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Renfroe v. IAC Greencastle, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

May 9, 2019

JEFFREY RENFROE, Plaintiff,
v.
IAC GREENCASTLE, LLC, Defendant.

          ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF NO. 50)

          JAMES R. SWEENEY II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         Defendant IAC Greencastle, LLC's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 50) is fully briefed and ripe for decision. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that the motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Jeffrey Renfroe alleges claims against Defendant IAC Greencastle, LLC (“Defendant” or “IAC”), for disparate treatment and a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”). (ECF No. 26 ¶ 25.) Specifically, Renfroe alleges that IAC (1) failed to stop Renfroe's co-workers from subjecting him to racially discriminatory and harassing comments; and (2) failed to enforce its workplace dress code, thus allowing Renfroe's co-workers to wear clothing depicting the Confederate flag. Renfroe alleges that this combination of harassing comments and Confederate flag clothing throughout his 3.5-year long employment at IAC created a hostile work environment. (ECF No. 26 ¶ 19-21.) Renfroe also seeks punitive damages because IAC failed to remedy the discriminatory comments and dress code violations despite Renfroe's repeated reports. (ECF No. 26 at 4.) The following facts are presented in a light most favorable to Renfroe, the non-moving party.

         A. IAC Employees Wear Clothing Depicting the Confederate Flag

         Renfroe worked as a continuous improvement specialist for IAC's automobile parts manufacturing plant from December 2013 until July 2017. (ECF No. 51-1 at 21; ECF No. 51-1 at 4-5.) Renfroe is African-American, and alleges that beginning in 2014, he experienced a hostile work environment in which his white co-workers frequently wore clothing and accessories displaying the Confederate flag and made racially degrading comments to him. (See ECF No. 67-1; ECF No. 51-1 at 83, 279:14-18.) Paula Miller was the Human Resource (“HR”) Manager at IAC until October 16, 2014. (See ECF No. 69-1 at 36.) Senior HR Generalist Kim Vickrey was in charge of the HR Department from October 17, 2014 to January 19, 2015, when Jeri King was hired. (See ECF No. 69-1 at 36-37.) Jeri King was the HR Manager from January 20, 2015 to April 22, 2015. (See ECF No. 69-1 at 38-39.) Vickrey was again in charge of the HR Department from April 23, 2015 to July 4, 2016, providing coverage until Rachel Pearson was hired. (See ECF No. 69-1 at 37-39.) Rachel Pearson was the HR Manager at IAC from July 5, 2016 until Renfroe's employment ended on July 14, 2017. (See ECF No. 69-1 at 39.) Although Vickrey did not occupy the HR Manager role throughout Renfroe's entire period of employment, Renfroe testifies that Vickrey was a constant HR figure at IAC who temporarily filled the HR Manager role anytime it became vacant during the course of Renfroe's employment. (See ECF No. 69-1 at 36-39.)

         IAC had an “anti-harassment” policy in place the whole time Renfroe was employed. (ECF No. 69-1 at 47, 81:9-15.) This policy directs employees to report incidents of harassment to the HR Manager or to the HR department generally. (ECF No. 69-1 at 47, 81:16-25.) In around February 2015 or March 2015, Renfroe lodged several complaints with Jeri King about employees wearing the Confederate flag. (See ECF No. 69-3 at 5.) Renfroe testified that during King's January 20, 2015 to April 22, 2015 term as HR Manager, he could “walk through the plant and find somebody wearing a Confederate flag on almost a daily basis.” (ECF No. 51-1 at 83.) Renfroe says that when his complaints to King were futile, he started taking pictures of these employees. (See ECF No. 69-3 at 5-6, 8, 11.) Renfroe took ten photos of co-workers wearing clothing depicting the Confederate flag, such photos being taken in September 2015, October 2015, December 2015, February 2016, March 2016, and August 2016. These photos show several white employees wearing Confederate flag shirts, hats, and bandanas. (See ECF No. 67-1.) In addition to the Confederate flag, some of these clothes displayed the following messages: (1) “[t]he flag may fade, but the glory never will” (ECF No. 67-1 at 25), and (2) “[c]areful with that flag son. Obamacare doesn't cover an a** whippin (sic).” (ECF No. 67-1 at 27.) In September 2015, Renfroe also photographed an employee's vehicle in the IAC parking lot that displayed a Confederate flag license plate. (ECF No. 67-1 at 2-3.)

