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Eggelston v. Nexteer Automotive Corp.

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

April 4, 2018

ERIC EGGELSTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NEXTEER AUTOMOTIVE CORP, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          THOMAS L. LUDINGTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On September 16, 2016, Plaintiff Eric Eggelston initiated the above-captioned action by filing his complaint against his former employer, Defendant Nexteer Automotive Corporation, and his former local union, United Automobile Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, Local 699 (“Local 699” or “the Union”).[1] In his complaint Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Nexteer wrongfully terminated him from his A-bucket position in retaliation for his exercise of his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq, because of his race in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), the Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (“ELCRA”), M.C.L. 37.2202, and in retaliation for opposing a violation of ELCRA in violation of MCL 37.201(a). Defendant Nexteer (hereinafter “Defendant”) moved for summary judgment on December 21, 2017. Plaintiff responded on January 11, 2018, and Defendant replied on January 25, 2018. ECF Nos. 32, 35, 36.

         I.

         Plaintiff Eric Eggelston is a resident of Saginaw County, Michigan. On or about July 1, 2010, Plaintiff was hired as an assemblyman by Defendant Nexteer, a corporation domiciled in Delaware and operating a facility in Saginaw, Michigan. As a result of his employment with Nexteer, Plaintiff became a member of Local 699, a labor organization domiciled in the state of Michigan. Local 699 is a local chapter of the International United Automobile Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (“UAW”). He was therefore party to a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) between Defendant Nexteer and Defendant Local 699.

         Early into his employment, Plaintiff observed that Local 699 officials were not adequately representing African-American members in pursuing grievances. Eggleston Dep. at 21-22, ECF No. 35-3. Plaintiff therefore began assisting African-American employees in filing appeals. On one occasion spanning from late 2010 to early 2011, Plaintiff successfully assisted a man named Larease Williamson in appealing a wrongful discharge. Id. at 26-29. Prior to submitting the appeal, Plaintiff spoke with Site Industrial Relations Manager Dereon Pruitt[2] in their church's parking lot. Id. at 34. Prior to handing Mr. Pruitt the appeal letter, Plaintiff explained that they had an opportunity to right the wrong. Id. Plaintiff contends that Mr. Pruitt physically slapped the appeal out of Plaintiff's hands and stated that Plaintiff had no business in doing that and demanded that he mind his own business. Id. Plaintiff also contends that other people in the parking lot had to get in between Mr. Pruitt and Plaintiff and separate them. Id. Mr. Pruitt denies that this altercation took place. Pruitt Dep. at 7, ECF No. 32-3.

         After word got out that Plaintiff successfully assisted Mr. Williamson, other employees asked Plaintiff to assist them with writing grievances and appeals. Id. at 30. On March 30, 2011 a union Committeeman, Joseph Laurin, came up behind Plaintiff and threatened him, stating, "Eric, either you stop this bullshit or I'm going to do something to you or about you." Id. at 33, 36; Resp. at 4. Plaintiff attempted to file a complaint about this incident in Defendant's labor relations office with representative Amy Schofield. Id. at 36. She told him she would not accept a complaint regarding the threat, and that Plaintiff would have to go the union. Id. at 37. Plaintiff pursued his complaint with the union, but they took no action. Id. Plaintiff then sought a personal protection order from a local court against Mr. Laurin. Id.

         On January 6, 2012, Plaintiff filed a racial discrimination complaint with the International Union. Id. at 38-39. Less than two weeks later, Plaintiff's supervisor issued him a discipline, suspending him for the balance of his shift plus two weeks alleging that he stopped the assembly line. Id. at 40. Plaintiff filed a successful grievance and received back pay. Id. at 41. After returning from the suspension, Plaintiff was informed that he was banned from Plant 3 and involuntarily transferred to Plant 4. Id. at 24-25. On April 2, 2012, Plaintiff's supervisor, Shannon Decker, issued Plaintiff a discipline for unnecessarily making scrap. 4/2/12 Discipline, ECF No. 35-8. Ms. Decker asked if this was the first time he had done this. Eggleston Dep. at 66-67. Plaintiff responded affirmatively and Ms. Decker stated that she would recommend a suspension of the balance of his shift plus one day. Id. About 20 minutes later, Ms. Decker called back and said she had to give Plaintiff a penalty of the balance of his shift plus 30 days. Id. at 67. Plaintiff subsequently learned that Ms. Decker had spoken with someone at Labor Relations, possibly Mr. Pruitt, who gave the directive concerning the penalty. Id. Plaintiff filed a grievance, and was ultimately returned to work a few days later with back pay, and the discipline was removed from his record. Id. at 72.

