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Teenier v. Charter Communications, LLC

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

August 28, 2017

Terry Teenier, Plaintiff,
Charter Communications, LLC, Defendant.

          Patricia T. Morris, United States Magistrate Judge


          GERSHWIN A. DRAIN United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         On September 7, 2016, Terry Teenier (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint against Charter Communications, LLC (“Defendant”). Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiff's complaint alleges that Defendant violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by retaliating against Plaintiff for exercising FMLA rights. 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c). Id.

         Presently before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, filed on June 15, 2017. Dkt. No. 14. Plaintiff filed a response on July 6, 2017, Dkt. No. 16, and Defendant replied on July 20, 2017, Dkt. No. 17. Upon review of the briefing, the Court concludes that oral argument will not aid in the resolution of the instant motion. Accordingly, the Court will resolve Defendant's present motion on the briefs. See E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2).

         For the reasons discussed herein, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [14].

         II. Background

         Plaintiff began working for a subcontractor of Defendant in the late 1990s, Dkt. No. 16-2, p. 3 (Pg. ID 505), but quit voluntarily in October 2000, Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 18 (Pg. ID 453). Plaintiff returned to Defendant's employment in 2005 and was eventually promoted to a position as the Manager of Field Audit and Technical Quality Assuarance, supervising approximately 56 people. Dkt. No. 16-3; Dkt. No. 16-2, p. 10 (Pg. ID 512).

         Around May or June 2014, there was an effort by some of Defendant's employees to unionize with The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. See Dkt. No. 14-8, p. 4 (Pg. ID 388). Defendant's management sought to prevent unionization, see Dkt. No. 16-10, and managers took part in a series of phone conferences on union avoidance. See Dkt. No. 16-11 (providing calendar invitations for phone conferences from July 14, 2014 to August 11, 2014).[1]

         Plaintiff alleges that he was told by a superior to isolate four employees under his supervision because of their suspected union involvement. Dkt. No. 16-2, p. 22 (Pg. ID 524). These four employees-James DeBeau, Jonathan French, Kent Payne, and Raymond Schoof-were all audit technicians who reported to Shawn Felker, a supervisor under Plaintiff. Id. at 22-25 (Pg. ID 524-27). Plaintiff complied with the request to isolate these employees by reassigning them to more remote locations for two to three weeks. Id. Plaintiff also reassigned DeBeau, French, and Schoof from Felker's supervision to another supervisor, Rob Lothian, in the beginning of September. Id. at 26; Dkt. No. 14-9, p. 13 (Pg. ID 403).

         On Friday, September 19, 2014, Lothian approached Defendant's Human Resources Generalist Stephanie Peters with concerns about Plaintiff. Dkt. No. 14-9, pp. 12-15 (Pg. ID 402-05). Lothian expressed concern about the employees who had been transferred from Felker's team to his team because he had heard that these audit technicians performed below their productivity targets, which would reflect poorly on him. Id. at 13-14. Lothian was particularly concerned that these employees were less productive because of their friendship with Plaintiff, who Lothian believed pulled employees away to perform “special projects” of non-work-related activities on company time. Id. at 14. Lothian provided an example of the men laying sod at Schoof's home during work hours, photographs of which he said he saw on Felker's cell phone. Id. Peters told Lothian to “continue to be observant and report directly to” her, as she would “involve the appropriate individuals.” Dkt. No. 14-9, p. 15 (Pg. ID 405).

         On Sunday, September 21, 2014, Plaintiff's father became ill and was admitted to the hospital. Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 10 (Pg. ID 445). Plaintiff took the following week off work and his father passed away on Friday, September 26, 2014. Id. Plaintiff's supervisor, Greg Culver, approved his leave, telling him to “do what you need to do, you have plenty of vacation and sick time.” Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 10 (Pg. ID 445).

         While Plaintiff was on leave, Lothian updated Peters on September 24, 2016 and September 26, 2014 regarding the special projects issue he first mentioned on September 19, 2014. Dkt. No. 14-9, p. 15 (Pg. ID 405). Lothian reported that DeBeau stated he was approved to work on a special project: work on a haunted house owned by one of Defendant's preferred vendors, Pat Jozeska of Complete Auto. Id. Lothian told Peters that DeBeau allegedly said Plaintiff was taking care of his numbers so the time spent on this non-work activity would not hurt his performance. Id. Lothian said he contacted Plaintiff and Plaintiff told him that “this is the last one [of the special projects]-I promise.” Id. at 16. Lothian also said that Felker was also frustrated with the special projects, but did not want TJ to lose his job. Id. Lothian was not sure that Felker would be honest in the investigation, and that Schoof and DeBeau were close friends with TJ outside work. Id.

         Shortly after Peters's conversation with Lothian on Friday, September 26, 2014, Culver called Peters to relay a call he had just received from Plaintiff. Id. Culver told Peters that Plaintiff had talked about Lothian being paranoid and that he planned to speak with him when he returned. Id. Peters told Culver about what Lothian had reported to her, and the two agreed to meet the following Monday to discuss their concerns. Id.