         On November 28, 2016, Renfroe emailed Pearson a photograph of a co-worker wearing a Confederate flag shirt. (ECF No. 51-2 at 58.) Pearson testified that aside from this photo, she had not seen employees wearing Confederate flag clothing, even though she was “on the floor on a regular basis” policing for employees' general compliance with IAC's dress code and other policies. (ECF No. 51-3 at 14, 44:6-10; ECF No. 51-3 at 14, 44:12-22.) Pearson investigated Renfroe's complaint and disciplined the culpable employee by removing the employee from her job post, requiring her to change into a work-appropriate shirt, and assessing the employee a written discipline referral. (ECF No. 51-4 at 3-4.) In contrast to Pearson's testimony that she had never seen employees wearing Confederate flag attire in her “regular” rounds of the plant floor, a former plant supervisor, Larry Ashley, testified that he “routinely” saw such inappropriate dress on the plant floor during the last year of his employment at IAC, which ended in March 2017. (ECF No. 67-4 at 2.)

         Following this November 2016 incident, IAC implemented respectful workplace training and required all employees to attend. (ECF No. 51-3 at 12.) Pearson also asked Renfroe to report any future instances of inappropriate clothing so that Pearson could take remedial action. (ECF No. 51-3 at 14, 44:8-12.) Pearson then followed-up with the HR department, Renfroe's supervisors, and other plant staff to learn whether anyone else had seen employees wearing clothes displaying the Confederate flag at work, and no one had. (ECF No. 51-3 at 14.) In addition, the HR department emailed IAC's dress code to employees in May 2015, June 2016, and June 2017 to remind employees of appropriate workplace attire. (ECF No. 51-4 at 5-7.) The IAC dress code prohibited employees from wearing “clothing with offensive words, terms, logos, pictures, cartoons or slogans” and advised employees that “[o]ther inappropriate wear [would] be addressed on a case-by-case basis.” (ECF No. 67-3 at 1-3).

         B. Renfroe is Subjected to Racially Insensitive Comments by Co-Workers

         In addition to Renfroe's co-workers' wearing Confederate flag clothing, they allegedly subjected Renfroe to racially discriminatory comments on a handful of occasions. During a December 2014 safety team meeting, one of Renfroe's white co-workers used a racial slur in front of Renfroe, stating that the safety team could “[n****r]-rig” a repair, describing a poor method of fixing a maintenance issue. (ECF No. 68 at 3; ECF No. 51-1 at 27.) Renfroe left this meeting and went to IAC's HR Department to report this incident, but no one from HR was available. (ECF No. 51-1 at 29.) Later that day, the offending employee jokingly asked Renfroe if he had “hear[d] what [the offending employee] said” earlier. (ECF No. 51-1 at 28, 118:16-19.) Renfroe later reported this incident to Vickrey, who instructed the offending employee to apologize to Renfroe. (ECF No. 51-1 at 31.)

         In September 2015, an IAC employee referred to Renfroe as the “rich monkey who drives the Mercedes.” (ECF No. 69-2 at 164; ECF No. 67-1 at 1.) Renfroe did not report this incident to IAC's HR department because Renfroe did not like the way IAC handled his discrimination complaints in the past. (ECF No. 51-1 at 35, 164:12-25.) In around November or December 2015, another of Renfroe's white co-workers told Renfroe that “black lives don't matter . . . in Greencastle.” (ECF No. 51-1 at 39.) Renfroe attempted to verbally report this comment to King, but she acted like she was in too much of a hurry to listen to this complaint. (ECF No. 51-1 at 39.) In addition, another of Renfroe's co-workers told Renfroe that “[w]e're about to have our first black president . . . . [President Barack Obama] may not make it because he might get hung . . .”[1] (ECF No. 51-1 at 36.) That same employee also asked Renfroe if black people are required to complete more engineering schooling than white people, because “you guys are . . . dumber than every other race.” (ECF No. 51-1 at 36.)

