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Carter v. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

May 15, 2017

TAMIKA CARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
TOYOTA MOTOR MANUFACTURING, KENTUCKY, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DANNY C. REEVES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tamika Carter seeks damages from her employer, Defendant Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. (TMMK), based on claims of race and gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. Carter alleges disparate treatment, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. Following discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment, contending that Carter has not made the prima facie showing necessary to establish her claims. The Court agrees and will grant the relief sought.

         I. Background

         As its name suggests, TMMK manufactures automobiles. [Record No. 32-1 at 2] It employs more than 9, 000 full-time employees, dubbed “team members, ” and regularly operates two production shifts per day, five days a week, at its facility in Georgetown, Kenucky. [Id.] TMMK ostensibly operates pursuant to an “Equal Employment Opportunity & Promoting a Respectful Workplace” policy which is explained to each new team member during his or her orientation and provided as part of a Team Member Handbook. [Id. at 3; Record No. 32-3 at 54-120]

         Carter, an African-American female, began working at TMMK in September 2012 as a “Variable Workforce” team member employed through staffing agency Kelly Services, Inc. [Record No. 32-1 at 4] Carter was formally hired by TMMK as a full-time production employee on December 16, 2013. [Record No. 4 at 2; Record No. 32-1 at 4] Throughout her employment, Carter has consistently received positive performance reviews, either “meeting or exceeding expectations in all areas.” [Record No. 32-1 at 4] At some point during her employment, Carter applied to become a team leader. [Record No. 32-3 at 52 (Carter deposition at 286); Record No. 32-5 at 4-5 (Cooley deposition at 51-52)] However, Carter voluntarily withdrew herself from the promotion process. [Id.] Carter remains “employed in good standing” with TMMK. [See Record No. 32-1 at 1]

         Notwithstanding her positive performance reviews, Carter alleges that she has been discriminated against “at an alarming rate” during her employment. [See Record No. 36 at 8] On that basis, she filed a charge with the EEOC in early 2015.[1] Carter proceeded to file suit in this Court on December 17, 2015, along with an Amended Complaint on December 31, 2015. [Record Nos. 1, 4] She alleges discrimination on the basis of her race and gender, that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, and that she was retaliated against for complaining to the Human Resources department and for filing a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). [Record No. 36 at 2] Carter seeks to enjoin the defendant from “continuing, threatened and future violations” of her rights as protected under Title VII; compensatory, consequential, and emotional distress damages; punitive damages under Title VII; costs, attorney's fees, and pre- and post-judgment interest on all sums recoverable; and all other relief the Court sees fit to grant. [Record No. 4 at 7] On February 19, 2016, a Scheduling Order was entered. [Record No. 12] Following the close of discovery, TMMK moved for summary judgment. [Record No. 32] Response and rely briefs were timely filed. [Record Nos. 36, 37] A motion hearing was held on January 9, 2017, [see Record No. 51] and the matter is now ripe for resolution.

         Ironically, while Carter remains employed in “good standing, ” according to TMMK her tenure of employment “is best defined not by her performance, but by her complaints.” [Record No. 32-1 at 1] TMMK suggests that Carter has complained about nearly every aspect of her employment, including “her supervisors, coworkers, assignments, training, training opportunities, advancement opportunities, and scheduling.” [Id.] Most telling, they propose, is Carter's complaint to Human Resources “about a co-worker's decision to bring macaroni and cheese to a team member potluck meal after she (Carter) signed up to bring macaroni and cheese.” [Id.; Record No. 32-2 at 17-18, 140] With that “backdrop, ” TMMK argues that Carter's civil rights claims are unfounded, that many claims are time barred, and that “what [Carter] did not (and could not) do was proffer any substantive evidence in support of her legal claims.” [Record No. 32-1 at 1-2] During the motion hearing, counsel for the defendant stated succinctly “we do not know why we are here.”

