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Vessells v. Ring

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 25, 2018

KEVIN R. VESSELLS, Plaintiff
v.
KAYDON RING AND SEAL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          James K. Bredar Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Kevin R. Vessells brought this lawsuit against his former employer, Defendant Kaydon Ring and Seal (“Kaydon” or “Defendant”) alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“MFEPA”), Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 20-606(a). (Compl. ECF No. 1.) Before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 26.) The motion is fully briefed and ripe for review. (See ECF Nos. 31, 35.) There is no need to hold a hearing to resolve the matter. See Local Rule 105.6. There is no genuine dispute of material fact, and Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on all counts. Accordingly, the Court will grant Defendant's motion by accompanying order.

         I. Background [1]

         Plaintiff, an African American, began working for Kaydon in 1999, and in 2004 became a sealing rings operator. (Dep. Kevin R. Vessells 24:11-12; 62:1-4, ECF No. 31-1 (“Vessells Dep.”).) In that position, Plaintiff would produce metal rings, generally for use in various engines, and often in aircraft. (See Id. at 38:15-39:4; Dep. Howard Sewell, Jr. 105:19-21, ECF No. 31-2 (“Sewell Dep.”).) Due to the ultimate use of these rings, it was necessary that they be produced in very specific measurements. The customers would dictate the exact specifications of the rings they needed, with tolerances between half a tenth to a thousandth of an inch. (Vessells Dep 107:20.) Because of this demanding precision, sealing rings operators, like Plaintiff, would be required to measure their product carefully using various tools, check their final products, and often have coworkers check their work as well. (See Id. 64:3-11; Sewell Dep. 21:15-21, 20:7-18.) If the rings are the wrong size, they are generally unusable and become scrap metal, costing Defendant money. (See Sewell Dep. 106:21-107, 108:10-17; Dep. Lynn Renee Hipp 10:9-19, ECF No. 31-3 (“Hipp Dep.”).) Rings may be scrapped for a variety of reasons-the metal used is more brittle and harder to work with, or becomes rusted-but if the ring is scrapped for an incorrect measurement, it is the fault of the operator. (See Sewell Dep. 47:13-48:1, 28:17-29:5; Hipp Dep. 34:1-20.) The operators are supposed to record the amount of scrap they produce. (Dep. Charles Garafolo 14:7-11, ECF No. 31-4 (“Garafolo Dep.”).)

         Plaintiff was a member of a Union throughout his time at Kaydon. (Vessells Dep. 35:14-17.) According to the Union's Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), Plaintiff was entitled to a progressive disciplinary process, consisting of an oral warning, then a written warning, then a written warning with three days off (without pay), and then discharge. (CBA § 17.1, ECF No. 31-6.) If the “offender has five (5) years or more seniority with a good record, an additional step will be added before discharge, five days off without pay.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff was disciplined for poor performance before he became a sealing rings operator. He was disciplined for defective work three times in 2001. (See Vessells Dep. 108:21-109:4, 113:6-19; 115:4-6.) In his year-end reviews in 2001 and 2004, it was noted that Plaintiff had problems with the quality of his work. (Id. 117:3-21, 290:1-6.) After becoming a sealing rings operator, he was disciplined in 2005 for producing incorrectly-sized rings, resulting in $3, 667 worth of scrap, and quality issues were noted in his 2005 year-end review. (Id. 120:21-122:3, 123:20-124:1.) There is no evidence that Plaintiff was disciplined for work quality in the next seven years, [2] but Plaintiff was issued an oral warning for crashing a work vehicle in 2011. (Id. 132:17-133:6.)