         In December 2016, some of Renfroe's co-workers took to a union-employee Facebook group to discuss Renfroe's reports of racial discrimination; namely, that his co-workers had been wearing Confederate flag clothing. (ECF No. 67-1 at 29-32.) One employee in this group posted a warning to the other members of the group, advising “anyone who speaks with Jeff Renfroe . . . to be cautious. He has filed multiple complaints against [IAC employees] in the past few months.” (ECF No. 51-2 at 60-63.) Another union-employee posted a comment in the Facebook group that “[Renfroe is] causing trouble[, ] but his job won't be downsized [be]cause he's gonna play the race card[.] . . . [H]e's in for a fight because he picked on the wrong one this time.” (ECF No. 67-1 at 31.) Renfroe was not a member of this Facebook group and only learned of the messages because several IAC employees showed him the posts. (ECF No. 51-1 at 72.) Renfroe took screenshots of these Facebook posts and showed them to Pearson. (ECF No. 51-3 at 26-27.) Pearson then shared images of these posts with IAC's plant manager and HR director. The next day, Pearson held a meeting with union committee members to discuss the inappropriate nature of the Facebook posts. (ECF No. 51-3 at 30, 68:3-15.)

         Sometime prior to April 22, 2016, another of Renfroe's white co-workers stated that it takes black people longer to complete educational degrees than white people because “black people are too busy killing each other.” (ECF No. 51-1 at 44.) On November 21, 2016, as Renfroe was on his way to an IAC pot luck lunch, he encountered several IAC employees who were bringing food to the luncheon. Renfroe asked these employees what food they were carrying, and one white employee laughed and responded, “this ain't no chicken, greens and watermelon.” (ECF No. 51-1 at 68.) Renfroe sent an email report of this incident to Pearson. (ECF No. 51-2 at 51.) Pearson was out of the office at the time of Renfroe's email, but Kim Vickrey started the initial investigation of Renfroe's complaint while Pearson was away. (ECF No. 51-3 at 11.) Upon Pearson's return, she continued Vickrey's investigation and disciplined the employee who made the comment, assessing the employee a two-day suspension and issuing the employee a formal referral to the Employee Assistance program for “sensitivity and harassment law” training. (ECF No. 51-3 at 12; ECF No. 51-4 at 1-3.)

         Renfroe filed an EEOC Charge of Discrimination on February 6, 2017, alleging against IAC race discrimination, harassment, and a hostile work environment due to IAC's failure to stop the harassing comments and acts of Renfroe's co-workers. (ECF No. 51-2.) Renfroe testified that as a result of his co-workers' harassment, he “experienced severe emotional distress and stress, ” “[o]ften times . . . dreaded going to work because [he] expected the worst every workday, ” and was “paranoid of when the next harassing incident would occur.” (ECF No. 67-5 at 1.) Renfroe also alleged in his EEOC Charge that IAC subjected him to disparate treatment. (ECF No. 51-2.) In July 2017, Renfroe resigned from IAC. (ECF No. 51-1 at 4-5.)

         II. Legal Standard

         A motion for summary judgment asks the Court to find that a trial is unnecessary because there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and, instead, the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Rule 56 makes clear that whether a party asserts that a fact is undisputed or genuinely disputed, the party must support the asserted fact by citing to particular parts of the record, including depositions, documents, or affidavits. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). Affidavits or declarations must be made on personal knowledge, set out facts that would be admissible in evidence, and show that the affiant is competent to testify on matters stated. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4). Failure to properly support a fact in opposition to a movant's factual assertion can result in the Court considering the movant's fact undisputed, and potentially showing the movant is entitled to the grant of summary judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court need only consider disputed facts that are material to the decision. A disputed fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Hampton v. Ford Motor Co., 561 F.3d 709, 713 (7th Cir. 2009). On summary judgment, a party must show the Court what evidence it has that would convince a trier of fact to accept its version of the events. Johnson v. Cambridge Indus., 325 F.3d 892, 901 (7th Cir. 2003). The moving party is entitled to summary judgment if no reasonable factfinder could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 875 (7th Cir. 2009). The Court views the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Darst v. Interstate Brands Corp., 512 F.3d 903, 907 (7th Cir. 2008). It cannot weigh evidence or make credibility determinations on summary judgment because those tasks are ...


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