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Miller v. Polaris Laboratories, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

February 21, 2014

CHONTEL M. MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
POLARIS LABORATORIES, LLC, Defendant.

ENTRY ON SUMMARY JUDGMENT

TANYA WALTON PRATT, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Defendant POLARIS Laboratories, LLC's ("POLARIS") Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 94). Plaintiff Chontel M. Miller ("Ms. Miller") was an employee of POLARIS and alleges it terminated her because of her race in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended ("Title VII") and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("§ 1981"). She further alleges POLARIS retaliated against her for complaining about racial discrimination. For the reasons set forth below, POLARIS' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 94) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court deems the following facts undisputed, and considers these facts in the light most favorable to Ms. Miller, the non-moving party. POLARIS is a company which processes and analyzes lubricants, oils, coolants, and other fluids. It is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, and has several other locations throughout the United States, Canada and Guatemala. Ms. Miller, an African-American, was hired by POLARIS on August 17, 2009, into a data-entry position as a Sample Processing Technician ("Sample Processor"). A Sample Processor was required to quickly and accurately log information from samples received by customers into a computer database. At the time of her hire, Ms. Miller was the only African-American in her department. Her direct supervisor was Rhonda Ballard ("Ms. Ballard"), who was also a Sample Processor. Debbie New ("Ms. New") was Ms. Ballard's direct supervisor and the Manager of the Sample Processing Department. Other sample processors during Ms. Miller's employment included Amanda Saperstein ("Ms. Saperstein"), Bobbie Jo Young ("Ms. Young"), Adam Zimmerman, Gina Kemp ("Ms. Kemp"), and Kristi Reed. Sharon Holmes ("Ms. Holmes") and Terry Shotts were also employed in the Sample Processing Department. Ms. Saperstein was hired on August 24, 2009-around the same time as Ms. Miller-and Ms. Young was also new to the position, having been hired on June 22, 2009.

A few weeks into Ms. Miller's employment, she complained to Ms. New that Ms. Ballard was not properly training her. Then, Ms. New began training Ms. Miller and Ms. Saperstein in a separate training room, away from the main department work area. Shortly thereafter, on September 18, 2009, a verbal altercation took place between Ms. Miller, Ms. Ballard, Ms. Kemp, and Ms. Holmes. The Court is unable to discern an exact version of events, but an exact version is not material to Ms. Miller's claims. In essence, the following took place: Ms. Saperstein told Ms. Miller that she overhead either Ms. Kemp or Ms. Ballard call Ms. Miller "the colored girl." Late in the day on September 18, 2009, the Sample Processors were waiting for Ms. Miller to finish her work so they could all go home. Ms. Miller was in the training room with Ms. Saperstein. Ms. Holmes checked in on Ms. Miller multiple times, but no one offered to help Ms. Miller. Ms. Miller became frustrated and shouted at Ms. Holmes, which drew Ms. Kemp and Ms. Ballard into the room. Ms. Miller accused Ms. Kemp and Ms. Ballard of calling her "the colored girl, " of being racist, prejudiced, and treating her differently. Ms. Kemp and Ms. Ballard denied the accusations, and Ms. Miller demanded to see a manager. Director of Laboratory Operations Joseph Culp ("Mr. Culp") was in his office, and Ms. Miller and Ms. Ballard went to see him. Ms. Miller told him that one of the Sample Processors' had referred to her as "the colored girl, " which Ms. Ballard denied. Mr. Culp referred the situation to Human Resources Manager Chad Ziegler ("Mr. Ziegler").

The following Monday, September 21, 2009, Mr. Ziegler began investigating the September 18, 2009 incident, which included Ms. Miller's complaint of being called "the colored girl" and the alleged racism of several Sample Processors. He met with and interviewed Ms. Miller. She told him she believed Ms. Ballard, Ms. Holmes, and Ms. Kemp were racist, and that Ms. Ballard or someone else called her "the colored girl." Mr. Ziegler interviewed each Sample Processor about the incident. Ms. Ballard and Ms. Kemp denied calling Ms. Miller "the colored girl" and denied treating Ms. Miller differently because of her race. None of the Sample Processors could recall who made the comment, though Ms. Saperstein confirmed the comment was made, that she heard it and told Ms. Miller. Mr. Ziegler and Ms. New met with Ms. Miller again on September 22, 2009. They advised her that the investigation could not confirm that the statement had been made and asked Ms. Miller what her preferred outcome was. Ms. Miller expressed her desire to be treated as one of the team. Mr. Ziegler also met with Ms. Ballard, Ms. Kemp, and Ms. Holmes. He informed them that discriminatory or negative treatment of another employee would not be tolerated. Mr. Ziegler considered the investigation closed. Ms. Miller testified that she was humiliated and felt "destroyed" by "the colored girl" reference. Dkt. 96-1 at 7.

