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Brown v. Railroad Group Limited Liability Co.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 2, 2018

JESSE BROWN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
RAILROAD GROUP LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY, et al., Defendants.

          CAROLINE HOPE MILLER SAMUEL CORDRAY WILSON DEREK SMITH LAW GROUP PLLC On behalf of Plaintiff

          JOSEPH G. ANTINORI BROWN & CONNERY, LLP On behalf of Defendants

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter concerns Plaintiff's claims of race discrimination and retaliation by his employer. Presently before the Court is the motion of Defendants for summary judgment. For the reasons expressed below, Defendants' motion will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, Jesse Brown, Jr., is an African-American male who began working for Defendants, collectively hereinafter “Railway Construction” or “Defendant, ”[1] as a laborer in April 2010. Plaintiff alleges that during his time at Railway Construction, he was discriminated and retaliated against because of his race, Defendant did not address any of his complaints, and due to the hostile work environment, he was forced to quit at the end of May 2014.

         Four events serve the basis for Plaintiff's claims: (1) between May 2013 and April 2014 Plaintiff claims he was drug tested a disproportionate number of times as compared to white employees, and Defendant did not properly investigate his complaint about the practice; (2) Defendant gave Plaintiff a verbal warning about his attendance, which Plaintiff claims was humiliating because they did it in front of co-workers; (3) Plaintiff discovered a noose in the bolt trailer he was directed to organize, and Plaintiff claims that Defendant did not properly investigate; and (4) two weeks after the noose incident, Plaintiff was involved in an altercation with a white co-worker, who punched Plaintiff in the face and was terminated from employment, but that white employee was rehired two months later, which Plaintiff claims evidences Defendant's discriminatory animus and caused his constructive discharge.

         Plaintiff has brought claims pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as codified, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (amended in 1972, 1978 and by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Pub. L. No. 102-166 (“Title VII”)), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.[2]Defendant has moved for summary judgment in its favor on all of Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff has opposed Defendant's motion.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that the materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, or interrogatory answers, demonstrate that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         An issue is “genuine” if it is supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party's evidence “is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Marino v. Industrial Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004)(quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).

         Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. A party opposing summary judgment must do more than just rest upon mere allegations, general denials, or vague statements. Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).

         C. Analysis

         Plaintiff's complaint presents three types of Title VII[3]claims: discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment.[4] With regard to his discrimination claim, in order to state a valid claim for disparate treatment on the basis of race, Plaintiff must show: (1) he belongs to a protected class; (2) he suffered some form of adverse employment action; and (3) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Barnett v. New Jersey Transit Corp., 573 Fed.Appx. 239, 243 (3d Cir. 2014) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973)) (other citations omitted). An adverse or “tangible” employment action is “‘a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.'” Id. (quoting Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761, (1998)).

         As to Plaintiff's retaliation claim, to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII, Plaintiff must show that: (1) he engaged in activity protected by Title VII; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against him; and (3) there was a causal connection between his participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment action. Moore v. City of Philadelphia, 461 F.3d 331, 340-41 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).

         For Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim, “whether an environment is ‘hostile' or ‘abusive' is determined only by looking at all the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.” In re Tribune Media Company, ___F.3d ___, 2018 WL 4212086, at *9-10 (3d Cir. Sept. 5, 2018) (citation and alterations omitted). To prevail on a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must show (1) the employee suffered intentional discrimination because of his race, (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive, (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected the plaintiff, (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances, and, for the employer defendant, (5) the existence of respondeat superior liability . . . .” Id. (citations omitted).

         If a prima facie case is established for each of these claims, the burden of production shifts to the employer to present a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Parker v. Secretary United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 676 Fed.Appx. 101, 104 (3d Cir. 2017) (citing Daniels v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 776 F.3d 181, 193 (3d Cir. 2015)). This is a “relatively light burden.” In re Tribune, 2018 WL 421086 at *12 (citation omitted).

         If such a reason is offered, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the reason was merely pretext and that discrimination was the real reason for the adverse employment action. Parker, 676 Fed.Appx. at 104 (citing Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 765 (3d Cir. 1994) (“[T]he non-moving plaintiff must demonstrate such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer's proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them ‘unworthy of credence.'”)). Although the burden of production shifts, “the plaintiff has the ultimate burden of persuasion at all times.” Id. (citing Daniels, 776 at 193).[5]

         In this case, even accepting that Plaintiff has established his prima facie case for each of his three claims, Plaintiff has not demonstrated the existence of material disputed facts to cast doubt on Defendant's proffered legitimate reasons for its actions.

         First, with regard to Plaintiff's contention that he was drug tested more times than white employees and Defendant did not properly investigate his complaint, both of which evidence Defendant's racial bias toward him, the undisputed facts do not support Plaintiff's claim. According to Defendant's policy, as well as the policies of the companies Defendant performed work for, such as SEPTA, employees were subject to annual, random, and job-specific drug tests. Random drug tests were performed once a month.

         During the time period Plaintiff claims he was tested disproportionately to white employees - May 2013 through April 2014 - Plaintiff was tested seven times:

• 05/16/13 - PATCO training/annual ...

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