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Johnson v. Merchants Terminal Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 27, 2017

MAURICE JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
MERCHANTS TERMINAL CORP. Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Ellen Lipton Hollander United States District Judge

         Maurice Johnson, the self-represented plaintiff, filed suit against "Merchants Terminal Corp.", alleging that he suffered discrimination based on race, in the form of harassment and wrongful termination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII"). ECF l.[1] In his Complaint, Johnson claims that he was "terminated unjustly" (id. at 2) and that defendant "fabricated acts of gross misconduct to terminate" him. Id. at 3. He seeks, inter alia, punitive damages; injunctive relief; back pay; reinstatement to his former position; and costs. He also seeks attorneys' fees, although he is unrepresented. Id. at 3-4, 11.

         Now pending is the motion for summary judgment (ECF 16) filed by MTC Logistics, Inc. ("MTC"), which defendant asserts is its correct corporate name. Id. at 1. The motion is supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 16-1) (collectively, "Motion") and several exhibits. ECF 16-2 through ECF 16-10. Johnson responded in opposition. ECF 18 ("Opposition"). He has also appended exhibits with his Opposition. ECF 18-1 through ECF 18-8. MTC has replied (ECF 22, "Reply"), with exhibits. ECF 22-1 through ECF 22-3. The Court received a letter from Mr. Johnson on December 21, 2016, which appears to constitute a second response in opposition to the Motion. ECF 24. I shall construe ECF 24 as a supplement to the Opposition ("Supplement").[2]

         The Motion is fully briefed and no hearing is necessary to resolve it. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the Motion.[3]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         MTC operates a cold storage warehouse in Jessup, Maryland, used primarily to store refrigerated and frozen food. ECF 16-2 (Johnson Deposition) at 2. In general, suppliers bring frozen and refrigerated food products to MTC for storage, from which the food products are picked up and transported to points of distribution. Id. at 3. Jeffrey Carden has been the plant manager of MTC since at least 2007. Id. at 5; see ECF 16-3 (Carden Affidavit).

         Johnson worked for MTC Logistics, Inc. or its predecessor, Merchant's Terminal Corporation, during three periods. Johnson was first hired by Merchant's Terminal Corporation in April 2007. ECF 16-2 at 5. He was terminated in October 2007 for leaving work without authorization. Id. at 5-6. Johnson testified at his deposition that on the day that he was terminated in 2007, he had been scheduled for overtime, but informed Carden and his supervisor that he was sick and could not work late. Id. at 5. Johnson testified that Carden told him "if you leave, you are fired", after which he was terminated. Id. at 5-6.

         In January or February of 2010, Johnson called Carden "about five times" about getting rehired. Id. at 6. He was rehired on April 20, 2010. Id. Johnson was then terminated for a second time on September 15, 2010, for "alleged theft." Id. Following the intervention of Johnson's union, Teamsters Local 570, Johnson was allowed to return to work after about 30 days. Id. at 6-7.[4]

         Johnson received several written warnings in 2013 and early 2014 from MTC's management. On January 20, 2013, Carden and Garry Kvech, MTC's Assistant Plant Manager (ECF 16-7, Kvech Affidavit), sent Johnson a letter confirming that Johnson was "given a verbal warning for [his] poor attendance/lateness record." ECF 16-8 at 1. Carden and Kvech wrote a letter to Johnson on February 19, 2013, stating: "During the past 30 work days, your attendance record has been unacceptable." Id. at 2. The letter warned: "Further attendance problems will necessitate more severe disciplinary action." Id.

         Carden wrote to Johnson on October 8, 2013, confirming that Johnson "was given a verbal warning for [his] poor attendance/lateness record." Id. at 3. And, on November 4, 2013, Carden wrote again to Johnson, indicating: "During the past 30 work days, your attendance record has been unacceptable." Id. at 4. That letter concluded: "Further attendance problems will necessitate more severe disciplinary action." Id.

         Carden and Kvech also wrote to Johnson on January 7, 2014, warning him that he would be suspended if his attendance and timeliness issues continued. Id. at 5. The letter of January 7, 2014 provided: "You have received both verbal and written warnings regarding your attendance. Your frequent absences, tardiness, and or our [sic] failure to give your supervisor advance notice thereof creates a burden for you [sic] Company and your co-workers." Id. It also stated, id.:

         Please be advised that you will be suspended for three (3) days if:

1. You are absent or late more once [sic] in the next sixty work days, unless you are hospitalized or absent for another reason acceptable to the Company or,
2. You do not notify your supervisor as soon as possible after learning that you will be absent or late.

         Then, by letter of February 26, 2014, Carden suspended Johnson for three days. Id. at 6 ("Suspension Letter"). The Suspension Letter provided, id.:

You have received verbal and written warnings regarding your attendance. Subsequently, you have had 2 occurrences since your 2n written warning was given to you on 1/7/2014. Be advised that you will be suspended for (3) three days for your poor attendance. Your suspension dates will be Tuesday 3/4/2014 thru [sic] Thursday 3/6/2014. Your return date is Friday 3/7/2014 at your regularly scheduled time.
Moreover, the Suspension Letter warned, id.:
Based on you [sic] record, it appears that you do not care about your job. Accordingly, please be advised that you will be discharged if:
1. You are absent or late more then [sic] once in the next sixty (60) work days, unless you are hospitalized or absent for another reason acceptable to the Company or,
2. You do not notify your supervisor as soon as possible after learning that you will be absent or late.