         Carter strongly counters that, “[a]t the outset of her employment with Toyota” she was “subjected to racial discrimination that continued throughout the tenure of her employment.” [Record No. 36 at 2] Shortly after her hire date, she claims to have been “subjected to harassment based upon her race and gender.” [Id.] Carter specifically alleges four types of job-duty related (non-verbal) discrimination and numerous instances of verbal discrimination.

         a. Non-Verbal Discrimination

         1. Denial of Offline Training[2]

         Carter's primary complaint relates to the denial of what is known as “offline training.” [Record No. 4 at ¶15; Record No. 36 at 2] As a production employee, Carter works on a production line. Offline training is training to work in the role of a team leader. Team leaders do not work on the line directly, but instead support the line workers, including filling-in when a team member needs a restroom break. “Offline training is for team members who are interested in becoming Team Leaders; basically, the team members learn how to fill-in for the Team Leaders.” [Record No. 32-1 at 6 n.6 (citing Carter deposition at 168-69); see also Record No. 36-2 at 2 (Cooley deposition at 29)] Carter alleges that “[t]hroughout her employment, she consistently requested that she receive[] offline training to her Group Leader, Robert “Sean” Cooley; however, he consistently declined her requests.” [Record No. 36 at 2 (citing Cooley deposition at 27-28)] Carter alleges in her Amended Complaint that she was denied offline training specifically on or about October 17, 2014. [Record No. 4 at ¶ 19]

         2. Denial of Overtime[3]

         Carter's second non-verbal complaint is the denial of overtime opportunities. [Record No. 4 at ¶14; Record No. 36 at 2] This allegation centers on opportunities to conduct what is known as “5S” cleaning.[4] According to TMMK, 5S cleaning “is basically an expectation that team members devote ‘down' time to tidying up their work areas.” [Id.] However, on occasion, overtime was offered to conduct this task. Carter alleges three instances of being denied overtime opportunities that were afforded to others. [Record No. 36 at 2 (citing Carter deposition at 192)] She contends that, “[o]n at least one occasion, Mr. Cooley told Carter that there was not available work for 5S cleaning when in fact there was work available, which was provided to the Caucasian Production Workers.” [Record No. 36 at 2 (citing Carter deposition at 193)] Carter clams that, on another occasion, Group Leader Cooley announced that there was 5S cleaning overtime available following the conclusion of their shift that day and the next, but Cooley left before telling Carter where the work was specifically to be performed. [Record No. 36 at 6 (citing Carter deposition at 203)] Finally, Carter alleges that at least one Caucasian employee was allowed to begin his shift four-hours early, the extra hours counting as overtime, while she was not afforded that opportunity. [Record No. 36 at 2 (citing Carter deposition at 196-97)]

         3. Defect Countermeasure Forms[5]

         The third type of non-verbal discrimination Carter alleges relates to “countermeasure” or “CM” forms. Per TMMK policy, CM forms are to be completed by team members anytime they are responsible for a defect on the production line. [See Record No. 32-4 at 24-25 (Lance deposition at 67-68)] Carter alleges that she was made to complete more defect countermeasure forms than Caucasian co-workers. [Record No. 36 at 2 (citing Carter deposition at 127)] In fact, she alleges that team leader Mike Johnson would cover up defects made by Caucasian Team Members to prevent them from having to complete CM forms. [Record No. 36 at 2 (citing Carter deposition at 141)] Carter claims that she was chastised for a defect on October 24, 2014, but when two Caucasian employees had a “similar defect issue” a couple of days later, “Mr. Johnson covered up that defect and downplayed the significance of it.” [Record No. 4 at ¶20] More defects, documented by CM forms, can be detrimental to an employee's performance reviews. [See Record No. 36-2 at 2 (Cooley deposition at 28-29)]

         4. Parts-Loading Assignments

         Finally, Carter alleges that she was assigned to parts-loading (apparently, a disfavored activity) more often than other employees. [Record No. 4 at ¶¶15, 17] Carter mentions in her Amended Complaint that she aired this concern to Human Resources employee Tiffany Lance in August 2014. [Id.]

