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Merriweather v. United States Steel Corp.

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

July 19, 2019


          David M. Lawson Judge.




         The Court should grant Defendant United States Steel Corporation's Motion for Summary Judgment. (DE 31.)

         II. REPORT:

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Nedra Merriweather, proceeding in pro per, filed this employment discrimination and retaliation case against her former employer, Defendant United States Steel Corporation (“Defendant” or “USS”), on February 26, 2018. (DE 1.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendant unlawfully terminated her because of her race and gender and because she engaged in protected activity, and that Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her race and gender by not allowing her to train and qualify for a job she requested. (Id.) Plaintiff asserts claims of race and gender discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. and race discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (DE 1.) She seeks reinstatement, or an award of back pay, front pay and other compensatory damages, punitive damages, costs and attorney fees. (Id.)

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff's amended response brief, and Defendant's reply brief, with supporting declarations. (DEs 31, 32, 34, 35, 40-43.) Defendant states that Plaintiff was discharged in April 2017 for threatening and abusive behavior toward several co-workers, after which her discharge was upheld in arbitration. Defendant asserts that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of gender or race discrimination because she cannot show that her claimed failure to receive informal training was an adverse employment action under Title VII, that she was treated differently than similarly-situated persons outside her protected class, or that the decision-maker was predisposed to discriminate against African-Americans or women. Defendant further contends that Plaintiff's retaliation claim fails because she cannot establish a causal connection between her claimed protected activity and her termination. Defendant also argues that it has articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Plaintiff's termination, and Plaintiff has failed to show that this reason is a mere pretext for intentional discrimination.

         Plaintiff opposes Defendant's motion. She denies that she threatened or harassed any co-workers and instead contends that she was the person threatened and bullied by co-workers and management and that she was retaliated against for engaging in protected activities, including complaining about work sabotage, race discrimination, gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Plaintiff's response contains numerous factual allegations in response to Defendant's motion, and is supported by her declaration and exhibits, but otherwise contains no legal argument or analysis of her claims.

         In its reply brief, Defendant maintains that Plaintiff has failed to present any facts from which it can be inferred that she was subjected to race or gender discrimination or retaliation by Defendant or otherwise explain how the facts she recites add up to a viable claim, and that her Complaint should be dismissed in its entirety.

         B. Factual Background

         1. Plaintiff's employment at USS

         Plaintiff was hired by Defendant at its Great Lakes Works (“GLW”) facility on March 4, 2013 in the position of Utility Person (Labor Grade 1). This position was in a bargaining unit represented by the United Steelworkers (“USW”) Local Union No. 1299 (“Union” or “Local 1299”). Upon being hired, Plaintiff received a copy of Defendant's policies, including its policies on Sexual Harassment, Discriminatory Harassment and Equal Employment Opportunity, as well as its General Safety & Plant Conduct Rules and Regulations.

         On July 7, 2013, Plaintiff was selected through the bid process in the Local 1299 bargaining unit for the position of Utility Technician (Labor Grade 2) at GLW on the Continuous Galvanizing Line (“GCL”). This position, also referred to as a material handler, involves the operation of heavy equipment, including overhead electric cranes, to handle, transport and process product and material through the CGL. Plaintiff was assigned to the swing shift, also known as the “B” turn. She remained in this position until her discharge.

         During her employment, Plaintiff was cited for several disciplinary incidents, including one incident involving a verbal altercation with a co-worker, Myra Rogan, in August 2015. Rogan complained on August 6, 2015 that Plaintiff threatened her “that if I touched her that she was going to f*** me up & whoop my ass.” (DE 31-13 at 2.) Plaintiff admits that Rogan reported this threat, but claims that Rogan was lying. (DE 31-20 at 41.) This verbal altercation resulted in a five-day suspension for Plaintiff, issued on August 10, 2015. Her other disciplinary incidents involved complaints of “unsatisfactory work” or “unjustified absence.” (DE 31-11.)

         2. Plaintiff requested and was offered the opportunity to seek “break-in” training for the Delivery Operator position in January 2017

         Plaintiff states that she learned that there might be an opening in the Delivery Operator (Labor Grade 3) position on the CGL in late November or early December 2016, and, on January 2, 2017, she told Allen Blevins, CGL Area Coordinator, that she was interested in training as a Delivery Operator. She also submitted a Training Interest form that same day. (DE 31-15; DE 31-20 at 31.) The function of Delivery Operator is part of the Operating Technician I position, which would have been a promotion for Plaintiff. However, there was no vacancy in the Delivery Operating function in 2017 and USS had not indicated an interest in providing training for temporary vacancies in that function. (DE 31-2, ¶ 6.) Blevins told Plaintiff that he could not approve training for employees on an overtime basis for that position (because he did not have budgetary approval to do so), but that she was free to seek “break-in” training during her shift if her assigned work was completed and/or during periods of reduced operations, by going to the delivery “pulpit” area (where certain controls are located to move the steel coils) and observing the “B” turn Delivery Operator, Cathy Ferguson, on the job. (Id., ¶¶ 6-7.) Ferguson, who Plaintiff admits was once a “very close friend” of hers (DE 31-20 at 8), also served as a Civil Rights Advocate for USS employees through Local 1299, which involved assisting employees (specifically including Plaintiff several times) to file civil rights complaints with USS. (DE 31-3, ¶¶ 5, 7-9.) Blevins advised Ferguson to train Plaintiff as time allowed, and that it was up to Plaintiff's shift foreman to approve Plaintiff's release from her normal duties for that “break-in” training, based on operational needs. (Id. ¶ 13; DE 31-2, ¶ 7.)