         Johnson served his suspension from March 4, 2014 through March 6, 2014. ECF 16-2 at 26. But, Johnson testified that he had to come to work on March 5, 2014. Id. Ultimately, Johnson was terminated on March 12, 2014. Id. at 4; see ECF 16-3, ¶ 9. The events that culminated in his termination are recounted below.

         In March 2014, Johnson was working as a forklift operator at MTC's "loading dock four." Id. at 3, 14. His duties were "to pick orders or retrieve product from racks or put product in racks . . . ." Id. at 3. Picking orders consists of retrieving wood or rubber pallets with a forklift from the racks that are about fifteen or twenty feet tall, and bringing the pallets to the loading dock area. Id. Johnson testified that pallets weigh between seventy and two hundred pounds and that the forklifts are big enough to lift the pallets some fifteen to twenty feet. Id.

         The MTC facility has a room called the "truckers' lounge." It has tables, vending machines, and a bathroom for truckers to use while they wait for their trucks to be loaded or unloaded. Id. at 15-16. There are two doors to the truckers' lounge. One is to the "breezeway", an area where forklifts and pallet jacks move goods between the facility's storage rooms. ECF 16-3, ¶ 3. The other is to a receiving area, where truckers usually enter the building and submit documents. ECF 16-2 at 15. The door to the truckers' lounge from the breezeway can only be opened from the breezeway (i.e., persons inside the truckers' lounge cannot gain access to the breezeway unless someone opens the door from the other side). Id. at 15-16.

         Johnson testified that he was aware that MTC had a policy barring employees from using the truckers' lounge. Id. at 17. At his deposition, Johnson claimed: "All employees use the trucker's [sic] lounge." Id. Yet, he also said: "Everybody knows not to use the truckers' lounge." Id. Rather, MTC employees were to use the employee locker room or the sitting room, which are located in a different part of the building. Id. at 12.[5]

         At 11:00 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Johnson and other workers went on a ten minute break. Id. at 11. Johnson left his work area and entered the truckers' lounge. Id. at 18. Once in the truckers' lounge, Johnson put his head down on a table, where he stayed for approximately thirty minutes, i.e., twenty minutes beyond the end of his break. Id. at 19. When Johnson was ready to return to work, he had to knock on the window of the door to the breezeway and wait for someone to open it. Id.

         While Johnson was in the truckers' lounge, Kvech observed him through the window of the breezeway door. ECF 16-7. In his affidavit, Kvech stated, id. ¶ 3: "I saw Maurice Johnson sitting on a chair next to a table that was between the vending machines and the bathroom in the trucker's [sic] lounge. Mr. Johnson was not moving and appeared to be sleeping." Kvech then reported his observation to Carden. Id. ¶ 4; see ECF 16-3, ¶ 5. Carden reviewed video footage of the truckers' lounge around the time Kvech said he saw Johnson in the lounge. ECF 16-3, ¶ 6. Based on his review, Carden "assumed [Johnson] was sleeping because he did not move from his position during the approximately 30 minutes he was in the lounge." Id.

         After Johnson left the truckers' lounge, another employee, Kevin Harrington, informed Johnson that Carden wanted to see him. ECF 16-2 at 21. Johnson went to Carden's office, where Carden questioned him about why he was sleeping in the truckers' lounge. Id. at 21-22. Johnson testified that he told Carden that he "had a cold in [his] chest and back, [his] clothes were wet, [and he] felt. . . queasy." Id. Johnson also told Carden that he had taken oxycodone the night before. Id. at 22.

         By letter of March 12, 2014, Carden terminated Johnson. ECF 16-9. The letter stated (brackets in original):

On March 11, 2014, you were away from your work area for more than 20 minutes before you returned to work. I believe that you went into the truckers' lounge (where our employees are not permitted to be) in order to hide and sleep. When you were confronted about this, you said you were not asleep, you were "incoherent". When I asked you what you meant by "incoherent", you said you had taken Oxycontin for being cold. You said you forgot your mask and regular gloves and you knew you were going to be cold, so you took a couple of Oxycontin because you knew that once you got cold and wet you would have pain.
Your conduct shows a gross disregard for your job [and the safety of your coworkers]. Accordingly, you are discharged.

         At his deposition, Johnson testified that he had decided to enter the truckers' lounge because he wanted "to get warm fast." ECF 16-2 at 20. When asked why he stayed past the end of his ten minute break, Johnson testified that employees have "a little leniency with the breaks" and that he "decided to sit there a few more minutes, to get [his] head together, because . . . [his] head was still spinning and [his] stomach felt bad." Id. Johnson speculated that his symptoms may have been side effects of oxycodone, which he had taken the night before. Id. at 11, 20.

         Johnson was prescribed thirty oxycodone pills by his doctor on December 12, 2013. Id. at 22; see ECF 16-6 (prescription for oxycodone). The instruction from Johnson's doctor was to "take 1 tablet by mouth 3 times a day as needed." ECF 16-2 at 22; see ECF 16-6. Johnson took only two or three tablets in December, and "did have some left" in March 2014. ECF 16-2 at 22.

         Johnson testified that he did not "really look at the bottle" when he received the oxycodone. Id. Notably, he testified that he knew that oxycodone is "strong medication." Id. at 23. Johnson also testified that he was aware of the side effects of oxycodone. The following exchange at Johnson's deposition is relevant, id.:

Q. Were you aware that Oxycodone can cause dizziness and sleepiness?
A. My doctor informed me of that.
Q. When did your doctor inform you of ...

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