         On May 23, 2012, Ms. Decker issued Plaintiff a discipline for unexcused absences from May 16 to May 18, 2012. 5/23/12 Discipline, ECF No. 35-10. Plaintiff contended that his supervisor altered the request by changing May 18 to May 15, and writing “2-days” next to it. 5/25/12 Grievance, ECF No. 35-12; Resp. at 7. Plaintiff was subsequently promoted to a position in the “A Bucket.” Eggleston Dep. at 75, 78. In 2014, Denny Getgood became the Human Resources Business Partner supervising Plaintiff's area. Plaintiff had previously encountered Getgood in the hallway. On one occasion Getgood asked Plaintiff if he was “still raising hell.” Id. at 90.

         On March 14, 2014, Plaintiff requested FMLA leave for sleep apnea. Id. at 83. On March 27, 2014, Plaintiff submitted FMLA forms, including his medical certification. Id. at 83-84; Cert. Form, ECF No. 35-14. Mr. Getgood provided Plaintiff with a Designation Notice which indicated that his leave request was denied on April 7, 2014. Designation Notice, ECF No. 35-21. Mr. Getgood did not provide a reason for the denial. Eggleston Dep. at 97, 100. Plaintiff went through his union to obtain information concerning the reason for the denial of FMLA leave. Id. Plaintiff testified that he was the only African American that was denied FMLA leave without a reason. Id. at 106. Plaintiff filed a complaint with the union. Id. at 108-109.

         On September 4, 2015, Mr. Getgood informed Plaintiff that he was terminated for theft from the market.[3] Id. at 126. Mr. Getgood interviewed Plaintiff, asking him several questions about how he paid for food from the market, why he stole items from the market, and whether Plaintiff was aware of the market's policies and procedures. Id. at 127. Plaintiff explained that he typically paid with either a market card or a debit card. Plaintiff also explained that there were no policies for returns and exchanges, and that he previously filed five complaints relating to the process for exchanging a bad product. Id. at 129. Plaintiff explained that there were occasions where he would replace spoiled products, such as sandwiches or salads. Id. at 130-31. Plaintiff testified that he spoke with someone at ¶ 800 number who forwarded the information to an employee who stocks the market. Id. Plaintiff testified he spoke with that individual in person who told him what to do if he purchased a bad item. Id. He testified that he would go in, hold the product up to the camera and rotate it. Id. He would then place it on the counter at the checkout kiosk. Id.

         He testified regarding one such instance where he had purchased a sandwich that had gone bad costing about $7.00. When he returned it he no longer wanted a sandwich so he would take a pop. Id. at 95, 131-32. He would record these transaction in a log he kept in his locker. Eggleston Dep. at 160.[4] On one occasion he spoke with a market representative who offered to refund his market card. Id. at 134. He wanted a refund on his debit card which they could not provide, and he was not willing to wait three hours to receive a refund in person. Id. at 134. The employee authorized him to return the bad item by holding it up to the camera and take a bag of combos as a replacement. Id. Plaintiff further explained that this was common practice, as there were frequently many items left on the counter indicating someone had returned them. Id. at 135. Notwithstanding Plaintiff's explanation, Mr. Getgood terminated Plaintiff. 9/4/15 Discipline, ECF No. 35-15.

         Mr. Getgood testified that the alleged theft was brought to his attention by members from loss prevention at Canteen Services. Getgood Dep. at 10, ECF No. 32-5. He met with the Canteen Services employees as well as Mr. Pruitt. Id. at 11. The Canteen Services employees “believed they had pictures of the gentleman that was stealing from the Market.” Id. at 10. They did not provide Mr. Getgood copies of those pictures at that time. Id. at 11. Mr. Getgood did not review the surveillance footage until after Plaintiff was terminated. Id. at 13. Rather, he made the termination decision based on what Plaintiff reported during the interview. Id. at 23. Plaintiff's committeeperson Robert Essenmacher was also at the interview as well as an undisclosed witness from Nexteer management. Id. at 14.

         At the interview, Mr. Getgood asked if Plaintiff had taken anything from the market without paying. Id. at 15. Plaintiff indicated that he had. Id. “One of his answers was that if he had bought product, a salad that the lettuce was not good, or something that did not taste good he would return it. His statement is that he would return it and grab something either that day or a couple days later.” Id. at 16. According to Mr. Getgood, Plaintiff told him that “he never talked to anybody from Canteen Services.” Id. During the interview, Mr. Getgood took handwritten notes, which he typed up afterward and attached to his declaration. The notes contain the following discussion:

Q11: Is there a time any time that you have taken product without paying?
A11: If I go in and buy a sandwich, if it has bad meat, lettuce, chicken salad, I take the sandwich back in by the check out, then if I'm hungry right then I'll grab something of the same amount or close to it.
Q12: What happens if your not hungry right then?
A12: I'll come back the next day or a couple of days later and take something of similar value or different product if they have not restocked.
Q13: Have you ever talked to someone, a member of management?
A13: Shawn when he was in S6. (followed up with Shawn, never talked to Eric about this.)

         Getgood Decl. Ex. 1, ECF No. 32-4 (emphasis added). Based on the context and the response, it is unclear if Getgood was referring to company management or Canteen Services management, nor is it clear who Plaintiff was referring to in his response when he identified “Shawn.”

