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Smith v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

June 3, 2015

DAWAN SMITH, Plaintiff,



In this lawsuit, filed October 10, 2013, Dawan Smith (“Smith”) claims that his former employer, Grand Trunk Western Railroad Company (“Grand Trunk”), subjected him to race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII) and Michigan’s Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act (“ELCRA”) when it dismissed him in 2011 and 2013. Smith was reinstated after both dismissals, but was again dismissed in 2014. He claims that his latest termination also was based on his race and in retaliation for a complaint of discrimination he filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC”) and this lawsuit.

Presently before the Court is Grand Trunk’s motion for summary judgment, filed pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on March 5, 2015. The motion has been fully briefed. Finding the facts and legal arguments sufficiently presented in the parties’ pleadings, the Court dispensed with oral argument pursuant to Eastern District of Michigan Local Rule 7.1(f) on April 16, 2015. For the reasons that follow, the Court is granting Grand Trunk’s summary judgment motion.

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 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). The central inquiry 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.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). After adequate time for discovery and upon motion, Rule 56 mandates summary judgment against a party who fails to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case and on which that party bears the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

The movant has the initial burden of showing “the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323. Once the movant meets this burden, the “nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Electric Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). To demonstrate a genuine issue, the nonmoving party must present sufficient evidence upon which a jury could reasonably find for that party; a “scintilla of evidence” is insufficient. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252.

“A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed” must designate specifically the materials in the record supporting the assertion, “including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The court must accept as true the non-movant’s evidence and draw “all justifiable inferences” in the non-movant's favor. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255.

II. Factual and Procedural Background

Grand Trunk is a rail carrier that operates in various states within the United States. Grand Trunk instructs its employees that safety and a commitment to obey company rules are “the most important elements in performing [their] duties.” (Pl. Dep. Ex. 4, 7; Pl. Dep. at 63-64, 67.) These rules require employees at all times to inter alia ensure that trains are operated safely and in compliance with rules, to act responsibly to prevent accidents, and to promptly report any violations. (Pl. Dep. Ex. 5; Pl. Dep. at 63-64.) Smith received regular training regarding these and other Grand Trunk operating and safety rules. (Pl. Dep. at 19-22.)

Smith, who is African-American, began working for Grand Trunk on January 5, 1998. He worked at several train yards in various positions, including Conductor and Brakeman. The Conductor “works as a member of a two- or three-person crew and performs duties associated with the movement of trains, cars, and engines in rail yards and on the road.” (Pl. Dep. Ex. 3.) A Conductor also “operates track switches, couples and uncouples cars, applies handbrakes, and mounts and dismounts moving equipment.” (Id.) A Brakeman assists the Conductor in performing his or her duties. (Pl. Dep. at 54-55.)

During his employment with Grand Trunk, Smith was a member of the United Transportation Union (“Union”) and was subject to all of the terms, conditions, rights, and protections of the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the Union and Grand Trunk. (Id. at 55.) Under the CBA, employees have the right to an investigative hearing before discipline may be issued, unless the employee waives that right. (Id. at 60-61.) The hearing is conducted by a hearing officer, who determines whether the employee violated the charged infractions. (Golombeski Dep. at 16-19.) If a violation is found, Grand Trunk’s management decides the level of discipline to be assessed. (Id. at 18; Tassin Dep. 2 at 10.) Phillip Tassin, who disciplined Smith with respect to the events at issue in this lawsuit, testified that he assesses discipline based on the severity of the infraction and the employee’s past disciplinary history. (Tassin Dep. 1 at 24-25; Tassin Dep. 2 at 16-17.) Tassin generally looks at the employee’s disciplinary history in the past three years; however, if an employee has numerous incidents, he may look back further. (Tassin Dep. 2 at 16.)

