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Stearman v. Ferro Coals, Inc.

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

November 28, 2017

FERRO COALS, INC., et al., Defendants.


          David J. Hale, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. Background

         Ferro 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 # 198)

         Stearman 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)

         In 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)

         Stearman's 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)

         Defendants 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)

         Stearman 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)

         While 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 # 202)

         Stearman 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 Bennett IV.

         Stearman 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.)

         II. Standard

         Summary 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)).

         For 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”).

         III. Discussion

         Defendants 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.

         A. Age-Discrimination Claim

         First, 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)

         Age-discrimination 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 ...

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