         b. Verbal Discrimination

         Carter alleges the following as verbal acts of discrimination:

• On February 2, 2014, co-worker Bruce Steele told Carter she received her job “because she was a black and a woman.” [Record No. 4 at ¶13]
• Co-worker Dustin Allen called Carter “Raggedy Ann” due to the weave in her hair. [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 178)]
• Michael Johnson, a team lead, made jokes about Carter's hair extensions on or about August 7, 2014. [Record No. 4 ¶16; Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 109)] “Mr. Johnson additionally made comments about Carter's hair and skin color, such as: ‘I see you got your weave in today. You need a tan.'” [Id]
• A co-worker “stated that Carter look (sic) like she was 48-years-old.” [Record No. 4 ¶16]
• A co-worker “told Carter that if he put on black sleeves and black gloves, he would look like her.” [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 190-91)]
• When Carter was performing manual line training in 2014, “Steve Edwards whispered to Chris Murphy and Dustin Allen to interrupt her training by purposefully harassing her and keep going to the restroom. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Allen would laugh, mock and make fun of Carter while she was being trained. Mr. Edwards told other employees to ‘not listen to a damn word she says. She doesn't know what she is doing.' In addition, Wayne Conley called Carter a ‘dumbass.'” [Record No. 4 at ¶ 24; Carter deposition at 194-95]
• Aaron Frank, a co-worker, told Carter, “[Y]ou are a woman, let me hear you roar.” Mr. Frank additionally made jokes about Carter being a female when she made mistakes in her work. [Record No. 4 at ¶25; Record No. 36 at 2 (citing Carter deposition at 67)]
• When Carter complained to her Group Leader/Supervisor Sean Cooley of Frank's “hear you roar” comment, Cooley “told Carter not be so sensitive and ‘that's just how guys are.'” [Record No. 4 at ¶25; Record No. 36 at 2-3 (citing Carter deposition at 73)]
• Cooley additionally told Carter that she needed to “toughen up” and “stop being the victim.” [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 82)]
• “After Carter lost some weight, a co-worker told her that the weight she lost ‘ended up in her butt' and commented that she was ‘pear shaped.'” [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 109)]
• “On a day where Carter dressed up a little more than usual, a co-worker asked her if she came to work to look for a man.” [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 134)]
• “After Carter made complaints to Toyota's Human Resources Department and filed a Charge of Discrimination, her supervisors and co-workers began to refer to Carter as the ‘HR queen.'” [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 113-14)].
• “Throughout her employment, Carter was called an ‘HR queen' by [Mike] Johnson and [Bruce] Steele. [Mike] Johnson additionally posted online that Carter was a ‘victim.'” [Record No. 4 at ¶28]
• “Carter's co-workers would warn current and new employees to not say anything to her or around her because she would go to the Human Resources department.” [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 156)].
• “Mr. Cooley [] concocted a plan to get Carter in trouble by telling one of Carter's co-worker's to yell ‘stop harassing me' to Carter.” [Record No. 36 at 3 (citing Carter deposition at 155-56)]
• “Throughout her employment, Carter was mocked by [Mike] Johnson and [Bruce] Steele for having dark skin and hair extensions.” [Record No. 4 at ¶27]

         II. Discussion

         The evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party when considering a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). “Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Therefore, the central question at the summary judgment stage is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251.