         When Plaintiff returned to work that morning, he could not get ahold of Lothian. Dkt. No. 16-2, p. 30 (Pg. ID 532). When Plaintiff found Lothian later, he thought Lothian was acting abnormally and avoiding eye contact. Id. Someone in the dispatch office alerted Plaintiff that Culver was in the office that day, and Plaintiff went to look for him. Id. at 31-32. Plaintiff questioned Culver about why he was present in the office without notifying Plaintiff and asked him who was being investigated. Id. at 33-34. Since Culver would not disclose who was being investigated, Plaintiff concluded that he was the target of the investigation. Id. at 34.

         Plaintiff emailed Culver an apology later in the day and notified him that he would be taking additional time off for bereavement leave. Id. at 35. Plaintiff took from September 29, 2014 to October 3, 2014 off as bereavement leave. Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 16 (Pg. ID 451). When approving Plaintiff's bereavement leave, Culver told Plaintiff to take care of his father and wished him well. Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 11 (Pg. ID 446). By Plaintiff's admission, Culver did not say anything that suggested Plaintiff would not be allowed to take leave. Id. at 10-11.

         Between Monday, September 29, 2014 and Wednesday, October 8, 2014, Peters met with ten employees, including Plaintiff, to investigate the allegations made by Lothian. Dkt. No. 14-9, pp. 16-29 (Pg. ID 406-19). Felker denied knowing of any non-work-related projects being completed on company time, but acknowledged that DeBeau had gone to the haunted house while his company vehicle was being repaired at Complete Auto. Dkt. No. 14-9, pp. 16-17 (Pg. ID 406-07). Schoof also denied that any employees were performing non-work tasks while on the clock, and stated that the sod had been installed at his house in the evening after work. Id. at 18-19. DeBeau stated that he had performed a sweep of an apartment complex and spent a day verifying addresses, which he considered to be “special projects.” Id. at 19-20. He also had visited the haunted house to look at plumbing while his company truck was being repaired. Id. French stated that he had previously picked up boxes near a college campus, which he considered a “special project, ” and that Lothian had told French about rumors of employees laying sod on company time. Id. at 20-21. Kent Payne and Aaron Rhodes were also unaware of any non-work-related activities being performed on company time. Id. at 22-24.

         Peters interviewed Plaintiff on Monday, October 6, 2014. Dky. No. 14-9, pp. 24-26 (Pg. ID 414-16). He stated the only special projects he has assigned his employees were having employees pick up boxes, or having some employees help others who were not trained in specific areas. Id. He also told Peters that he had been alerted by other employees that he was currently under investigation. Id.

         The only employee whose account cooroborated Lothian's allegations was Lucas Watkins, who admitted most of his information was second-hand. Id. at 27. Watkins stated that Plaintiff covered up numbers to account for employees doing non-work activities on company time and that “you don't mess with [Plaintiff], especially if you aren't part of the inner circle” of friends Plaintiff had hired. Id.

         Peters concluded the investigation on October 8, 2014. Id. at 29-30. She concluded that where discrepancies existed between Plaintiff's and Lothian's description of events, Lothian's account was more credible. See Dkt. No. 14-9, p. 8 (Pg. ID 398). Peters thought that Lothian “was always very honest, even if he thought he was going to be in trouble” and that Lothian “had no reason not to be honest.” Id. Peters further concluded that Plaintiff had violated Defendant's Code of Conduct, Timekeeping Policy, and the Performance Standards in the Charter Employee Handbook. Dkt. No. 14-9, pp. 29-30 (Pg. ID 419-20).

         Peters recommended to her supervisors, Sherry Farquhar and Harth Goulette, and Plaintiff's supervisor, Culver, that Plaintiff, Debeau, Felker, French, and Schoof should all be terminated. Dkt. No. 14-9, pp. 9-10 (Pg. ID 399-400). Termination was agreed upon. See Dkt. No. 14-4, p. 6 (Pg. ID 360); Dkt. No. 14-9, pp. 9-10 (Pg. ID 399-400). Culver terminated Plaintiff and the four other employees on Wednesday, October 14, 2014. Dkt. No. 14-2, pp. 99-107 (Pg. ID 332-40).

         Plaintiff, Debeau, Felker, French, and Schoof filed Unfair Labor Practices charges against Defendant with the National Labor Relations Board after their terminations. Dkt. No. 14-5, p. 6 (Pg. ID 366) (DeBeau); Dkt. No. 14-7, p. 7 (Pg. ID 380) (Felker); Dkt. No. 14-8, p. 6 (Pg. ID 390) (French); Dkt. No. 14-10, p. 8 (Pg. ID 428) (Schoof); Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 30 (Pg. ID 465) (Plaintiff). Plaintiff filed his ULP charge on January 14, 2015, alleging that Defendant fired him because he “recently refused to unfairly treat several employees who were involved with attempts to unionize Charter technicians.” Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 30 (Pg. ID 465) Plaintiff withdrew his charge after he learned it could be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because he was a mangerial employee. Dkt. No. 14-12, p. 17 (Pg. ID 452). He filed this case on September 7, 2016. Dkt. No. 1.

         III. ...

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