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Luttrell v. Ford Motor Co.

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

July 20, 2018



          David J. Hale, Judge United States District Court

         Plaintiff Jonathan Luttrell formerly worked for Defendant Ford Motor Company as a vehicle assembler. Luttrell sued Ford after his employment was terminated in February 2016. Luttrell asserts claims for gender and race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA), disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the KCRA, age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the KCRA, and retaliation under the Kentucky Workers' Compensation Act. (Docket No. 1) Ford seeks summary judgment on all claims asserted by Luttrell. (D.N. 17) For the reasons discussed below, Ford's motion will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Luttrell began working as a vehicle assembler for Ford at its Louisville, Kentucky plant in 2012. (See D.N. 17-3, PageID # 83-84) From February 2013 to October 2015, Luttrell often took medical leave. (See, e.g., D.N. 17-8, PageID # 196; D.N. 25-1, PageID # 430) Then, on October 23, 2015, Luttrell suffered an injury to his shoulder while at work. (D.N. 25-1, PageID # 431; D.N. 17-19, PageID # 247) Luttrell filed a workers' compensation claim on November 6, 2015. (D.N. 25-1, PageID # 431; see D.N. 17-21, PageID # 270) That claim was later denied. (D.N. 25-14) However, UniCare, Ford's third-party administrator for disability benefits (D.N.

         17-1, PageID # 58; D.N. 25, PageID # 403), placed Luttrell on a medical leave of absence and granted him disability benefits through November 12, 2015. (D.N. 25-10, PageID # 449)

         In December 2015, Luttrell filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge against Ford, alleging discrimination and retaliation on the basis of race, age, sex, and disability. (D.N. 25-4) On January 25, 2016, Ford sent Luttrell a letter informing him that his leave of absence had expired on November 12, 2015, and that his employment would be terminated if he did not return to work within five working days. (D.N. 17-3, PageID # 168) The letter further provided that if Luttrell was unable to report for work due to illness or disability, he was required to contact the plant physician to schedule an appointment to meet and discuss his medical condition. (Id.) After Luttrell failed to respond to the letter, Ford terminated his employment effective February 8, 2016. (D.N. 17-4, PageID # 181)

         Luttrell filed this suit against Ford on December 1, 2016, asserting claims of gender discrimination, race discrimination, civil rights retaliation, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and workers' compensation retaliation. (D.N. 1) Ford now seeks summary judgment on all of Luttrell's claims. (D.N. 17)

         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 Fed.Appx. 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., 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. ANALYSIS

         Luttrell raises claims of discrimination based on gender, race, age, and disability and retaliation. (D.N. 1) The Court will discuss each claim in turn.

         A. Gender, Race, and Age Discrimination

         In his complaint, Luttrell raises discrimination claims based on gender, race, and age and alleges facts that purportedly support those claims. (See D.N. 1) Luttrell's response in opposition to summary judgment does not address Ford's arguments with respect to those claims or state that the claims are waived. (See D.N. 25)

         A plaintiff's “failure to respond potentially could constitute waiver of any opposition to [a defendant's] motion.” Collins v. Waste Mgmt. of Ky. Holdings, Inc., No. 06-175-ART, 2008 WL 2794661, at *5 (E.D. Ky. July 18, 2008). “This holds true in the summary judgment context . . . if the moving party has met its initial burden under Rule 56(c).” Id. “[U]nder Rule 56(c), a party moving for summary judgment always bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue as to a material fact.” Carver v. Bunch, 946 F.2d 451, 454 (6th Cir. 1991). “[T]he movant must always bear this initial burden regardless if an adverse party fails to respond.” Id. at 455. The Supreme Court has clarified, however, that this burden “may be discharged by ‘showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Catrett, 477 U.S. at 325.

         The Court is satisfied that Ford has met its initial burden with respect to Luttrell's gender, race, and age discrimination claims.[1]

For a prima facie case of reverse race discrimination, a plaintiff must show that (1) “the defendant is [that] unusual employer who discriminates against the majority, ” (2) the plaintiff satisfactorily performed the job, (3) the plaintiff was impacted by an adverse employment action, and (4) “the defendant treated minority employees who were similarly situated to the plaintiff more favorably than [the plaintiff was treated].”

