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Kelly v. Pinnacle Foods Group LLC

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

July 10, 2017

Shonta Kelly, Plaintiff,
Pinnacle Foods Group LLC, Defendant.

          Elizabeth A. Stafford U.S. Magistrate Judge.


          Arthur J. Tarnow Senior United States District Judge.

         On January 5, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging claims of racial discrimination, racial harassment, and retaliation under the Michigan Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), and a claim for breach of contract under §301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) against her former employer Defendant Pinnacle Foods Group. Defendant Pinnacle Foods filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on November 14, 2016 [20]. Plaintiff responded [21] on December 5, 2016 and Defendant replied [22] on December 19, 2016. A hearing was held before the Court on June 28, 2017. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [20] is GRANTED.

         Factual Background

         Plaintiff, an African America woman, began working at Pinnacle's Imlay City, Michigan facility on May 15, 2012. [20-4 at ¶3]. While employed with Defendant Pinnacle, Plaintiff was a member of the Union. “At the time of her termination, Plaintiff was a Labeler Operator, operating a machine that places labels on jars.” [ Id. at ¶4].

         In April 2015, Plaintiff got into an argument with her fellow non-management employee, Lynn Hickey (Hickey). Plaintiff testified that Hickey told her to “Get the fuck out of my face. I feel like punching someone.” Plaintiff reported Hickey to the HR department, and Hickey was suspended for five days without pay for violating company rule 8(B) through use of intimidating or abusive language, including threatening bodily harm. [20-4 at 18]. This was not a terminable offense until the third infraction. [20-3 at 22].

         Plaintiff testified that, after reporting Hickey to HR, she had fellow non-management employees, including Hickey and John Wilcoxin, working deliberately to make her job more difficult by placing all the jars on her line. [20-5 at 127]. Plaintiff also testified that her supervisor, Camerin Levi, was aware of the tension between Plaintiff and Hickey, but did not separate the two employees. [20-5 at 130].

         On June 4, 2015, Plaintiff testified that the jars on her line kept tipping over, causing her machine to malfunction, and stopping production. [20-5 at 72; 76]. Plaintiff then shut the machine down and walked away to contact HR to see if there was someone who could help her fix the machine. [ Id. at 77]. Per the employee handbook company rule 4(c), “employees will not leave their work area except at designated break time, lunch periods, and quitting times without permission from supervisor.” [20-3 at 20]. Plaintiff admits that she was informed of this rule as part of her training. [20-5 at 87]. In Plaintiff's deposition, she admits that when she left her work station, she saw the Crew Leader Lorie Evans, but did not stop to ask her to call the supervisor with her walkie-talkie as she had done in the past, but rather abandoned her station and walked away because she was frustrated and was heading to HR to obtain help. [20-5 at 83-87]. Per Plaintiff's statements, she was in violation of Rule 4(C). [20-4 at ¶9].

         Evans submitted a written statement to HR concerning Plaintiff leaving her station. [20-4 at 8]. Plaintiff's Supervisor, Camerin Levi (Levi), was informed about the labeler malfunction and of Plaintiff leaving her station. When Plaintiff reached HR, the door was locked, so she headed back to her station. [20-5 at 89-90]. While on her way back to her station, Plaintiff met Levi, who took her back to HR. [Id]. Plaintiff testified that Levi was angry at her for leaving her station, and informed her that she could be automatically terminated for that offense. [ Id. at 91]. At HR, Plaintiff and Levi spoke with HR representative Marilyn Hiller (Hiller). Hiller said that appropriate action would be taken for Plaintiff's violation of company policy. [20-5 at 92-93]. Plaintiff was upset and crying but returned to her machine. [20-5 at 93].

         Levi and his supervisor Jim Robeson determined that Plaintiff should be suspended pending investigation of her rule violation, which had resulted in 60 minutes of downtime for the machine. [20-4 at ¶11]. Plaintiff was not terminated for this violation. After being informed of her suspension, Plaintiff was walked out by a guard. [20-5 at 99]. Plaintiff went to her car in the facility's parking lot, briefly left to get food, and returned to have a friend drive her home because she was upset. [Id]. Upon her return, three employees, Brenda Stiff (Stiff), John Wilcoxin (Wilcoxin) and Joan Brooks (Brooks) were in the parking lot. Brooks and Wilcoxin, who were leaving their shift, stopped to talk to Stiff and another employee who were coming in to start their shift [20-4 at 12-14].

         Stiff, Brooks and Wilcoxin submitted witness statements to HR about the following events in the parking lot. [20-4 at ¶13]. They all reported that, while they were in the parking lot, Plaintiff flipped them the middle finger several times. [20-4 at 12-14]. Plaintiff admits in her deposition that she did stick her middle finger up and gesture towards Wilcoxin. [20-5 at 103]. After the group of four finished their conversation, Brooks and Wilcoxin continued to their cars while the other employees headed to their shift. [Id]. Brooks and Wilcoxin reported that as they were leaving the parking lot, in their own cars with the windows rolled down, they observed Plaintiff made a gesture imitating fellatio and yelled “Faggot!” at Wilcoxin several times. [Id]. Plaintiff testified that she knew that Wilcoxin was gay. [20-5 at 105]. While Plaintiff admits that she gestured with her middle finger, she denies having used any derogatory language or making any sexually obscene gesture at Wilcoxin [Id].

         HR Manager Michael Ryan (Ryan) and Plant Manager Jeannene Schaffnit reviewed the witness statements and determined that Plaintiff's actions violated company rule 11(c), employee assault, a terminable offense for first time offenders. Plaintiff was not interviewed as part of this investigation. She was ultimately terminated for her violation of Rule 11(c).

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party has the burden of establishing that there are no genuine issues of material fact, which may be accomplished by demonstrating that the nonmoving party lacks evidence to support an essential element of its case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The Court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, ...

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