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Noel v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 9, 2014

JEAN N. NOEL, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION[1]

PAUL W. GRIMM, District Judge.

Plaintiff, a black man of Haitian ethnicity, brings this claim against his employer for discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, alleging that he was subjected to a pattern of insulting and offensive language at the hands of his supervisors that culminated in his termination for false accusations of misconduct. Defendant employer has moved for summary judgment on all counts, arguing that Plaintiff's termination neither was discriminatory nor retaliatory, but was based upon the legitimate, good faith belief that he had engaged in misconduct. Defendant also argues that it properly responded to Plaintiff's claims of on-the-job harassment and adequately guarded against such conduct, and therefore cannot be liable for Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim. Because I find that Plaintiff was terminated based on the legitimate and nondiscriminatory belief that he engaged in misconduct, I grant Defendant's motion with respect to the discrimination and retaliation counts. But because a reasonable jury could find that Defendant did not take adequate steps to prevent or respond to Plaintiff's complaint of a hostile work environment, I deny summary judgment on that count.

I. BACKGROUND

In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court considers the facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant, drawing all justifiable inferences in that party's favor. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 585-86 (U.S. 2009); George & Co., LLC v. Imagination Entm't Ltd., 575 F.3d 383, 391-92 (4th Cir. 2009); Dean v. Martinez, 336 F.Supp.2d 477, 480 (D. Md. 2004). Unless otherwise stated, this background is composed of undisputed facts. Where a dispute exists, I consider the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. See Ricci, 557 U.S. at 585-86; George & Co., 575 F.3d at 391-92; Dean, 336 F.Supp.2d at 480.

Defendant United Parcel Service, Inc. ("UPS") is a Delaware corporation with its primary place of business in Georgia, Compl. ¶ 4, ECF No. 1; Answer ¶ 4, ECF No. 4. UPS describes itself as "the world's largest package delivery company and a leading global provider of specialized transportation and logistics services." About UPS, UPS, http://www.ups.com/content/us/en/about/index.html (last visited Aug. 29, 2014). Plaintiff Jean Noel is a black male of Haitian background. See Compl. ¶ 3; Def.'s Mem. 3. Noel worked for UPS at its Burtonsville, Maryland facility beginning in 1998 until his resignation in 2011, Pl.'s Resps. to Def.'s First Set of Discovery Requests ("Pl.'s Interrog. Resps.") 8-9, Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. A, ECF No. 26-1, beginning as a part-time Sorter and, after several raises, eventually working as a full-time, "combo" employee performing the jobs of an "Irregs Sorter" and an Air Driver. Id.; Noel Dep. 99:20-104:4, Pl.'s Mem. Ex. 2, ECF No. 23-3.[2] Noel was a member of, and represented by, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and his employment was governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"). Id. at 105:6-14.

As a combo employee, Noel had several supervisors. At the times relevant to his Complaint, Noel was supervised by John Zaner, Jeremy Rodriguez, and others in his role as an Air Driver, id. at 115:19-116:18, and he was supervised by Lisa Brock in his role as a Sorter, id. at 116:19:22. Noel testified that he was subjected to a pattern of race- and national-origin-based abuse from both Rodriguez and Zaner. According to Noel, they "call[ed] me Haitian boy, mimick[ed] my accent, mock[ed] me and call[ed] me Muhammad and ask[ed] me that, you know, do we have cars in Haiti or do you just ride elephants, do you have McDonald's in Haiti or do you just eat whatever you can find, " and similar questions about Haiti. Id. at 225:20-226:4. Rodriguez acknowledges that he called Noel "The Haitian Sensation, " Rodriguez Dep. 34:13-16, Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. F, ECF No. 26-6, but claims that Noel never objected to that, id. at 34:19-25, and did not recall having ever made any other comments about his background, id. at 35:2-14. Noel also testified that Zaner frequently threatened to fire him, Noel Dep. 232:8-14, called him "Haitian, " and gave him more onerous work, telling him "I thought you guys worked like that back in your country, " id. at 276:15-279:1. In addition, Zaner frequently would speak to Noel in a mock Jamaican accent and, when Noel said he was Haitian and not Jamaican, responded that "They're the same thing." Pl.'s Interrog Resps. 4. Noel complained to some co-workers and to Lisa Brock, as well as telling the human resources department ("HR") that he was being mistreated, but he did not tell HR that he believed he was being discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin. Id. at 232:5-233:13.

