HARRIS v. HOLDER, No. 1:2014cv05163 - Document 30 (D.N.J. 2016)

Court Description: OPINION. Signed by Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez on 6/13/2016. (tf, )
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HARRIS v. HOLDER Doc. 30 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW J ERSEY ANDREW HARRIS Plaintiff, v. ERIC J . HOLDER, J R., Attorney General, U.S. Departm ent of J ustice, Defendant. : : : : : : : : : : : Hon. J oseph H. Rodriguez Civil Action No. 14-5163 Opinion This m atter com es before the Court on m otion for sum m ary judgm ent, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, filed by Defendant Attorney General Eric J . Holder, J r. The Court has considered the written subm issions of the parties and the argum ents advanced at the hearing on J une 6, 20 16. For the reasons stated on the record during the hearing, and those that follow, the m otion for sum m ary judgm ent [Doc. 17] will be granted in favor of Defendant. I. Background Plaintiff Andrew Harris is an African-Am erican landscaping forem an em ployed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the Federal Correctional Institution (“FCI”) at Fort Dix, New J ersey. He brings this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as am ended, 42 U.S.C. §20 0 0 et seq. Harris com plains that the BOP discrim inated against him on J uly 18, 20 0 6 when he was required to supervise outdoor grass m owing duties during excessive heat while two Caucasian landscaping forem an were perm itted to work inside. 1 Dockets.Justia.com Harris has worked at FCI Fort Dix since 1993 and generally worked between the hours of 6:0 0 a.m . to 4:30 p.m . in J uly, 20 0 6. In 20 0 6, Harris was assigned to the West Com pound and he reported to general forem an Ron Woodruff. The two m en that Harris claim s were treated more favorably because of their race, Tom Nicholson and Gary Witham , reported to general forem en Tom Northrup and Scott Ennis, respectively. However, the three general forem en (Woodruff, Northrup, and Ennis) all reported to Bernard “Chip” Moran. As a result of this hierarchy, Plaintiff, Nicholson, and Witham each had a different direct or first-line supervisor, but shared a second-line supervisor in Chip Moran. With the exception of Harris, all of the forenam ed persons are white/ Caucasian. On J uly 18, 20 0 6, Harris claim s the heat index was excessive and that he did not have any water on his golf cart. Harris used a golf cart, called a LEEP, to supervise his inm ate crew assigned to landscaping and m owing duties. Harris’s day started at 6 a.m . and was otherwise norm al. However, during his lunch break, he saw his second-line supervisor, Chip Moran and told him : “[W]e are going to discontinue Mowing. It’s just way too hot and I’m not feeling well[.] I’m dizzy. My eyes are burning[,] we don’t have water out there either, so I already got everything loaded up.” Harris Dep., 67-68, 72. Harris claim s that Moran directed him to speak to his direct supervisor, Ron Woodruff. Id. at 73-74. Plaintiff claim s that his first-line supervisor, Ron Woodruff, was not im pressed with the heat and that he told Plaintiff that he was going to call the safety office to confirm that the Fort Dix Arm y Base did not shut down outside operations because of the heat. Id. at 79-80 ; EEOC Hearing Transcript (Woodruff) at US 184, US20 5-US20 6, 2 US213,-US214, US228-US229.1 Harris claims that Woodruff inform ed him after the phone call that “there’s business as usual. Go back to work.” Harris Dep. at 79. Harris again sought perm ission from Moran to cease m owing operations and told Moran that Woodruff said “well, you got to go back out there.” Id. at 83. As a result of Woodruff’s direction, Harris claim s that he tracked down his inm ate crew without eating lunch or drinking any water. Id. at 81-85. Harris returned to his duties and then either “passed out” or becam e “sem i-conscious[.]” Id. 86-87. Em ergency personnel was sum m oned to assist Harris and he was taken to the hospital. Id. at 149-150 . Harris was placed on injury leave, but rem ained on paid status during his leave. Id. at 114. When he returned to work, Harris rem ained in the sam e position with the sam e duties and schedule. Id. at 116. Harris was not disciplined for the J uly 