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Stephens v. General Electric Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

November 7, 2017

BELINDA G. STEPHENS and LENA VAUGHT, Plaintiffs,
v.
GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Gregory F. Van Tatenhove United States District Judge.

         Belinda G. Stephens and Lena Vaught believe they were discriminated against when General Electric terminated their employment in August of 2014. As explained below, this termination was a reduction in force, and Stephens and Vaught have not identified facts that establish a prima facie case for employment discrimination. Even if they could, Stephens and Vaught have not demonstrated that the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the termination offered by General Electric are pretextual. For that reason, General Electric's request for summary judgment is GRANTED.

         I

         Defendant General Electric hired both Plaintiffs Belinda Stephens and Lena Vaught as Standardizers (R4 classification) on November 26, 2011 to work in General Electric's Somerset Glass Plant. [R. 53-6; R. 53-7; R. 80 at 4.] In August of 2014, General Electric placed several hourly employees, including Ms. Stephens and Ms. Vaught, on “layoff status.” [R. 53-3 at 58; R. 53-4 at 5.] While General Electric experienced several incidences of layoffs during the course of its operations, the current claims of Ms. Stephens and Ms. Vaught only relate to the August 2014 layoff. [R. 53-3 at 59; R. 53-4 at 32-33.] This layoff eliminated ten hourly positions, four of which were R4 positions. [R. 53-15 at 17-18.] It also began a complicated process of “bumping” senior employees into lower job classifications, in other words, a laid off employee with a higher classification, such as R23, “bumps” a more junior employee in a lower position, such as R10, as long as he/she was qualified for the R10 position. Six R4 employees and four R5 employees were placed on layoff status. [R. 53-1 at 9.] The six laid off R4 employees were all women over the age of 40 (Sandra Dancy, age 62; Gaitha Flynn, age 60; Trulayne Mink, age 55; Linda Price, age 57; Belinda Stephens, age 58; and Lena Vaught, age 58). The four R5 employees were all male (James Gilmore, age 49; Aaron Irvine, age 31; John Linkes, age 44; and David Pitman, age 57). Id. However, though General Electric did ultimately lay off the six female R4 employees, General Electric “deferred layoff” for the four male R5 employees in order to fill R5 and R4/R5 positions that were vacant prior to the August 2014 layoff and to maintain temporary employees. Id. at 10. Gilmore and Irvine both served in Associate Press Operator (APO) and/or Press Operator (PO) positions prior to the creation of additional R4/R5 positions, and neither Gilmore nor Irvine seem to have retained their APO and/or PO duties in addition to the R4/R5 positions. [R. 53-1 at 9.] According to documents submitted by General Electric, PO is a classification of R18, and APO is a classification of R12. [See R.53-19 at 1.] General Electric claims that these four men were retained on a temporary basis for both R5 and R4/R5 positions. [R. 53-1 at 10.]

         During the August 2014 termination, General Electric retained four existing R4/R5 positions and created two additional R4/R5 positions. [R 53-15 at 8.] At that time, two of the four retained R4/R5 positions were occupied (by James Wesley, Male, age 51, and Barbara Wilson, Female, age 53) and two were “vacant.” Id. In the course of the August 2014 termination, General Electric filled the two vacant positions with Dan Stogsdill (Male, age 54) and Marty Wilson (Male, age 54), pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. General Electric placed Tony Burris (Male, age 54) and Hank Petrey (Male, age 54) into the two newly-created R4/R5 positions also consistent with the collective bargaining agreement. Id. General Electric's personnel files indicate that Burris already worked in the R4/R5 position as of January 2, 2013, and therefore already performed the duties associated with the R4 and R5 positions in August of 2014. [R. 80-12.] The personnel files also reflect that Petrey held an R12 position of APO when General Electric created the new R4/R5 position. [R. 80-13.] The files do not suggest Petrey continued his R12 duties in addition to the R4/R5 duties. Id.