         In 2014, Plaintiff made the first of what would be several complaints of discrimination. On February 21, 2014, Plaintiff made an anonymous hotline complaint, to report “harassing and racially discriminatory behavior.” (Alertline System Report for SKF-14-02-0007 at 2, ECF No. 31-8.) Plaintiff stated that he observed his manager, Paul Butcher (a Caucasian man) use profanity when referring to Black employees, and that Mr. Butcher harassed Plaintiff and other employees. (Id.) Plaintiff also accused vice-president Jason Strommel and supervisor Tina Boyd of racist behavior. (Id.) After an internal investigation, the Director of Industrial Relations for Defendant's parent company determined that there was no evidence to support a claim of discrimination, but did confirm that Mr. Butcher used “inappropriate, profane and abusive language.” (Id. at 4.)

         Plaintiff made a second hotline call on March 6, 2014. (See Alertline System Report for SKF-14-02-0008 at 3, ECF No. 31-9.) This time Plaintiff did not remain anonymous. Plaintiff reported that “Paul tells Tina to only observe African American employees during the shift.” (Id. at 4.) The investigation into Plaintiff's call concluded that the allegation was “unsubstantiated” and that Ms. Boyd had been instructed to “watch all employees particularly those [who are] late, [who are] missing meetings or [who are] away from [the] work area.” (Id.)

         Two months later, on May 12, 2014, Plaintiff was disciplined for failure to follow instructions. (May 12 Warning, ECF No. 31-10.) The written description of this oral warning explained that Plaintiff had been instructed to run a specific job but had run a different job, and that “[Plaintiff] was given work instructions and disregarded them.” (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff, in his declaration, refers to this as a “sham write-up, ” but does not explain further. (Decl. Kevin Vessells ¶ 4, ECF No. 31-11.) That is, he does not discuss whether he ran the right or wrong job, or whether something else about the warning was a “sham.” Plaintiff presents no evidence that the issuer of this written warning (the signature appears to be that of Mr. Butcher) knew of Plaintiff's hotline complaints.

         That summer, Plaintiff had two experiences that he views as instances of harassment. First, on or around June 2, 2014, Plaintiff saw a note in a break room which read “They train monkeys to pick/clean up after themselves . . . They shouldn't have to tell adults to do the same. Clean up after yourself Throw trash into Trash-CAN. d____A____! [sic].” (Note, ECF No. 31-12; Decl. Kevin Vessells ¶ 5.) “[A] lot of the co-workers [at Kaydon] were very upset about this [note].” (Hipp. Dep. 22:19-21.) Second, in July 2014 Plaintiff complained to Human Resources about a hose that was tied up like a noose, which Plaintiff felt was intended to send a racist message. (See Vessells Dep. 183-184.)[3]

         On August 20, 2014, Plaintiff applied for a promotion. (August 2014 Application, ECF No. 31-15.) In his application, Plaintiff conceded that he had “no experience at this position.” (Id.) Plaintiff was interviewed for the position, but he was rated as below average for technical skills and education/certification, and unsatisfactory for prior experience. (Vessells Dep. 223:17-224-17.) The position was ultimately given to a person with more seniority. (See August 2014 Application (noting that “An employee in the seniority was given the position.”).)[4] Plaintiff does not dispute that he lacked experience, was rated below average for technical skills, or put forth evidence suggesting that he should have been rated higher for technical skills.

         Plaintiff made a third hotline complaint on December 3, 2014. (Alertline System Report for SKF-14-02-0007, ECF No. 31-16.) Plaintiff stated that he had been retaliated against for making his initial February 21 complaint, stating “it just seems as if everything he[] does is nitpicked.” (Id. at 2.) He stated that he had been falsely accused of speeding in the parking lot, and was written up for minor issues that had never been grounds for discipline in the past. (Id.) Plaintiff reported the noose incident from July, and an incident related to his paycheck that he believed stemmed from his complaints of discrimination.

