one week. (May 29, 2014 Agreement.)

         Three months after Webb's suspension, Webb again used the “n-word” in recounting to another employee her earlier violation and disciplinary action. Gaines testified that he learned from a co-worker that Webb had told another employee, Kyle Liburd, that Gaines would not help her on the job because he was “mad at her” for reportedly calling Gaines a “nigger.” (Gaines Dep. at 216-317.)[1] Upon learning of the incident, Yeager conducted an investigation, interviewed Kyle Liburd; Jim Spencer, the employee who had reported the incident to Gaines; another employee; and Webb. As a result of the investigation, GE advised Webb that her employment would be terminated for this second Code of Conduct violation. Once again, the union filed a grievance on Webb's behalf, and after negotiations, GE agreed to a four-week suspension without pay, a mandatory referral to the employee assistance program; mandatory transfer to a different department; and a Last Chance Agreement providing that future violations of the Rules of Conduct within the next 36 months would be grounds for immediate termination. (Webb Last Chance Agreement, September 29, 2014.)

         B. ...

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