         However, “the nonmoving party cannot rest on its pleadings but must come forward with some probative evidence to support its claim.” Lansing Dairy, Inc. v. Espy, 39 F.3d 1339, 1347 (6th Cir. 1994). Moreover, the “mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties” is not sufficient to defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48 (emphasis in original)). There must instead be a dispute as to a “genuine issue of material fact, ” such that if proven at trial “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. TMMK argues that it easily meets the summary judgment burden because Carter did not, and cannot, proffer any substantive evidence in support of her legal claims. [Record No. 32-1 at 2]

         a. Statute of Limitations

         The defendant argues as an initial matter that a number of the instances cited as supporting Carter's claim are time-barred because they occurred more than 300 days prior to her charge being filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Carter alleges a number of minor incidents which are appropriate for summary judgment under well-established Sixth Circuit law. The Court, however, need only consider some of her allegations, as several of her complaints are untimely. Title VII requires a charge alleging discrimination or harassment be made within 300-days of the alleged discriminatory/harassing conduct to be considered timely. See 29 C.F.R. § 1601.13(a)(4)(ii)(A); “the relevant administrative regulation provides that a charge is ‘deemed to be filed with the Commission upon receipt' and is timely if ‘received within 300 days from the date of the alleged violation” (emphasis in original). Carter's EEOC Charge was filed on March 19, 2015. Thus, only allegations of conduct occurring within 300-days of when her Charge was filed (May 10, 2014 forward) are timely.

[Record No. 32-1 at 16] While a correct statement of the law for Title VII purposes, the defendant's assertion that the Court need not consider all of the alleged conduct is incorrect. The Kentucky Civil Rights Act (”KCRA”), codified at Ky. Rev. Stat. § 344.010, et seq., contains a five-year statute of limitations. Ky. Rev. Stat. § 413.120(2); see Effinger v. Philip Morris, Inc., 984 F.Supp. 1043, 1047 (W.D. Ky. 1997) (citing Clifton v. Midway College, 702 S.W.2d 835, 837 (Ky. 1985) (discussing statute of limitations)); Jones v. Peabody Coal Co., No. 88-0065-0(CS), 1989 WL 225719, at *5 (W.D. Ky. Nov. 1, 1989) (“[T]he five-year statute of limitations [under K.R.S. § 413.120(2)] applies to the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.”). Liability under the Act mirrors federal law. Specifically, “Kentucky courts look to federal law in interpreting the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.” Woodrum v. Lane Bryant The Limited, Inc., 964 F.Supp. 243, 244 (W.D. Ky. 1997). “[T]he policy of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act is: ‘To provide for execution within the state of the policies embodied in the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.'” Id. (citing KRS 344.020(1)(a)); Gafford v. General Elec. Co., 997 F.2d 150, 166 (6th Cir. 1993) (“Kentucky courts have followed federal law in interpreting the Kentucky statute”). For purposes of the Rule 56 analysis, there is no basis for distinguishing between the KCRA and Title VII. Moreover, because the present suit was filed less than 5 years after Carter began working for TMMK, the statute of limitations is not at issue.

         b. Discrimination/Disparate Treatment Claim

         “[Title VII's] antidiscrimination provision seeks a workplace where individuals are not discriminated against because of their racial, ethnic, religious, or gender-based status.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 63 (2006) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 800-801 (1973)). Carter alleges discrimination based on both race and gender. The burden of proof is the same regarding each claim. “To prove a prima facie case of gender discrimination a plaintiff must prove: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she applied for and was qualified for a promotion; (3) she was considered for and denied the promotion; and (4) other employees of similar qualifications who were not members of the protected class received promotions at the same time her request for promotion was denied.” Warf v. U.S. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 713 F.3d 874, 879 (6th Cir. 2013); Michael v. Caterpillar Fin. Servs. Corp., 496 F.3d 584, 593 (6th Cir. 2007) (applying same standard for race-based claim). Upon the plaintiff establishing a prima facie case, “[t]he burden then shifts to the defendant to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for promoting the other employee.” Warf, 713 F.3d at 879 (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802). Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, “[o]nce the employer has provided a nondiscriminatory reason for its actions the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the reason is pretext for discrimination.” Id.

         While often stated in terms of a promotion, this standard applies to any disparate treatment that constitutes adverse employment action. “An adverse employment action in the context of a Title VII discrimination claim is a ‘materially adverse change in the terms or conditions of employment because of the employer's actions.'” Michael, 496 ...


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