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United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. AutoZone, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 20, 2017

United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
AutoZone, Inc., and AutoZoners, LLC, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued April 7, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 14 C 5579 - Amy J. St. Eve, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Kanne, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

          From 2008 to 2012, Kevin Stuckey worked as a sales manager for the auto-parts retailer AutoZone, Inc. During his four years with the company, Stuckey was transferred between Chicago-area stores several times. None of these transfers entailed any loss in pay, benefits, or job responsibilities. In July 2012 he was transferred again, this time from a store on Kedzie Avenue that serves a largely Hispanic clientele. This transfer, too, involved no reduction in his pay or responsibilities.

         Stuckey never reported for work at his new assignment. Instead he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing AutoZone of racial discrimination in violation of Title VII. Stuckey is black; he claimed that AutoZone transferred him out of the Kedzie location in an effort to make it a "predominantly Hispanic" store.

         The EEOC filed suit on Stuckey's behalf alleging that the transfer violated 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(2), an infrequently litigated provision in Title VII that makes it unlawful for an employer "to limit, segregate, or classify his employees ... in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." The district judge granted summary judgment for AutoZone, holding that the transfer was not an adverse employment action.

         The EEOC contests this conclusion, arguing that the statute doesn't require the claimant to prove that the challenged action adversely affected his employment opportunities or status. That reading cannot be squared with the plain statutory text. We affirm.

         I. Background

         Stuckey began working for AutoZone as a salesperson in January 2008 and was originally assigned to a store located at the intersection of Ogden Avenue and Pulaski Road in Chicago. He worked there for about eight months, received a raise, and then was transferred to the AutoZone store located at 4416 S. Kedzie Avenue at the same pay, benefits, and job responsibilities. He worked at the Kedzie store for about 18 months, received another raise, and was promoted to sales manager with a more substantial increase in pay and responsibilities. In May or June of 2010, he was transferred to another Chicago store and a few weeks later was transferred again. In May 2011 AutoZone returned Stuckey to the Kedzie store. None of these transfers entailed any reduction in his pay, benefits, or job responsibilities.

         The Kedzie store is located in an area largely populated by Hispanics, and the clientele at the store reflects the surrounding neighborhood. Robert Harris was AutoZone's district manager responsible for overseeing the Kedzie store (and about a dozen others). Harris is black; he is the decision-maker behind Stuckey's many transfers, including the one at the center of this case.

         When Stuckey returned to the Kedzie store in 2011, his immediate supervisor was Vernon Harrington, the store manager. Harrington is also black. It's undisputed that Stuckey and Harrington did not get along. But the parties disagree about whether Stuckey asked to be transferred out of the Kedzie store because of this discord. Harris and Harrington testified in their depositions that he did. Stuckey admitted only that he and Harrington did not get along well; he did not recall asking for a transfer.

         More specifically, Harrington testified that Stuckey was frustrated and wanted to transfer out of the Kedzie store because he couldn't communicate well with the customers. In fact, Harrington said that Stuckey was upset that he was not being transferred from the Kedzie store quickly enough. To expedite the matter, Harrington contacted Tina Cleveland, a human resources manager at AutoZone, to tell her that Stuckey wanted a transfer.

         In the meantime, Harrington contacted Harris to let him know that he'd had to discipline Stuckey a few times and that Stuckey didn't respond well. Apparently this was meant to move the transfer decision along. Harrington was under the impression that one of the reasons Stuckey could not be transferred right away was that attendance problems made him ...


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