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Gist v. Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 19, 2014

JAMES GIST, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BURLINGTON COAT FACTORY WAREHOUSE CORP., et al., Defendants.

KARPF, KARPF & CERUTTI, P.C., By: Ari R. Karpf, Esq., Katie A. Pilgren-Beatty, Esq., Bensalem, Pennsylvania, Counsel for Plaintiff.

EDWARD WILDMAN PALMER, LLP, By: Marcy A. Gilroy, Esq., Morristown, New Jersey, Counsel for Defendants.

OPINION

JOSEPH E. IRENAS, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff James Gist brings claims against Defendants Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. and Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse of Edgewater Park Urban Renewal Corp. ("Burlington"), [1] and Joseph Guthrie ("Guthrie") for violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq. [2] Pending before the Court is the Defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, this motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I.

The Court recites those facts relevant to deciding the pending motion for summary judgment and resolves any disputed facts or inferences in favor of Plaintiff, the nonmoving party.

Plaintiff, an African-American male, started working at Burlington on or about July 18, 2011. (S.M.D.F. ¶ 1; A.S.U.M.F.[3] ¶ 1) Plaintiff initially worked in the shipping department, where he quickly received a raise and advanced to a clerical position. (James Gist Dep. at 27:19-29:22, Oct. 17, 2013; A.S.U.M.F. ¶ 1) Plaintiff subsequently applied for a mechanic position in Burlington's maintenance department, which Plaintiff obtained after interviewing with Guthrie, Defendant's maintenance manager. (Gist Dep. at 32:13-33:19; Joseph Guthrie Dep. at 8:2-8:14, Dec. 19, 2013)

While Plaintiff received positive performance reviews, Plaintiff also incurred disciplinary action during his employment with Burlington. (See, e.g., Performance Appraisal - 2011 Year End for James A Gist III, S.M.D.F. Ex. C; Emp. warning Report, June 13, 2012, S.M.D.F. Ex. D) On June 18, 2012, Plaintiff received a "verbal warning" for attendance infractions that occurred between January, 2012, and June, 2012. (Gist Dep. at 88:18-24, 90:9-15) On or about June 21, 2012 Plaintiff received a "final written warning" after he left work mid-shift for approximately one hour and forty-five minutes without clocking out or notifying a supervisor. (Gist Dep. at 100:19-102:2; Emp. Warning, June 21, 2012, S.M.D.F. Ex. E)

On July 31, 2012, two of Plaintiff's co-workers, C.J. Wyant ("Wyant") and Richard Clements ("Clements"), took photos of Plaintiff sleeping in the maintenance office. (Richard Clements Dep. at 17:20-18:9, Jan. 24, 2014) Wyant and Clements showed the photos to supervisor Robert Cuccorelli ("Cuccorelli"), who forwarded them to Guthrie. (Robert Cuccorelli Dep. at 17:19-18-4, 24:7-12, Jan. 24, 2013) As a result, on August 1, Guthrie and human resources manager Lori Kirkpatrick ("Kirkpatrick") met with Plaintiff to discuss the photos, and ultimately suspended Plaintiff for three days for sleeping during his shift.[4] (Gist Dep. at 128:13-129:12; Guthrie Dep. at 36:17-38:3; Lori Kirkpatrick Dep. at 20:17-21:4, Dec. 19, 2013) As the meeting ended, Guthrie walked Plaintiff out of the building to Plaintiff's car. (Gist Dep. at 151:23-152:6; Guthrie Dep. at 46:12-23; Kirkpatrick Dep. at 23:5-24) Upon exiting the building, Guthrie and Plaintiff exchanged words, though each disputes the details and substance of the conversation. (Gist Dep. at 152:1-153:6; Guthrie Dep. at 34:10-35:13, 53:23-54:9)

According to Guthrie, Plaintiff yelled at Guthrie, "dropping the F bomb left and right, saying you mother fucker, this is fucking bullshit, I am the best fucking worker you have here, " and that Gist "got in his car and... took off [through the parking lot]... at a high rate of speed." (Guthrie Dep. at 34:19-35:13) Plaintiff asserts that although he expressed disagreement with the decision to suspend him, he did not yell or use offensive language, nor did he say or do anything that Guthrie could have perceived as insubordinate or threatening. (Gist Dep. at 152:21-153:6, 154:17-155:10) According to Plaintiff, Guthrie may have heard a loud intake due to modifications of Plaintiff's car, but he could not have sped through the parking lot because speeding over the parking lot's speed bumps "would potentially destroy [Plaintiff's] car." (Gist Dep. at 155:11-156:12)

Following the exchange, Guthrie returned to Human Resources and verbally reported feeling threatened by Plaintiff's behavior and use of profanity. (Kirkpatrick Dep. at 24:1-10; A.S.U.M.F. ¶ 16) In recounting the confrontation, Guthrie explained that he was "very uncomfortable, " feared that Plaintiff might hit him, and told Kirkpatrick that he never wanted to escort disciplined employees off the property again. (Guthrie Dep. at 54:4-9)

As Plaintiff began serving his suspension, Guthrie left for his scheduled vacation on Friday, August 3. (Guthrie Dep. at 58:10-59:7; Guthrie Decl. ¶ 5) At the request of Kirkpatrick, Guthrie stopped in Human Resources before leaving for his vacation, where he dictated a statement to Kirkpatrick summarizing the reason and terms for Plaintiff's August 1 discipline. (Guthrie Decl. ¶ 6) Guthrie's statement, signed and dated August 1, explained the basis for Plaintiff's three-day suspension and the contents of their disciplinary meeting, but omitted any mention of the confrontation in the parking lot. (Id.)

Plaintiff returned to work on Tuesday, August 7, meeting first with Human Resources before returning to his job in the warehouse. (Gist Dep. at 156:24-158:8) In that meeting with Kurt Simmons ("Simmons"), [5] Plaintiff learned that Guthrie reported Plaintiff's alleged threatening behavior to Human Resources, and that Simmons intended to speak with Guthrie about the allegation upon Guthrie's return from vacation. (Gist Dep. at 158:21-159:6; Kirkpatrick Dep. at 27:20-28:18) Defendants claim, and Plaintiff denies, that Human Resources further informed Plaintiff during the meeting that his alleged threatening behavior could lead to further disciplinary action, including termination. (Gist Dep. at 159:7-13; Kurt Simmons Dep. at 32:12-33:1, 36:17-37:1, Dec. 19, 2013)

On Monday, August 13, Plaintiff witnessed an altercation in the warehouse between two co-workers. (A.S.U.M.F. ¶ 26) On that evening, Plaintiff worked alongside his African-American colleague Jeffrey Mitchell ("Mitchell"), as well as Wyant and Clements (both Caucasian). (Gist Dep. at 170:17-25) As the four set to work squeegeeing an area that had flooded, Mitchell remarked to Wyant and Clements that they should get back to work. (Jeffrey Mitchell Dep. at 90:14-16, Oct. 15, 2013) In response, Wyant said, "no, you get ...


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