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Roman Marblene Co., Inc. v. Baker

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 8, 2017

Roman Marblene Co., Inc., Appellant-Respondent,
v.
Reginald Baker, Appellee-Complainant

         Appeal from the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, Alpha Blackburn, Commissioner, Sheryl Edwards, Commissioner, Steven Ramos, Commissioner, Ahmed Young, Commissioner, Docket No. EMra10110533

          Attorney for Appellant Rosemary L. Borek Stephenson Morow & Semler Indianapolis, Indiana.

          Attorney for Appellee Michael C. Healy Staff Counsel Indiana Civil Rights Commission Indianapolis, Indiana.

          CRONE, JUDGE.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Roman Marblene Co, Inc. ("Roman Marblene"), appeals the decision of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission ("ICRC") in favor of Reginald Baker. Baker filed a complaint alleging that his former employer, Roman Marblene, discriminated against him on the basis of race. Following an evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), the ALJ entered a proposed order determining that Roman Marblene had not engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice. Baker objected to the proposed order, and the ICRC heard oral argument on the objections. Thereafter, the ICRC reversed the ALJ, entered a final order determining that Roman Marblene unlawfully discriminated against Baker, and awarded him damages for lost wages. On appeal, Roman Marblene contends that the ICRC's final order is invalid because the ICRC was without authority to reverse the ALJ's determination. Roman Marblene further asserts that the ICRC's order is void because it was issued outside the statutorily prescribed time period. Finding that Roman Marblene has not met its burden to establish the invalidity of the ICRC's final order, and concluding that the order is not void, we affirm.

         Fact and Procedural History

         [¶2] The facts most favorable to the ICRC's decision indicate that Roman Marblene is a small company located in Corydon that manufactures molded bathroom fixtures such as sinks, tubs, and showers. In 1999, company owner Bruce Hoese hired Baker, an African-American male. Baker's duties at Roman Marblene included: operating a gel-coat sprayer; setting up molds; installing hats on casted molds; removing casting for the molds; maintaining and repairing machinery; operating a forklift; and maintaining facilities equipment. In 2005, Roman Marblene was purchased by James Triantos.[1] After the purchase, Baker became the only African-American employee of the company. He was often subjected to racial slurs and harassment.

         [¶3] In December 2009, Baker was involved in an automobile accident and was placed under a doctor's care for one week due to an injured hand. That same week, the Roman Marblene plant was shut down for the holidays. The plant reopened on January 4, 2010. On that day, Baker had an appointment and went to see his physician. Triantos docked Baker one day's pay for failing to call in sick in advance. Baker was the first salaried employee to be treated this way for failing to call in advance.

         [¶4] Baker returned to work on January 5, and he was able to perform all of his work assignments. He is ambidextrous and performed his job using one hand. Baker's production supervisor, David Hunter, observed that Baker had no problems with his job duties, including operating the spray gun or lifting items weighing more than 100 pounds. Baker's coworkers, Michael Wiseman, Jason Lawalin, and Jamie Carney, also observed that, even after his injury, Baker had no difficulty performing his job. It is common practice and expected at Roman Marblene that coworkers help each other with tasks such as lifting when necessary.

         [¶5] On January 19, 2010, when Baker learned that Triantos had docked him one day's pay for failing to call in advance on January 4, Baker protested in writing to Triantos. Then, on January 21, 2010, Triantos came into the work area and asked Baker to change the head of the spray gun. Baker replied that he could not work on the spray gun because another employee, whom he was training, was using it at the time. Triantos claimed that Baker refused to perform the requested task due to a medical restriction, but several witnesses did not corroborate Triantos's version of events and instead corroborated Baker's version of events. Later that day, Triantos formally placed Baker on involuntary unpaid medical leave. Thereafter, Baker made frequent attempts to return to work. Triantos continually rejected Baker's attempts to return. At least four similarly situated Caucasian Roman Marblene employees with medical impairments were not treated in the same manner and not placed on involuntary medical leave.

         [¶6] On March 8, 2010, Baker filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging that Roman Marblene discriminated against him on the basis of race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint was transferred to and docketed by the ICRC on March 24, 2010.

         [¶7] Over the next several months, Baker went to Roman Marblene on several occasions to try to return to work. As of September 14, 2010, Baker returned to Roman Marblene with his physician's statement attesting to his ability to return to "regular duty" at work. Respondent's Ex. R. The statement did not list any medical restrictions. Nevertheless, Triantos continued to tell Baker that he was not "100 percent." Tr. Vol. 2 at 166. Triantos also objected to Baker using the back door to come into his office, although Caucasian employees used the back door without objection from Triantos. On October 12, 2010, Baker returned to the Roman Marblene plant for the final time in an effort to get his job back. This time he had a physician's statement that said he was 100 percent fit to return to work with a specific "No restrictions" notation. Respondent's Ex. T. Triantos refused to allow Baker to return and instead told Baker that he would need to see all of Baker's medical records. Following a verbal confrontation between Baker and Triantos, Triantos ordered Baker off the premises, effectively terminating his employment.

         [¶8] On July 22, 2011, the ICRC issued a determination of probable cause to believe that discriminatory practices occurred. A year later, after conducting discovery, Roman Marblene filed a motion for summary judgment. An ALJ held a hearing and issued an order granting summary judgment in favor of Roman Marblene.

         [¶9] Baker filed his objections to the summary judgment order, and, after a meeting on April 25, 2014, the ICRC issued an order remanding the case to the ALJ for a hearing on the merits.[2] The ALJ conducted a two-day evidentiary hearing on April 8 and 9, 2015. On March 4, 2016, the ALJ entered proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, determining that Baker failed to meet his burden to establish that Roman Marblene discriminated against him on the basis of race.

         [¶10] Baker filed his objections to the ALJ's proposed findings and conclusions on March 21, 2016. The ICRC heard oral argument on May 27, 2016, and thereafter, on December 19, 2016, issued findings of fact and conclusions of law determining that Baker met his burden of establishing that Roman Marblene discriminated against him on the basis of race. Specifically, the ICRC concluded in relevant part as follows:

7. Baker met his burden of establishing a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, [411 U.S. 792 (1973)], standard by demonstrating that: (1) he is a member of a protected class, a person with a disability; (2) he was qualified to hold the position in question; (3) he was able to and did perform the work at the standard set by the employer; (4) he was placed on involuntary medical leave by his employer; (5) he was denied the opportunity to return to work despite repeated requests; (6) he was effectively terminated from his employment; and (7) similarly situated Caucasian co-workers, having similar or worse impairments, were allowed to continue working there.
8. Roman Marblene met its burden of proffering a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision not to allow Baker to return to work; that being: (a) Baker's hand had not sufficiently healed; (b) Baker arguing with his employer forced his termination; and (c) co-workers were not similarly situated.
9. Baker has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the reasons proffered by Roman Marblene were pretextual and unworthy of ...

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