         On December 8, 2014, five days after Plaintiff made his third hotline call, Plaintiff was disciplined for “Failure to comply with Company policy.” (Disciplinary Notice, ECF No. 31-17.) According to a notice of this infraction, Plaintiff failed to enter his work into the proper database. Under “Employee Comments, ” Plaintiff wrote, “I feel like [my supervisor] is signaling me out @ every change he gets [] I just want him to stop.” (Id.) Plaintiff does not deny that he failed to enter his labor into the database, or that he violated company policy. Plaintiff does not provide any evidence that his supervisor was aware of the December 3 hotline complaint.

         In January 2015, Michael Littleton, a production supervisor at Kaydon, sent an email to Howard Sewell, the operations leader at Kaydon, in which Mr. Littleton discussed Plaintiff. (See Vessells Dep. 259; Mot. Summ. J. Mem. Supp. 11, ECF No. 27 (providing date for email).)

         According to this email, Mr. Littleton had spoken with Plaintiff, who “admitted to struggling with the job.” (Vessells Dep. 259:11-12.) Mr. Littleton wrote that Plaintiff had requested a new micrometer and that he would “pursue that.” (Id. 259:15-16.) When Plaintiff was asked if he remembered having “this conversation, ” Plaintiff responded “Yes, of course.” (Id. 259:21.) It is unclear if he remembered having a conversation about his struggles at work, or a conversation about receiving a new micrometer.

         In April 2015, Plaintiff requested a transfer to a different position but the request was denied. It is undisputed that he was denied the transfer because he applied too late. (See Dep. Tracey Rogers 87:14-88:21, ECF No. 31-7 (“Rogers Dep.”).) In May 2015, Plaintiff applied for a promotion. It is undisputed that the position Plaintiff applied for was retracted. (Request for Promotion, ECF No. 31-19.) Plaintiff also admitted in his application that he had no experience in the position. (Id.)

         Plaintiff took leave at the end of May 2015 and after returning to work, Plaintiff was given a written warning on June 25. (Vessells Dep. 383:15-18; Written Warning, ECF No. 31-20.) The warning stated that Plaintiff had produced incorrectly sized rings on three jobs, resulting in $5, 382.35 worth of scrap material. (Id.) Plaintiff wrote on the warning that he did not “agree with this write up at all, ” but it remains unclear what aspects of it he actually disputes, if any.

         A careful review of the evidence presented suggests that Plaintiff does not dispute the underlying facts set forth in this warning. The day after Plaintiff received this warning, he filed a grievance with his Union. (Grievance, ECF No. 31-21.) Plaintiff wrote: “I'm being singled out, harassed for work that is not unsellable these parts can be saved. I ran these 3 jobs before to specification but I was told before since they get Chrome on it to not scrap them just separate and let go per: Charles Garafolo.” (Id.) This grievance makes clear that Plaintiff felt at the time that he was being unfairly disciplined, but his grievance does not clearly refute the charges of the June 25 written warning. Perhaps by writing “I ran these 3 jobs to specification, ” Plaintiff meant that he ran them according to the instructions he was given, which would mean the written warning was baseless. But Plaintiff wrote he “was told . . . to not scrap them.” This suggests that there was something wrong with the rings but that the defect did not matter (why would he have to be told not to scrap rings that were not defective?). Plaintiff does not argue in his opposition that any of the substance of the June 25 warning is incorrect. He does not argue that he performed the jobs correctly or that the cost of the errors was incorrect. He does not deny any of the substance of the warning in his declaration, does not appear to have denied them in his deposition, [5] and does not present the Court with any other evidence that this warning was substantively incorrect in any detail, aside from his handwritten note stating that he does not “agree with [it] at all.” Ultimately then, it is undisputed that Plaintiff made incorrectly sized rings on those jobs and they had to be scrapped, although the significance of that error may be disputed (was it an error requiring discipline, or was Plaintiff “singled out” for a mistake that had no real consequence?).