Throughout the remainder of her employment, Ms. Miller often complained to Ms. New because she was treated as an outcast, given more difficult work, and her work was tampered with. On several occasions Ms. Miller caught Ms. Ballard altering her trays. For example, on one occasion Ms. Miller returned early from lunch and observed Ms. Ballard adding additional samples to Ms. Miller's trays. Ms. Miller told Ms. New she thought she was treated differently because she was "the colored girl." Ms. New did not follow up on Ms. Miller's complaints. Ms. Young also reported to Ms. New that she had witnessed Ms. Ballard and Ms. Kemp mixing up Ms. Miller's trays and giving Ms. Miller harder trays to learn on.

In the first four months on the job, Ms. Miller averaged 123 samples logged per day. She was given a quota of an average of 260 samples per day. Ms. New had discussions with Ms. Miller about her lack of speed, not hitting quota, and the need to get her production up to department expectation. In February 2010, Ms. Miller received her first performance evaluation. The official review stated that Ms. Miller "needs to average 260 samples per day for 2010. She will need to be averaging this goal by the end of March." Dkt. 96-2 at 18. By the end of March, Ms. Miller was logging an average of 189 samples per day, which was below the expectation. During the first week of April she logged 128, 160, 168, and 172 samples, also below the expectation. Dkt. 96-2 at 20. POLARIS then placed Ms. Miller on probation on April 7, 2010, stating that Ms. Miller "must speed up her logging and be at 260 samples per day average for the month of April." Dkt. 96-2 at 20. By April 29, 2010, Ms. Miller was averaging 184 samples per day, though on April 28, 2010 she logged 288 samples. As a result of Ms. Miller's failure to meet the 260 average daily quota, Ms. New recommended that Ms. Miller be terminated. Ms. New's recommendation was confirmed by Chief Operating Officer Mark Minges ("Mr. Minges") and Mr. Culp. Mr. Minges reviewed the production data and Ms. Miller's numbers before reaching the conclusion that termination was warranted for low productivity. On April 29, 2010, Ms. New and Mr. Ziegler met with Ms. Miller and told her she was terminated for failing to meet the 260 average daily quota.

Ms. Ballard worked at POLARIS for many years and employees frequently complained of poor treatment by Ms. Ballard, including that she was generally rude, belittling, and had poor interpersonal skills. She was counseled about the need for tact, being conscious of her tone, communications with employees, and conflict with another employee (not Ms. Miller). A common complaint was that Ms. Ballard played favorites. Additional facts will be discussed below, as necessary.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment is appropriate if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.Com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 489-90 (7th Cir. 2007). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court reviews "the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw[s] all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Zerante v. DeLuca, 555 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). However, "[a] party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial." Hemsworth, 476 F.3d at 490 (citation omitted). "In much the same way that a court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat a motion for summary judgment, nor is it permitted to conduct a paper trial on the merits of a claim." Ritchie v. Glidden Co., 242 F.3d 713, 723 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation and internal quotations omitted). Finally, "neither the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties nor the existence of some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts is sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment." Chiaramonte v. Fashion Bed Grp., Inc., 129 F.3d 391, 395 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations and internal quotations omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Ms. Miller's allegations relate to race discrimination and retaliation. As an initial matter, it is worth noting that Ms. Miller's discrimination and retaliation claims are brought under both Title VII and § 1981. From a practical standpoint, this is a distinction without a difference. These claims, although brought under different statutes, are functionally identical; therefore, the same analysis will apply. See O'Leary v. Accretive Health, Inc., 657 F.3d 625, 630 (7th Cir. 2011) (utilizing same analysis for § 1981 and Title VII); Montgomery v. Am. ...


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