Smith was disciplined on a number of occasions during the course of his employment, and prior to the incidents at issue in this lawsuit: missing calls for work (1999, 2002, 2006, 2009); failing to inspect a train (1999); failing to perform his duties (1999); causing cars to be sent to the incorrect yard (2000); performing duties of a locomotive engineer without an engineer license (2001); failing to notify the Trainmaster of a broken rail (2003); failing to notify a crew about existing dangerous track conditions (2003); causing delay to a train by failing to provide car pickup information (2003); failing to comply with a rail traffic controller’s instructions (2008); leaving a train unattended to grocery shop (2008); allowing a train to leave the yard with cars not assigned to that train (2004); allowing a train to enter an area without authority (2008); and failing to wear required Personal Protective Equipment (2008). (Pl. Dep. at 215-16, 219-28, 230-43, 246-47; Pl. Dep. Ex. 29-30, 32-38, 40-44, 49-51, 53-54, 59.) In addition to the above, on August 6, 2009, Smith failed to comply with the Battle Creek Yardmaster’s instructions to pick up nineteen railcars in Lansing, Michigan, causing a six-hour train delay. (Pl. Dep. A at 215-16, 249-50; Pl. Dep. Ex. 29, 63.) A formal investigation was held, and a hearing officer determined that Smith had violated company rules. (Id.) As discipline, Smith was dismissed from service, effective October 13, 2009. (Id.)

Grand Trunk allowed Smith to return to service on a “leniency basis” on January 21, 2010.[1] (Pl. Dep. at 251-53; Pl. Dep. Ex. 65.) As a condition, Smith signed a reinstatement agreement in which he was warned that any future incident of unsatisfactory work or conduct could result in discipline, up to and including dismissal. (Id.)

On May 25, 2011, Smith was working in Grand Trunk’s Joliet, Illinois yard as a Conductor, with Engineer Rod Holliday (who is African-American) and Engineer Pilot Justin Gibbs (who is Caucasian). (Pl. Dep. at 159-60, 197; Spears Decl. ¶¶ 4-5.) Utility Brakeman Calvin Posey (who is African-American) also assisted with certain tasks that evening. (Pl. Dep. at 161, 197; Posey Dep. at 26; Pl. Dep. Ex. 22 at GTW 666-670.) Smith’s crew was tasked with shoving (i.e., pushing with the engine) cars into two different tracks. (Pl. Dep. at 170, 183; Pl. Dep. Ex. 22 at GTW 618, 666-67, 690, 782-83.) Under United States Operating Rule (“USOR”) 502, employees shoving cars on a track are required to “protect the point, ” which means ensuring that the moving railcars do not roll past their intended destination. (Pl. Dep. at 164-66; Pl. Dep. Ex. 22.) Smith instructed the Engineer (Holliday) to shove cars without ensuring that the point of the train was protected, and the railcars shoved past the end of the track. (Pl. Dep. at 183-84; Pl. Dep. Ex. 22 at GTW 646-49, 657-59, 661-62, 664, 672-73.) Smith was the only crew member charged for failing to protect the point, as he was the Conductor and gave the shoving instruction. (Pl. Dep. at 183-84; Pl. Dep. Ex. 22; Bruns Dep. at 18-19.)

Following an investigative hearing, it was determined that Smith was responsible for the incident. (Pl. Dep. at 195; Pl. Dep. Ex. 23.) Tassin decided to terminate Smith based on the severity of the incident and his extensive disciplinary history. (Tassin Dep. 1 at 54.) The Union requested Smith’s reinstatement, which Grand Trunk initially denied. (Pl. Dep. at 202; Pl. Dep. Exs. 25, 26.) Grand Trunk subsequently decided to reinstate Smith based on leniency, effective December 1, 2011, subject to a reinstatement agreement. (Pl. Dep. at 203-06; Pl. Dep. Exs. 26, 27.) The reinstatement agreement provided that “future leniency will not be forthcoming” and “future incident of unsatisfactory work or conduct may result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” (Pl. Dep. at 203-04; Pl. Dep. Ex. 27.)

A little over a year later, on January 22, 2013, Smith was working with Conductor Daniel Fettig and Engineer Stephen Manta (who are both Caucasian). The three employees were assigned the task of delivering two railcars to Grand Trunk customer Michigan Paper. (Pl. Dep. at 107-08; Fettig Dep. at 6-7; Manta Dep. at 6.) The crew needed to uncouple the railcars (i.e. separate them from the engine), ...

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