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Harden v. Omnisource Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

May 4, 2017

GEORGE HARDEN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
OMNISOURCE CORPORATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT L. MILLER, JR., United States District Court Judge

         George Harden sues his former employer, OmniSource, for discriminating against him on the basis of his race or color, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. OmniSource moved for summary judgment and the court grants OmniSource's motion.

         I. Background

         Mr. Harden, an African-American, worked for OmniSource as a “grader.” He was transferred to work indoors in the company's nonferrous division, where he assisted customers in loading and unloading materials.

         While in that position for about a year, Justin Young, another OmniSource employee, showed Mr. Harden a post on the fantasy football website in which OmniSource employees participated. The post was from John Lauer, Mr. Harden's supervisor, who referred to Mr. Harden as “the nigger” who makes the carrot cake. Mr. Harden brought this post to the attention of Scott Saunders, an even higher supervisor.

         Mr. Saunders had Mr. Harden transferred to an outdoors position in the ferrous division, where Mr. Harden continued to assist customers in loading and unloading their vehicles. According to Mr. Harden, Mr. Saunders transferred him because he “didn't get along with guys inside.” In his earlier position, Mr. Harden had also received disciplinary warnings involving altercations with coworkers. About six months after the transfer, OmniSource terminated Mr. Harden's employment; Mr. Harden alleges it did so because of his race or color, or in retaliation for raising the derogatory comment with his supervisor, Mr. Saunders.

         During the last three months of Mr. Harden's job at OmniSource, he received four different written warnings from his supervisor, Mr. Saunders. On January 12, 2015, Mr. Saunders warned Mr. Harden in writing for not having a customer sign a hold harmless agreement before unloading materials from the customer's vehicle. According to the warning, Mr. Harden had been reminded of this requirement “countless times before.” Mr. Harden said he had been told previously about the requirement to have the customer sign a hold harmless agreement. When Mr. Harden was unloading materials from the customer's trailer, a piece of metal broke the customer's taillight.

         The parties dispute how employees are expected to know of the requirement to obtain a hold harmless agreement. OmniSource says that this requirement was included in employee training and that Mr. Saunders explained the requirement to Mr. Harden. Mr. Harden doesn't seem to dispute the latter, but claims that the requirement wasn't in writing. Regardless, both parties acknowledge that Mr. Harden knew of this requirement.

         On February 16, 2015, Mr. Saunders warned Mr. Harden for not completing daily inspection reports and for not maintaining enough distance from crane operators while the crane was in use. Employees aren't supposed to be within 25 feet of a crane while it's in magnetized mode. Mr. Saunders gave Mr. Harden a written warning that listed “Grader Expectations, ” including “[f]ill[ing] out twice daily inspection reports.” The warning says that the graders were trained in these procedures during the previous week. Mr. Harden says he was still in training during the incident.

         Mr. Harden also says he was expected to stay with the customer during unloading, but that if he stayed with the customer, he would have to be within the 25-foot safety zone. OmniSource says that it's not a problem for an employee to be within 25 feet of the crane while with a customer, because the operator would know of the employee's location and not be in the operator's blind spot. Mr. Harden applies the same reasoning to the ‘warming hut' in which graders sometimes stand. He says that the warming hut is within 25 feet of the crane, so standing in the hut would always violate the rule. OmniSource responds that the hut is about 50 feet from the crane, and even if it weren't, the hut would be visible to the crane operator.

         On February 26, 2015, Mr. Saunders warned Mr. Harden in writing and suspended him for three days for violating a cardinal safety rule. The warning said he “intentionally entered into the blind spot of a running material handler.” It also explained that this requirement is in Mr. Harden's safety handbook, which he signed, and that Mr. Saunders and Mr. Harden have had numerous discussions about work performance and safety. Mr. Harden agrees that he was within 25 feet of the crane without having made eye contact with the crane operator to ensure that he could move safely through the area. Mr. Harden says he was leaving the facility at the time and the crane moved into his vicinity.

         Last, on April 28, 2015, Mr. Saunders gave Mr. Harden a written warning saying that Mr. Harden didn't stay with a customer while unloading, as required. The customer asked if he could unload a filing cabinet using the crane. Mr. Harden and the crane operator didn't have the customer sign a hold harmless agreement. While unloading, the file cabinet fell off the crane and damaged the customer's taillight. Mr. Saunders said that during the previous week, he specifically discussed the hold harmless policy with Mr. Harden, and that he wouldn't tolerate Mr. Harden continuing to violate that policy. Mr. Saunders then terminated Mr. Harden's employment.[1]

         Mr. Harden alleges that he was scrutinized more closely than his coworkers because of his race or color. Jason Jensen, a white crane operator and grader, broke the rear window of a customer's vehicle without having the customer sign a hold harmless agreement. According to OmniSource, Mr. Jensen received a written warning, but Mr. Harden says Mr. Jensen wasn't disciplined.[2]Johnell Hogue, the African-American crane operator during the April 2015 incident, also didn't have the customer sign a hold harmless agreement. Mr. Harden claims Mr. Hogue wasn't disciplined for this.[3] OmniSource says he received a written warning. About a month before Mr. Harden's termination, Jonathan Hostetler, a white grader, [4] was also terminated for safety violations. Mr. Harden also maintains that he filled out daily inspection reports as required, but that graders who didn't, such as Mr. Hogue and Allen Underwood, also an African American, received no discipline. Mr. Harden maintains that Mr. Underwood also damaged the taillight of a truck and wasn't disciplined.

         Mr. Harden filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. He then brought his Title VII action in state ...


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