18, 20 0 6 incident. Id. He eventually was reassigned as the landscape foreman for the Outside Com pound; a transfer he welcom ed as m ore favorable. Id. at 10 7-10 9; 117, 135-37. Harris com plains that he was treated less favorably than Witham and Nicholson on J uly 18, 20 0 6 because they were not asked to perform m owing detail for that day. Id. at 21; Vassallo Dec., Ex. C (Interrogatory Reponses). During the EEOC Hearing, Witham testified that he had his crew m ow on J uly 18, 20 0 6. EEOC Hearing Transcript at US365-US375. However, Harris claim s that the actions taken by Woodruff and Moran on J uly 18, 20 0 6, ignoring his com m ents about how he was feeling in the heat, were racially m otivated. Harris Dep., 121-123. Harris states that he never heard his supervisors m ake any racially offensive or insensitive rem arks and that he cannot recall Moran or Woodruff ever com m enting about his race. Id. at 126. 1 Warden Samuels and Chip Moran also testified in the EEPO Hearing that the Fort Dix Arm y Base had not m ade an announcem ent of a heat warning. See EEOC Hearing (Moran) at US249, US257. 3 Harris’s Com plaint alleges one Count of racial discrim ination under Title VII based on the J uly 18, 20 0 6 incident. Defendants have m oved for sum m ary judgm ent. II. Sum m ary J udgm ent Standard A court will grant a m otion for sum m ary judgm ent if there is no genuine issue of m aterial fact and if, viewing the facts in the light m ost favorable to the non-m oving party, the m oving party is entitled to judgm ent as a m atter of law. Pearson v. Com ponent Tech. Corp., 247 F.3d 471, 482 n.1 (3d Cir. 20 0 1) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)); accord Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (c). Thus, this Court will enter sum m ary judgm ent only when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and adm issions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any m aterial fact and that the m oving party is entitled to judgm ent as a m atter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (c). An issue is “genuine” if supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonm oving party’s favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “m aterial” if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact m ight affect the outcom e of the suit. Id. In determ ining whether a genuine issue of m aterial fact exists, the court m ust view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the light m ost favorable to the nonm oving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Initially, the m oving party has the burden of dem onstrating the absence of a genuine issue of m aterial fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the m oving party has m et this burden, the nonm oving party m ust identify, by affidavits 4 or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.; Maidenbaum v. Bally’s Park Place, Inc., 870 F. Supp. 1254, 1258 (D.N.J . 1994). Thus, to withstand a properly supported m otion for sum m ary judgm ent, the nonm oving party m ust identify specific facts and affirm ative evidence that contradict those offered by the m oving party. Andersen, 477 U.S. at 256-57. Indeed, the plain language of Rule 56(c) m andates the entry of sum m ary judgm ent, after adequate tim e for discovery and upon m otion, against a party who fails to m ake a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an elem ent essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. In deciding the m erits of a party’s m otion for sum m ary judgm ent, the court’s role is not to evaluate the evidence and decide the truth of the m atter, but to determ ine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Credibility determ inations are the province of the finder of fact. Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am ., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992). III. Analysis Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids em ploym ent discrim ination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 20 0 0 e– 2(a); Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (20 0 6). In assessing claim s under Title VII and related retaliation claim s, courts apply the burden-shifting analysis set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 80 2– 0 3 (1973). Analysis of claim s m ade pursuant to the NJ LAD generally follows the analysis of Title VII claim s. Schurr v. Resorts Int’l Hotel, Inc., 196 F.3d 486, 498 (3d Cir. 1999). Thus, to prevail on a Title VII disparate treatm ent racial discrim ination claim, a plaintiff m ust dem onstrate prim a facie that (1) he is a m em ber of a protected class; (2) 5 he suffered an adverse action by the defendants; (3) despite being otherwise qualified; and (4) sim ilarly situated persons who are not African- Am erican were treated m ore favorably. Hall v. E.I. du Pont Nem ours and Co., 586 F. App’x 860 , 863 (3d Cir. 20 14). If the plaintiff m akes out a prim a facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to establish a legitim ate, nondiscrim inatory reason for the adverse em ploym ent action. See Burton v. Teleflex, 70 7 F.3d 417, 426 (3d Cir. 20 13). If the defendant establishes a legitim ate, nondiscrim inatory reason for its actions, the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s proffered reason was a pretext for actual discrim ination. Id. The plaintiff m ust show that the defendant’s reason is a pretext for discrim ination. Sum m ary judgm ent is granted in favor of Defendant. Plaintiff has not identified any evidence dem onstrating that he suffered an adverse em ploym ent action or dem onstrated that he was treated differently than sim ilarly situated em ployees on J uly 18, 20 0 6. As a result, Plaintiff cannot dem onstrate a prim a facie case of discrim ination. Even if Plaintiff could dem onstrate a prim a facie case of discrim ination, sum m ary judgm ent m ust be granted because Plaintiff fails to put forth any evidence tending to show that Defendant’s proffered reason for having Plaintiff supervise m owing detail on J uly 18, 20 0 6 is a pre text for racial discrim ination. Plaintiff’s alleged adverse em ploym ent action in this case stem s solely from the J uly 18, 20 0 6 incident, where he was required to supervise m owing detail outdoors during excessive heat causing him to becom e ill. Proof that a Title VII plaintiff suffered an adverse em ploym ent action is required under step one of the McDonnell Douglas fram ework. See Sarullo v. U.S. Postal Serv., 352 F.3d 789, 797 (3d Cir. 20 0 3). The Third Circuit defines an adverse em ploym ent action as an “action by an em ployer that is 6 serious and tangible enough to alter an em ployee's com pensation, term s, conditions, or privileges of em ploym ent.” Storey v. Burns Int'l Sec. Servs., 390 F.3d 760 , 764 (3d Cir.20 0 4) (internal quotation m arks om itted). The adverse action m ust surpass “general unpleasantness that can occur in the workplace[.]” Barnees v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 598 F.App’x 86, 90 (3d Cir. 20 15). “Term ination, failure to prom ote, and failure to hire all constitute adverse em ploym ent actions.” Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 20 0 0 e– 2(a)(1) (m aking it unlawful for an em ployer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discrim inate against any individual with respect to his com pensation, term s, conditions, or privileges of em ploym ent, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”)). “Sim ilarly, actions that reduce opportunities for prom otion or professional growth can constitute adverse em ploym ent actions. Id. (citing de la Cruz v. N.Y.C. Hum an Res. Adm in. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 82 F.3d 16, 21 (2d Cir. 1996) (stating that reduced prestige and opportunity for professional growth, although “quite thin,” are sufficient to show adverse em ploym ent action at sum m ary judgm ent)). Here, Plaintiff’s allegation does not am ount to an adverse em ploym ent action and Plaintiff fails to address this issue in his brief and he did not identify any evidence or case law during oral argum ent tending to show that the J uly 18, 20 0 6 incident qualifies as an adverse em ploym ent action. At best, Plaintiff was placed on injury leave, but was paid during leave, and returned from leave to the sam e position. In J ones v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 796 F.3d 326 (3d Cir. 20 15), the Third Circuit agreed with the m ajority of other circuits that “placing an em ployee on paid adm inistrative leave where there is no presum