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Phillips v. UAW International

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

April 12, 2017

Tanganeka L. Phillips, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
UAW International; Brian Johnson; Dave Kegals, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: March 15, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:15-cv-10525-David M. Lawson, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          John J. Bursch, BURSCH LAW PLLC, Caledonia, Michigan, for Appellant. Patrick J. Rorai, MCKNIGHT, CANZANO, SMITH, RADTKE & BRAULT, P.C., Royal Oak, Michigan, for Appellees.

          Susan R. Oxford, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

         ON BRIEF:

          Nanette L. Cortese, THE CORTESE LAW FIRM, Bingham Farms, Michigan, for Appellant. Patrick J. Rorai, MCKNIGHT, CANZANO, SMITH, RADTKE & BRAULT, P.C., Royal Oak, Michigan, Ava Barbour, UAW INTERNATIONAL, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellees.

          Susan R. Oxford, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

          Before: MERRITT, COOK, McKEAGUE, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge.

         Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, wrote that "[w]herever trade unions are most firmly organized, there are the rights of the people most respected." Samuel L. Gompers, Labor and the Common Welfare (1919). But Gompers wasn't quite right if Tanganeka Phillips's claims are true; she alleges that one of the largest unions in North America discriminated against her on the basis of race. Specifically, she alleges that UAW International created a hostile work environment, actionable under Title VII and the Michigan Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA). The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on the basis that Phillips's Title VII hostile work environment claim can only be brought against an employer, not a union, and that UAW International was not Phillips's employer. We affirm on other grounds.

         I

         Tanganeka L. Phillips worked at the MGM Grand Detroit casino from June 1999 until September 2015. Beginning in 2001, Phillips belonged to Local 7777, a UAW International affiliate. In 2002, she became the Local's chairperson. This case largely derives from her interactions in that role with two employees of UAW International, Brian Johnson and Dave Kagels. Phillips, who is African-American, asserts that Johnson's and Kagels's conduct created a racially hostile work environment in violation of both Title VII and the ELCRA.

         To support her claim, Phillips describes a smattering of offensive conduct committed by Johnson and Kagels from 2012 to 2014. First, Phillips alleges that Kagels listed three union representatives by name and said he would fire them all if he could. All three people Kagels listed were black, so Phillips considered the statement racist. R. 34-2, Phillips Tr., PID 314 ("To me that was racially [sic] because he only singled out the black reps."). Next, Phillips says Johnson told Phillips "[w]e need to put a black on staff to calm it down, and was [Phillips] interested?" Id. at PID 314. Phillips also describes an occasion when, addressing Dwight Braxton (another union member) in Phillips's presence, Johnson said "oh, because you're big and black. You're her bodyguard, I'm supposed to be afraid of you." Id. at PID 312. Phillips also alleges that Johnson once said that the "problem with the Union was that there are too many blacks in the union." R. 39-6, Phillips Aff., PID 919; see also R. 39-5, Braxton Tr., PID 913. Otherwise, the allegations are more general: that Johnson often behaved violently, that he made frequent racial comments, and that he spoke in a condescending tone when dealing with black union members as compared to white members. R. 39-2, Phillips Tr., PID 894; R. 39-4, Catinella Tr., PID 910; R. 34-2, Phillips Tr., PID 311-12 ("Well, he said so many racial remarks to me it's kind of hard to remember . . . he said so many of them."). But Phillips also testified that she met with Johnson "very rarely." R. 34-2, Phillips Tr., PID 309.

         Additionally, and perhaps most troubling, Phillips claims that, in a 2013 meeting she attended with Braxton, Johnson demanded to know the race of each grievant and then separated the grievances into piles based on whether they were filed by "white" or "black" union members. Phillips says that, before abruptly ending the meeting, Johnson rubber-banded the two piles and said he intended to withdraw the grievances filed by African-American union members.

         Finally, Phillips also testified that, to her knowledge, Johnson actually did withdraw those grievances. But the record belies that claim. See R. 35-3, McIntosh Aff., PID 686-97 (memorializing that grievances Phillips says Johnson dismissed based on race were not dismissed by the union). For their part, Johnson and Kagels deny all of the alleged misconduct.

         Phillips's complaint alleges that UAW International, Johnson, and Kagels violated Title VII and the ELCRA.[1] The district court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. This appeal followed in which ...


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