Sanders v. Owens, No. 3:09-CV-00536-R, 2011 WL 3878309, at *10 (W.D. Ky. Sept. 1, 2011) (quoting Morris v. Family Dollar Stores of Ohio, Inc., 320 Fed.Appx. 330, 339 (6th Cir. 2009)).“In order for . . . employees to be considered similarly-situated . . . the plaintiff must prove that all of the relevant aspects of his employment situation are nearly identical to those of the [female and minority] employees who he alleges were treated more favorably.” Id. at *11 (quoting Morris, 320 Fed.Appx. at 340).

         While Luttrell alleges that female and African American employees were treated more favorably than he was treated after suffering similar injuries (D.N. 1, PageID # 3-4), Ford points out that Luttrell's claims are based on nothing more than his testimony that he saw an African American woman and African American men working “light duty” jobs after they were injured on the assembly line. (D.N. 17-1, PageID # 71-72 (citing D.N. 17-3, PageID # 138)) Luttrell has not shown or even argued that all “relevant aspects of his employment” were “nearly identical” to those of the African American workers he observed on light duty. See Sanders, 2011 WL 3878309, at *11; see also Scott v. Donahoe, 913 F.Supp.2d 355, 364 (W.D. Ky. 2012) (finding that female employees were not similarly situated to male plaintiff “because they worked in different positions . . . and/or had different physical restrictions”). Because Luttrell has failed to show that these African American workers were “similarly situated” to him, his reverse-discrimination claims based on gender and race fail. See Sanders, 2011 WL 3878309, at *10-11; Gooden v. Ryan's Rest. Grp., Inc., No. 5:04-CV-179-R, 2007 WL 855326, at *10 (W.D. Ky. Mar. 14, 2007) (requiring a reverse-discrimination plaintiff to “compare Defendant's treatment of a similarly situated person of a minority class with Defendant's treatment of Plaintiff”).

To establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under the ADEA, a plaintiff must come forward with evidence that: (1) he was at least 40 years old at the time of the alleged discrimination; (2) he was subjected to an adverse employment action; (3) he was otherwise qualified for the position; and (4) after he was rejected, a substantially younger applicant was selected.

Coomer v. Bethesda Hosp., Inc., 370 F.3d 499, 510-11 (6th Cir. 2004). “The fourth element may be satisfied ‘by showing that similarly situated non-protected employees were treated more favorably.'” Id. at 511 (quoting Talley v. Bravo Pitino Rest., Ltd., 61 F.3d 1241, 1246 (6th Cir. 1995)). “If the plaintiff successfully establishes a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to articulate a non-discriminatory reason for its adverse employment action.” Id. “If the defendant comes up with such a reason, the plaintiff must then demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant's proffered reason was a pretext for age discrimination.” Id. (quoting Burzynski v. Cohen, 264 F.3d 611, 622 (6th Cir. 2001)).

         Luttrell's age-discrimination claim appears to be based on his allegation that Ford denied his applications for forklift-operator jobs and hired younger, less experienced individuals for those jobs instead. (See D.N. 1, PageID # 3) Ford points out that “forklift positions are bid jobs, awarded on the basis of seniority pursuant to the applicable collective bargaining agreement.” (D.N. 17-1, PageID # 69; see D.N. 17-4, PageID # 184) Ford's “goal of complying with the collective bargaining agreement is a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason” for awarding forklift jobs to other employees instead of Luttrell. See Haley v. Gen. Elec. Co., 3 Fed.Appx. 240, 247 (6th Cir. 2001). Because Luttrell has not shown that this reason was a pretext for age discrimination, his claim must fail. See Coomer, 370 F.3d at 510-11.

         The Court finds that Ford has adequately demonstrated the deficiencies in Luttrell's discrimination claims based on gender, race, and age. The Court will therefore grant summary judgment to Ford on these claims. See Max Arnold & Sons, LLC v. W.L. Hailey & Co., 452 F.3d 494, 507 (6th Cir. 2006) (“[T]he moving party need not support its motion for summary judgment with evidence; instead, it only must point out the deficiencies of the nonmoving party's case.”).

         B. Disability Discrimination

         “The Sixth Circuit recognizes two types of disability discrimination claims-disparate treatment and failure to accommodate.” Brown v. Humana Ins. Co., 942 F.Supp.2d 723, 731 n.3 (W.D. Ky. 2013). Because Luttrell appears to allege both types in this case (see D.N. 25, PageID # ...

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