         Mr. Getgood further testified that Plaintiff was aware of the market's return policy, and that Plaintiff in fact told Mr. Getgood what it was: “The policy is there is a white envelope . . . you fill out your name, what you had purchased, the dollar value, and you turn that in. And then within three or four days, that actually is returned to you through the Union Rep. Mr. Eggleston actually told me that.” Id. at 17. Mr. Getgood testified that Plaintiff informed him he never utilized the market's return policy, as “it was unreasonable for him to leave any kind of note.” Id. at 17, 19. Mr. Getgood's testimony does not conform to his contemporaneous notes:

Q15: How often did you do this?
A15: Salads . . .often
Q16: How many times?
A16: Can't say, greater than 5.
Q17: You know that there is a resolution process for the satellite area?
A17: Yea, fill out the form 3 or 4 days the Union calls you down.
Q18: The things you have left, did you leave a note, any communication?
A18: I have looked no way to do so. (he reiterated several times he has looked for ways to communicate).
. . .
Q21: You return a product. No note. No communication. Returned immediately or several days taking something of similar value?
A21: No one has ever said anything to me, leaving a note is unreasonable.
. . .
Q22: Have you asked the union for help? You ran as a committeeman, you know the grievance process correct?
A22: Never asked the Union directly
. . .
Q25: Eric, do you have anything to add?
A25: I have never stolen anything from Nexteer or any of its vendors, period. I'm not aware of any return policy. I have looked.

         Getgood Decl. Ex. 1, ECF No. 32-4 (emphasis added). Based on this discussion it is unclear if the “resolution process for the satellite area” refers to the Union grievance process or to the market's return policy, or if they are the same thing. Thus, it is unclear if Plaintiff was only aware of a union grievance policy, or of the market's return policy, or both. Plaintiff specifically stated he was not aware of a return policy. Exhibit 2-4 of the Getgood Declaration includes Continental Canteen's refund request form, comment forms, and a comment box. ECF No. 32-4. Plaintiff specifically testified, however, that “there is no policies for returns or exchanges. There's no written policy, there's nothing posted in the store. And I have filed five complaints as it relates to how do we in our plant return an item or exchange an item that is bad.” Eggleston Dep. at 131. Based on what Plaintiff said in the interview, Mr. Getgood terminated him for violation of shop rule two: “theft or misappropriation of property of employees or of the Company.” Id. at 21; Shop Rules, ECF No. 35-17.

         Greg Ledger, a Caucasian male employee, was terminated for stealing a pop. Pruitt Dep. at 19. Dave Smith, also a Caucasian male employee, was terminated for stealing plates for a party. Id. Mr. Ledger and Mr. Smith were both later reinstated under a “Last Chance Agreement” which was negotiated with the union. Id. at 20-21. Mr. Pruitt was “involved” in Mr. Ledger and Mr. Smith receiving last chance agreements.[5] Id. at 21-22. Mr. Pruitt met with the union chairperson, Bob Glaser, in response to Plaintiff's grievance, and Mr. Glaser asked for a Last Chance Agreement for Plaintiff as well. Id. at 21. Mr. Pruitt did not agree to give Plaintiff a Last Chance Agreement, because he didn't believe that the case warranted it. Id.

         When asked why Mr. Ledger and Mr. Smith were treated differently than Plaintiff, Mr. Pruitt responded, “well at the end of my investigation looking into those cases, they didn't actually steal.” Id. at 22. Mr. Pruitt was asked “Do you know how it came to be that they were, I guess, incorrectly accused of engaging in theft?” Id. at 31. Mr. Pruitt responded that Mr. Smith had taken plates from the cafeteria in response to a request from his supervisor to “bring them up for some kind of celebration.” Id. at 31. With respect to Mr. Ledger, Mr. Pruitt responded that “Ledger was in there getting some fountain - he discovered he gets fountain pop whenever he's in there working, so that's why.” Id. When asked “who said that he gets fountain pop whenever he's in there working?” Mr. Pruitt “the cafeteria did.” Id. When asked why they were given a Last Chance Agreement, and not just returned to work, Mr. Pruitt responded “that was the agreement I made with the union. Ledger had been fired before, and had Dave Smith been fired before.” Id. at 22. Mr. Pruitt was unclear if the cafeteria was affiliated with Continental Canteen or “Sutherlands.” Id.

         When asked if there were any other allegations against Mr. Ledger or Mr. Smith, Mr. Pruitt responded “not that I can recall.” Id. at 30. Plaintiff testified that he had the following conversation with Mr. Ledger following his termination: “I called him up. The -the Union president said, ‘Eric, this is some bullshit and they know it. But they getting rid of you, so you wouldn't run for election.' He gave me Greg Ledger's phone number. So I called Greg up and I was like, ‘Man, what's- what happened to you?' And he said, ‘Hey, they fired me for theft like I heard they did you and then they brought me back on a last chance ...


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