         The day after Plaintiff filed his grievance regarding the written warning, Plaintiff was issued a final warning with 3 days suspension. (Final Warning, ECF No. 31-22.) This warning stated that on June 24, 2015, Plaintiff performed a job and 100% of the product produced was unusable, resulting in $8, 521 in scrap. (Id. at 2.) “Subsequent investigations” resulted in the discovery of another incorrectly run job. (Id.) “This [was] the 4th incident and total scrap amount [was] approximately $13903.25 [sic] . . . in the past month of unacceptable work quality.” (Id.) Plaintiff does not dispute the substance of this warning. He does not present evidence that its issuer was aware of his grievance.

         In early July 2015, Plaintiff again called the employee hotline to report harassment. (KF-2015-7-11-Discrimination or Harassment, ECF No. 31-23.) According to the report, Plaintiff named Charles Garafolo as his harasser, but did so only because Mr. Garafolo was the “person that signs his write ups.” (Id.) According to the report, “[Plaintiff] stated that he was upset by the suspension [that accompanied his final warning] and that's why he called the hotline.” (Id.) Plaintiff does not dispute that he said this in his hotline complaint.

         On July 22, 2015, Plaintiff again requested a transfer and was again denied. (Transfer Request, ECF No. 31-24.) The reason stated was: “ineligible to bid due to disciplinary actions.” (Id.) Plaintiff does not dispute that he was ineligible to bid due to disciplinary actions. The same day, July 22, Plaintiff's supervisors discussed in an email Plaintiff's low productivity: Plaintiff had worked on 131 pieces in a seven hour period, when he should have worked on 425 pieces in that time. (See Vessells Dep. 309:4-15.) Plaintiff does not dispute his low productivity. When asked about it in his deposition, he responded “[a]t th[at] point they [were] lucky I [was] still moving because I [was] so sick of what [was] happening to me.” (Id. 309:14-15.)

         On August 16, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging discrimination based on his race, disability, [6] and his participation in protected activities. (Charge of Discrimination, ECF No. 31-25.)

         On September 17, 2015, Plaintiff was suspended for work quality. (See Suspension, ECF No. 31-26.)[7] According to the notice of the suspension, Plaintiff ran 39 pieces during a shift and 20 pieces “were found to be scrapped for low width . . . . a scrap rate of more than 50% [which] is unacceptable.” (Suspension at 2.) Plaintiff alleged much about this job in his complaint. (See Compl. ¶¶ 48-54, 57-64.) For example, he alleged that the rings provided for the job (i.e., the raw materials) were “defective, ” that his supervisor noted this problem in a “Job Operation Listing, ” that he screened out certain rings according to explicit instructions, that after he was confronted about the problems with the job he tried to present the notes from his supervisor but was “dismissed from the meeting.” (Id.) But Plaintiff has presented the Court with no evidence to support any of these allegations.[8] So, from the Court's vantage point, it is undisputed that Plaintiff performed poor work resulting in over 50% of the product being scrapped on August 13, 2015. It is also undisputed that in the notice of suspension Plaintiff was warned that he “must comply with set procedures and policies for set up, operation, and inspection of his own work on side grind operation, necessary to ensure that defective parts are not generated and allowed to pass forward.”

         On December 16, 2015, Defendant fired Plaintiff. (Notice of Termination, ECF No. 31-29.) The termination notice stated that Plaintiff had incorrectly reported the amount of scrap generated on a particular job. He had reported only 2 scrap parts and 74 “good parts” but there were actually 46 scrap parts and only 43 “good parts, ” a scrap rate of over 50%. (Id.) Plaintiff does not dispute that he generated that amount of scrap for that job, or that he reported a different amount of scrap.

         Mr. Sewell was the manager who signed Plaintiff's termination. (See Id. at 2.) Mr. Sewell was “the decision-maker with respect to [Plaintiff's] termination.” (See Sewell Dep. 112:9-11.) Mr. Sewell was unaware of Plaintiff's previous complaints of discrimination when he made the decision to terminate Plaintiff. (Id. 112:12-21.) Plaintiff does not dispute that Mr. Sewell made the ...


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