United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
J. Hale, United States District Judge.
Joseph Luther Stearman formerly worked for Ferro Coals, Inc.
as Vice President of Sales. Stearman sued Ferro Coals, its
president Clyde Vester Bennett IV (Bennett IV), and its owner
Clyde Vester Bennett III (Bennett III) after he was
terminated at the age of sixty-seven. Stearman asserts claims
for (1) age discrimination under the Kentucky Civil Rights
Act (KCRA), (2) disability discrimination under the KCRA, (3)
a violation of the Kentucky Equal Opportunities Act, (4)
Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) interference,
(5) a violation of the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act, and (6)
conspiracy to retaliate and to discriminate under the KCRA.
(Docket No. 29) Defendants seek summary judgment on all
claims asserted by Stearman. (D.N. 41) For the reasons
explained below, Defendants' motion will be granted.
Coals hired Stearman as Vice President of Sales in 2009.
(D.N. 41-2, PageID # 198, 200) Stearman was sixty-two years
old at that time. (Id., PageID # 200) As Vice
President of Sales, Stearman was responsible for identifying
customers, responding to solicitations and invitations to
bid, and communicating with customers. (Id., PageID
suffered a heart attack and prostate cancer while he was
employed by Ferro Coals. (D.N. 46-1, PageID # 274) As a
result, Stearman necessarily took time away from work.
(Id.) Stearman alleges in his complaint that
Defendants would not let him return to work after he took
medical leave (D.N. 29, PageID # 142), but he cites no
evidence in support of that allegation. (See D.N.
46, PageID # 256, 260) Stearman testified that he returned to
work “full steam” after receiving treatment.
(D.N. 41-2, PageID # 209)
2012, Stearman received an email from Bennett IV stating,
“We need to suspend all travel until further
notice.” (D.N. 46-7, PageID # 357; D.N. 41-2, PageID #
206) In 2013, Stearman requested and received approval to
attend a seminar in Myrtle Beach. (D.N. 41-2, PageID # 206)
However, when Stearman requested approval to attend the same
seminar in 2014, he did not receive a response.
(Id.; D.N. 46-1, PageID # 288) Nevertheless,
Stearman attended the seminar in 2014, putting approximately
$2, 500 in charges on the company credit card. (D.N. 46-1,
PageID # 302)
employment with Ferro Coals was terminated during the summer
of 2014 when he was sixty-seven years old. (D.N. 41-2, PageID
# 209; D.N. 46-1, PageID # 282; see D.N. 41-2,
PageID # 200) Stearman testified that he was not suffering
from any serious health issues and did not consider himself
disabled at the time of his termination. (D.N. 41-2, PageID #
209; D.N. 50-2, PageID # 479) Bennett IV told Stearman that
he was being terminated for his unapproved Myrtle Beach trip.
(D.N. 50-1, PageID # 473) Following Stearman's
termination, Bennett III wrote a letter to the Kentucky
Unemployment Insurance Commission stating that Stearman was
terminated for cause and challenging Stearman's award of
unemployment. (D.N. 46-10, PageID # 364)
did not hire a new Vice President of Sales after
Stearman's termination. (D.N. 41-2, PageID 198) Michael
Canada, Ferro Coals' field representative, took over
Stearman's duties after Stearman was terminated. (D.N.
46-16, PageID # 377, 380-82; D.N. 46- 17, PageID # 418)
Canada's job duties did not otherwise change after
Stearman's termination. (D.N. 46-16, PageID # 380) Canada
is nearly twenty years younger than Stearman. (See
D.N. 46-1, PageID # 284, 289; D.N. 46-16, PageID # 398)
had the highest monthly health-insurance premium of any Ferro
Coals employee in 2013. (D.N. 50-3, PageID # 483) But after
Stearman became eligible for Medicare, his total monthly
premium was approximately $105. (D.N. 41-2, PageID # 208)
Defendants would reimburse Stearman for the $105 premium each
month, which was substantially less than what they were
paying for their other employees in 2014. (Id.;
see D.N. 50-3, PageID # 484)
working for Ferro Coals, Stearman was entitled to a
commission bonus of twenty-five percent of net profits over
$125, 000. (D.N. 46-2, PageID # 310) In 2013, Stearman was
eligible for and received a commission bonus. (Id.)