         Plaintiff shortly thereafter went to the delivery pulpit area and requested training from Ferguson. (DE 31-20 at 33.) Ferguson advised Plaintiff that she would need to ask the shift foreman to release her and that she needed a notepad and the job qualification checklist to keep track of the various job functions as she trained on them. (Id.; DE 31-3, ¶ 14.) Plaintiff returned to the pulpit area on January 12, 2017, with the documents and again requested training. (DE 31-20 at 33.) Ferguson again told Plaintiff that she needed permission from her shift foreman to leave her work area and to ensure her job assignments were covered. Plaintiff argued with Ferguson that she did not need permission, but eventually sought out her shift supervisor, Doug Geldmacher, who instructed Plaintiff to work on “peels” until Blevins had finished a meeting. (Id.; DE 31-3, ¶¶ 15-16, 23.) Blevins confirmed with Plaintiff later that same shift that there was a backlog of over 100 coils on the CGL that day and thus no time for break-in training. (DE 31-2, ¶ 9.)

         Plaintiff testified that she never again requested Delivery Operator training after this time. (DE 31-20 at 34.)[1] She instead filed an internal civil rights complaint on January 13, 2017, accusing Blevins of discrimination. (DE 31-16.) She later submitted the same complaint - but this time complaining that Ferguson, instead of Blevins, was discriminating against her - along with two other complaints (which are discussed below) via USS's Ethics Point (“EP”) Website on February 27, 2017.

         3. USS investigates Plaintiff's complaints

         Charles Mackinnon, a USS Labor Representative, investigated all three of Plaintiff's complaints, including reviewing all relevant materials and interviewing all relevant witnesses. (DE 32-1, ¶¶ 4-5 and at 18-38.)

         With regard to the complaint of discrimination (Case 4938), Mackinnon interviewed Plaintiff, Blevins and Ferguson, reviewed relevant materials, and found the complaint unsubstantiated because the investigation confirmed that neither Blevins nor Ferguson denied Plaintiff an opportunity to train but instead attempted to ensure that she had the necessary tools and permission to train on the Delivery Operator function. Plaintiff had also complained that another co-worker, Chris Feldt, was improperly trained and qualified as an entry operator in an effort to prevent Plaintiff and other Black/Female employees from training on the position, but Mackinnon found that allegation unsubstantiated because company records indicated the Feldt was properly trained and qualified on the Delivery Operator function as of January 7, 2015, two years before Plaintiff sought training. (DE 32-1, ¶¶ 7-8 and at 18-24.)

         Defendant states that after Plaintiff did not train as a Delivery Operator with Ferguson, a white male co-worker assigned to a different shift, Jeff Davis, was trained by a different Delivery Operator, William Goode, in March 2017. Davis was subsequently qualified as a Delivery Operator by Blevins on March 8, 2017, when the Utility Technicians had caught up on their work and operational conditions permitted him to train (although he was never assigned to the position full-time and only worked a handful of shifts since becoming qualified). (DE 31-17; DE 31-2, ¶¶ 20-21.) Plaintiff filed a grievance regarding this on March 21, 2017, based on Davis's junior seniority, but this grievance was withdrawn by the Union on January 31, 2018. (DE 31-18.)

         4. Defendant discovers threatening and abusive behavior by Plaintiff toward co-workers

         In addition to her complaint of discrimination discussed above, Plaintiff also filed a complaint titled “Violence or Threat of Violence” regarding a January 16, 2017 incident between Davis and Geldmacher (Case 4939), and a complaint titled “Sabotage or Vandalism” regarding a co-worker, Marlon Towns (Case 4941). Mackinnon also investigated these complaints, including conducting multiple interviews of Union members in the presence of Local 1299's Grievance Chairman, Hawley Warren. (DE 32-1, ¶¶ 5, 9-12, )

         Mackinnon found Plaintiff's complaint in Case 4939 unsubstantiated because, although his investigation revealed that Geldmacher and Davis were involved in a verbal exchange regarding a work assignment on January 16, 2017 in which some profanity was used, there was no evidence that any threats were made, no evidence that Davis had refused a work assignment or failed to complete his work, and in fact, both Davis (the alleged recipient of a threat) and a ...

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