         Ms. Stephens and Ms. Vaught filed an EEOC claim in 2015 [R. 80-8 at 5] before bringing this action in 2016 [R. 1]. They allege age and gender discrimination, claiming General Electric violated Title VII and KRS Chapter 344 by terminating their employment. [R. 1.] General Electric filed a motion for summary judgment claiming (1) the termination of Ms. Stephens's and Ms. Vaught's employment was a reduction in force as a matter of law; (2) Ms. Stephens and Ms. Vaught cannot establish a prima facie case of age discrimination or gender discrimination under the heightened standard applicable to a reduction in force; and (3) even if they could establish a prima facie case, Ms. Stephens and Ms. Vaught could not show that General Electric's non-discriminatory business reason for the reduction in force was somehow pretextual. [R. 53-1 at 1.] Ms. Stephens and Ms. Vaught responded, alleging issues of material fact as to each of these claims. [R. 80.]

         II

         A

         Summary judgment is appropriate “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 genuine dispute exists on a material fact, and thus summary judgment is improper, if the evidence shows ‘that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Olinger v. Corporation of the President of the Church, 521 F.Supp.2d 577, 582 (E.D. Ky. 2007) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). Stated otherwise, “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

         The moving party has the initial burden of demonstrating the basis for its motion and identifying those parts of the record that establish the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Chao v. Hall Holding Co., Inc., 285 F.3d 415, 424 (6th Cir. 2002). The movant may satisfy its burden by showing “that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once the movant has satisfied this burden, the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and come forward with specific facts demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Hall Holding, 285 F.3d at 424 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). Moreover, “the nonmoving party must do more than show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material fact. It must present significant probative evidence in support of its opposition to the motion for summary judgment.” Hall Holding, 285 F.3d at 424 (internal citations omitted).

         When applying the summary judgment standard, the Court must review the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Logan v. Denny's, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 566 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). However, the Court is under no duty to “search the entire record to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” In re Morris, 260 F.3d 654, 655 (6th Cir. 2001). Rather, “the nonmoving party has an affirmative duty to direct the court's attention to those specific portions of the record upon which it seeks to rely to create a genuine issue of material fact.” Id.

         B

         Ms. Stephens and Ms. Vaught allege General Electric violated their rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), and/or the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, KRS § 344.450 which, among other things, prohibits employers from discharging employees on the basis of either sex or age (40 years or older). Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 344.040(1). Age discrimination claims brought under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (“KCRA”) are analyzed under the same framework used to analyze similar federal claims. See Allen v. Highlands Hosp. Corp., 545 F.3d 387, 393-94 (6th Cir. 2008) (“Claims brought under the KCRA are ‘analyzed in the same manner' as ADEA claims.”) (citing Harker v. Fed. Land Bank of Louisville, 679 S.W.2d 226, 229 (Ky. 1984)). “ADEA claims are in turn analyzed under the same framework as that employed under Title VII.” Rutherford v. Britthaven, Inc., 452 Fed.Appx. 667, 670 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing Grosjean v. First Energy Corp., 349 F.3d 332, 335 (6th Cir. 2003)). Similarly, because the Kentucky Civil Rights Act “mirrors Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, [gender] discrimination claims under the KCRA are to be evaluated using the federal standard of gender discrimination.” Bargo v. Goodwill Indus. of Kentucky, Inc., 969 F.Supp.2d 819, 825 (E.D. Ky. 2013) (citing Smith v. Leggett Wire Co., 220 F.3d 752, 758 (6th Cir. 2000)).

         A plaintiff may prove both age and gender discrimination through the use of either direct or circumstantial evidence. Geiger v. Tower Automotive,579 F.3d 614, 620 (6th Cir. 2009); Ondricko v. MGM Grand Detroit, LLC, 689 F.3d 642, 648-49 (6th Cir. 2012). “Direct evidence of discrimination is that evidence which, if believed, requires the conclusion that unlawful discrimination was at least a motivating factor in the employer's actions.” Geiger, 579 F.3d at 620 (quoting Wexler v. White's Fine Furniture, Inc.,317 F.3d 564, 570 (6th Cir. 2003)). Circumstantial evidence is “proof that does not on its face establish discriminatory animus, but does allow a fact finder to draw a reasonable inference that discrimination occurred.” Id. In this case, ...


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