Defendants had previously paid their employees an additional
Christmas bonus of several thousand dollars. (Id.)
The Christmas bonuses were later suspended, however, and
Stearman did not receive a Christmas bonus in 2013.
(Id., PageID # 310-11) There was no agreement
between Stearman and Defendants regarding a Christmas bonus,
and Stearman did not expect that bonus. (D.N. 41-2, PageID #
filed suit against Ferro Coals, Ferro Coals' owner
(Bennett III), and Ferro Coals' president (Bennett IV).
(D.N. 29, PageID # 140-41; D.N. 34, PageID # 161-62; D.N.
46-1, PageID # 267) As noted in the parties' briefs,
Bennett III passed away on December 18, 2016. (See
D.N. 41-1, PageID # 178; D.N. 46, PageID # 237) The Court
asked for supplemental briefing on the status of
Stearman's claims against Bennett III. (D.N. 51) In their
supplemental briefs, the parties agreed that all claims
against Bennett III should be dismissed. (See D.N.
52; D.N. 53) The Court's analysis is therefore limited to
Stearman's remaining claims against Ferro Coals and
alleges that Ferro Coals discriminated against him based on
his age in violation of the KCRA (Count I), discriminated
against him based on his disability in violation of the KCRA
(Count II), interfered with his rights under ERISA (Count
IV), and violated the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act by failing
to pay him certain bonuses and commissions (Count V). (D.N.
29) He alleges that both Ferro Coals and Bennett IV violated
the Kentucky Equal Opportunities Act by terminating him
because of his disability (Count III) and conspired to
retaliate and to discriminate against him in violation of the
KCRA (Count VI). (Id.)
judgment is required when the moving party shows, using
evidence in the record, “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);
see 56(c)(1). “A ‘genuine issue of
material fact exists when there is sufficient evidence for a
trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.'”
Bush v. Compass Grp. USA, Inc., 683 F. App'x
440, 444 (6th Cir. 2017) (quoting Brown v. Battle Creek
Police Dep't, 844 F.3d 556, 565 (6th Cir. 2016)).
“[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual
dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise
properly supported motion for summary judgment; the
requirement is that there be no genuine issue of
material fact.” Id. (emphasis in
original) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986)).
purposes of summary judgment, the Court must view the
evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
Loyd v. Saint Joseph Mercy Oakland, 766 F.3d 580,
588 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at
255). However, the Court “need consider only the cited
materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3); see Shreve v.
Franklin Cty., Ohio, 743 F.3d 126, 136 (6th Cir. 2014).
If the nonmoving party “fails to properly support an
assertion of fact or fails to properly address another
party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c),
” the fact may be treated as undisputed. Fed.R.Civ.P.
56(e). To survive a motion for summary judgment, the
nonmoving party must establish a genuine issue of material
fact with respect to each element of each of his claims.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23
(1986) (noting that “a complete failure of proof
concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's
case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial”).
argue that there is no evidence supporting any of
Stearman's claims. (D.N. 41-1, PageID # 178) Stearman
responds that he has presented evidence to support all of his
claims. (D.N. 46, PageID # 264) The Court will discuss each
claim in turn.
Stearman sues Ferro Coals for age discrimination in violation
of the KCRA. (D.N. 29) Ferro Coals argues that (1) Stearman
has not shown that he was replaced by someone who was not a
member of the protected class; and (2) it had legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reasons for its action. (D.N. 41-1, PageID
# 185-86) Stearman responds that (1) he was replaced by
someone twenty years younger; and (2) Ferro Coals'
reasons for terminating him are inconsistent and merely
pretextual. (D.N. 46, PageID # 243-46)
claims brought under the KCRA are “analyzed in the same
manner” as those brought under the Age Discrimination
in Employment Act. Allen v. Highlands Hosp. Corp.,
545 F.3d 387, 393 (6th Cir. 2008). Thus, Stearman must first
establish a prima facie case of age discrimination by showing
that he “(1) was a member of a protected class of
persons (i.e., persons 40 years of age or over), (2) was
discharged, (3) was qualified for the position held, and (4)
was replaced by someone outside of the protected
class.” Id. at 394. If Stearman satisfies his
prima facie burden, the burden shifts to Ferro Coals
“to articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason
for the adverse employment action.” Id. If