ption of term ination is not an adverse em ploym ent action under the substantive 7 provision of Title VII.” J ones, 796 F.3d at 326 (internal quotations om itted) (citations om itted). Harris agrees that he was never disciplined and that he eventually received a m ore favorable placem ent. Harris Dep., 10 7-0 9, 117, 135-37. Harris also agrees that his supervisor Ron Woodruff required him to m ow every day; indicating that the J uly 18, 20 0 6 m owing detail was not a departure from Plaintiff’s every-day duties. See id. at 4851. Requiring Plaintiff to do his assigned duties, even under less than ideal circum stances, does not am ount to an adverse em ploym ent action. See J ones, 796 F.3d at 326 (citing cases). For all of these reasons, Harris’s com plaint of a single action does not constitute an adverse em ploym ent action and sum m ary judgm ent is granted. In addition, even assum ing there is an adverse em ploym ent action, Plaintiff cannot show that he was treated differently from sim ilarly situated em ployees because he has not identified proper com parators. The record shows that Plaintiff, Witham , and Nicholson all reported to different first line supervisors. In addition, Plaintiff adm its that each of his alleged com parators had the “autonom y to set work assignm ents, provided they m et their weekly perform ance objectives.” Pl. Counter Statem ent of Material Facts, ¶¶ 16-17. These facts disqualify Witham and Nicholson as com parators. See Carter v. Midway Slots & Sim ulcast, 511 F. App'x 125, 128 (3d Cir. 20 13) (holding that the plaintiff “and his five subordinates were not sim ilarly situated for Title VII purposes because they did not share the sam e supervisor.”) (citing Pierce v. Com m onwealth Life Ins. Co., 40 F.3d 796, 80 2 (6th Cir. 1994) (noting that, in order to show that com parators are “sim ilarly situated,” all relevant aspects of em ploym ent need to be nearly identical)). As a result, sum m ary judgm ent m ust be granted. 8 Finally, even if Plaintiff could establish a prim a facie case of discrim ination, Plaintiff has not put forth any evidence to rebut Defendant’s legitim ate nondiscrim inatory reason for requiring Plaintiff to continue with m owing duties on J uly 18, 20 0 6. Defendant claim s that because there was no heat advisory that day and because Plaintiff never told his supervisor that he had other plans for his inm ate crew in lieu of the m owing, Woodruff was following the policy of keeping the inm ates active. See Harris Dep. at 28-29, 70 , 77, 112; EEOC Hearing Transcript (Sam uels/ Woodruff/ Moran) at US155-US156, US163-US164, US171-US172, US181-US184, US20 5-US20 6, US213US214, US228-US229, US262-US263. Other than speculative statem ents m ade during oral argum ent that suggest race m ust be presum ed to be a factor in Defendant’s decision to have Plaintiff supervise m owing duties, Plaintiff cannot show on this record that Defendant’s non-discrim inatory reasons for requiring Harris to m ow on J uly 18, 20 0 6 are a pre-text for racial discrim ination. “ ‘Mere speculation about the possibility of the existence of such facts’ does not raise triable issue to defeat m otion for sum m ary judgm ent.” Brown ex rel. Estate of Brown v. Philip Morris Inc., 228 F. Supp. 2d 50 6, 514-15 (D.N.J . 20 0 2) (quoting Sterling Nat'l Mortgage Co. v. Mortgage Corner, Inc., 97 F.3d 39, 44 (3d Cir. 1996); see also Dunkin' Donuts Inc. v. Patel, 174 F.Supp.2d 20 2, 212 (D.N.J . 20 0 1) (“Genuine issues of m aterial fact cannot be raised by speculation and conclusory allegations.”). Plaintiff fails to identify any evidence in the record tending to create a genuine issue of m aterial fact as to whether Defendant’s decisions on J uly 18, 20 0 6 were m otivated by race. Plaintiff has not dem onstrated a prim a facie case of discrim ination or identified a genuine issue of m aterial fact related to whether Defendant’s legitim ate, non-discrim inatory reasons for requiring Plaintiff to continue with m owing duties on 9 J uly 18, 20 0 6 are a pre-text for discrim ination. Accordingly, Defendant’s m otion for sum m ary judgm ent will be granted. An accom panying Order will issue. Dated: J une 13, 20 16 s/ J oseph H. Rodriguez HON. J OSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, United States District J udge 10