On one particularly hot day in August 2011, Noel wrapped a towel around his head to keep him from sweating on packages while he worked. Id. at 269:14-19. Zaner called Noel "Muhammad" and threatened to fire him if he did not remove the towel from his head. Pl.'s Interrog. Resps. 3. Noel filed a grievance with his union, id., and, at Brock's urging, reported the incident to HR, Noel Dep. 283:16-284:12. Noel discussed the incident with Wendy Russell in the HR department, who spoke with Zaner's boss; Zaner's boss indicated that he would meet with Zaner about the incident and get him to apologize to Noel. Id. 284:13-286:2. Zaner did not apologize to Noel, but Noel noted that he was "trying to be nice all of a sudden" for one day, although Noel thought Zaner actually was mocking him and "the harassment didn't stop, " as Zaner continued to call him "boy" and to engage in similarly offensive conduct. Id. at 286:14-287:19. Noel reported the continued conduct to his shop steward, but did not report it to Russell or anyone else in HR. Id. at 287:20-288:4.

On December 3, 2011, Noel was working at the Burtonsville facility and observed two bottles of juice on a table in UPS's damaged goods processing area, which is where damaged packages are placed to be repackaged but, according to Noel, also is an area that also is used by employees. See id. at 126:4-22; Pl.'s Interrog. Resps. 7. According to Noel, the bottles were not wrapped or in any packaging, and he took them and moved them to Brock's office so that nobody would take them. Noel Dep. 142:2-20. He did not immediately tell anybody that he had put the bottles there, id. at 150:5-15, but eventually he did report the incident to Brock by telephone, id. at 155:5-19, although Noel could not remember any details of doing so, id. at 157:1-21, and Brock denies any such communication occurred, Brock Aff ¶ 8, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 7, ECF No. 23-8.

On December 10, 2011, Noel's shop steward called him into a meeting with Crystal Rogers and several other people. Id. at 191:8-192:8. Rogers, an African-American woman, id. at 119:9-12, was a Security Supervisor for UPS at that time and never had met Noel. Rogers Aff. ¶ 2, Def.'s Mem. Ex. 1, ECF No. 23-2. Rogers accused Noel of stealing the bottles of juice that he had moved on December 3, and did not believe Noel's claim that the bottles had not been in a package or that he had moved them to Brock's office. Pl.'s Interrog. Resps. 7. Rogers did not contact Brock to confirm his story. Id.

According to Rogers, the bottles had gone missing from a damaged package that had been placed to the damaged goods area. Rogers Aff. ¶¶ 9-11. Because of concerns about theft, the damaged goods area is under video surveillance and Rogers, viewing the video, saw a black male in a UPS uniform and a hoodie removing items from what appeared to be the package of juice bottles. Id. ¶¶ 11-12.[3] Although she could not identify the person removing the juice from the video, a surveillance video of the guard shack at the entrance to the Burtonsville facility appeared to contain video of the same person on the same day. Id. ¶ 13. Rogers asked Rodriguez for help identifying the person in the video, and Rodriguez identified Noel. Id. at ¶ 14. In an attempt to corroborate her suspicions of Noel, Rogers staged a "salt" operation, in which bottles of Gatorade were left unattended in the damaged goods area; Noel did not take any of the Gatorade bottles. Id. ¶ 16. According to a report of the investigation, at least one other employee was believed to have removed juice bottles from the package at issue. Investigation Detail Report 2, Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. B, ECF No. 26-2.

At the December 10 meeting, Noel was given the option to resign and was informed that, if he did not, he would go to jail and be fired under circumstances that would preclude him from finding work in the future. Noel Dep. 202:15-22. As a result, Noel resigned. Id. at 205:5-22. On his Separation form, the reason for his termination was recorded as "Resign Personal Reason." Separation Form, Rogers Aff. Ex. G, ECF no. 23-2.

UPS has several policies that address discriminatory or harassing employee conduct. The UPS Policy Book includes such headings as "We Value Human Rights, " "We Place Great Value on Diversity, " "We Maintain an Environment Free of Discrimination and Harassment, " and "We Provide Employees the Ability to Report Concerns to the Company." UPS Policy Book 24-25, Rogers Aff. Ex. A, ECF No. 23-2. The Policy Book states that "[e]mployees may communicate their concerns by speaking to their direct manager or supervisor, [or] by using the Open Door Policy to talk to someone else in management, including their Human Resources manager." Id. at 25. The UPS Code of Business Conduct prohibits discriminatory harassment, UPS Code of Business Conduct 19-20, Rogers Aff. Ex. B, ECF No. 23-2, and UPS has an additional Professional Conduct and Anti-Harassment Policy, Rogers Aff. Ex. C, ECF No. 23-2.

UPS also has an Honesty in Employment policy, which, among other things, states, "We expect honesty from our people in their handling of money, merchandise, and property with which which they are entrusted." Honesty in Employment, Rogers Aff. Ex. E, ECF No. 23-2. Noel had signed this policy. Id. Noel also signed a document titled "Tampering with Merchandise, " which stated,

Except for specifically assigned employees and in cases where merchandise has spilled on the belt, no employees shall open for any reason, or place his hand into any opened or damaged parcels for any reason. Any such act shall be considered tampering ...

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