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Luqmaan v. Volvo Group North America, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 26, 2015


For GLEN E. CONRAD, Plaintiff: Thomas Eugene Strelka, LEAD ATTORNEY, Linda Leigh Strelka, Strelka Law Office, Roanoke, VA.

For Volvo Group North America, LLC, Volvo Trucks North America, Inc., Defendants: Robert Patrick Floyd, III, William Joseph McMahon, IV, PRO HAC VICE, LEAD ATTORNEY, Constangy Brooks & Smith, LLP, Winston-Salem, NC.


Hon. GLEN E. CONRAD, Chief United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Hakim Luqmaan filed this employment discrimination action against Defendants Volvo Group North America, LLC and Volvo Trucks North America, Inc. (collectively, " Volvo" ), alleging that Volvo demoted him because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The case is presently before the court on Volvo's motion for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the court will grant that motion.

Factual and Procedural History

The following facts are either undisputed, or, where disputed, are presented in the light most favorable to Luqmaan. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

Luqmaan, an African-American man, was hired by Mack Trucks in 1987. He held a variety of positions in that company over the next several years. Luqmaan Dep. at 47-51, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. A, Docket No. 29-1. In or around 2003, Luqmaan transferred to Volvo's New River Valley (" NRV" ) facility in Dublin, Virginia, following the merger between Mack Trucks and Volvo. Id. At NRV, Luqmaan initially worked as a Quality Assurance Advisor, a position that was eventually retitled Senior Quality Engineer. Id.

At NRV, the Customer Option Center (" COC" ), also known as the New Vehicle Option Center, provides customers with the ability to customize their truck orders with options that are not part of the normal production process. Id. at 62. The COC " has existed [at NRV] in a variety of forms." Sutphin Decl. ¶ 2, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 2, Docket No. 29-2. Initially, the COC processed option orders, while actual physical modification of the trucks was outsourced to Fontaine Modification Company (" Fontaine" ), a company that is unaffiliated with Volvo but is located " literally right up the road from NRV." Id. Luqmaan first worked in the COC as a Senior Quality Engineer during this time period. Luqmaan Dep. at 53-54, 59-60, 215-16. His duties included quoting options for customers, keeping track of option orders in a database, ordering parts for option orders, creating financial reports, coordinating billing, and maintaining a cache of options order materials. Id. at 65-66. Volvo eventually dismantled this version of the COC. Id. At that time, Luqmaan bid for and obtained a position as a Senior Quality Engineer in the Quality Department at NRV. Id. at 67-68.

Volvo later introduced a " more formalized" version of the COC, which it modeled after the way Mack Trucks handled options at its facility in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Sutphin Decl. ¶ 2. Under this model, NRV employees performed the options work in-house, rather than outsourcing it to Fontaine. Luqmaan Dep. at 78-81. Luqmaan applied to work in the new COC in early 2011. Id. at 74-75. He was interviewed by Vic Sherbrick, a Volvo employee based out of Macungie. Id. at 75. Sherbrick hired Luqmaan as Manager of the COC in February 2011. Id. at 82-83. Thereafter, Luqmaan interviewed and hired Production Supervisor Scott Hetherington, his only direct report, who was responsible for the " day-to-day running of the business." Id. at 95-96. Luqmaan also interviewed candidates for a Business Analyst position; however, no one was hired to fill this role due to a hiring freeze implemented by Volvo. Id. at 89-90, 93-94. As COC Manager, Luqmaan's responsibilities included quoting prices to customers, keeping track of options orders in a database, preparing financial reports, and expanding the COC's business. Id. at 98-99. By 2012, the COC was formally incorporated into the NRV's organizational structure under the Customer Engineering Department. Id. at 107-108. Luqmaan reported to Steve Worrell, CE Group Manager, who in turn reported to Ivan Mitchell, the Director of Customer Engineering. Id. at 115-16.

The new COC faced challenges in its day-to-day business, including being short-staffed and struggling to be recognized and respected within the NRV hierarchy, which Luqmaan attributed to tension between the Mack Trucks and Volvo sides of the business. Id. at 105-106. These challenges resulted in manpower issues: Luqmaan had to " beg[] and borrow[] to get whatever help [he] could to get the trucks built" in the COC. Id. at 260. Even so, the COC still had to turn down some options work. Id. at 142; Sutphin Decl. ¶ 3. Nonetheless, the COC was profitable under Luqmaan's direction. Sutphin Dep. at 42, Pl.'s Br. in Opp. Ex. 11, Docket No. 35-11; LaFon Dep. at 10-11, Pl.'s Br. in Opp. Ex. 13, Docket No. 35-13. As COC Manager, Luqmaan worked twelve to thirteen hour days, as well as some weekends, without earning overtime. Luqmaan Dep. at 125.

NRV is a unionized facility whose bargaining unit employees are represented by the United Auto Workers (" UAW" ). Luqmaan Dep. at 135. Luqmaan is not represented by the union. Id. During his time as COC Manager, the UAW filed two grievances against Volvo, arguing that Luqmaan was performing work that should have been performed by bargaining unit employees. Id. The UAW was also worried that the COC was not growing as quickly as it should. Id. at 138-39. On January 11, 2013, the UAW expressed these " deep concerns" in a letter addressed to Lars Blomberg, then NRV's Vice President and General Manager. Id. Ex. 7; Sutphin Decl. ¶ 4. In this letter, the UAW commended Luqmaan, who in their view had " done a marvelous job with what resources he has been given." Luqmaan Dep. Ex. 7 at 1. The UAW also stated that they had " nothing but praise for what [Luqmaan] has done trying to make the COC become a relevant part of [NRV] business." Id. They went on to say, however, that the " engineering group is not the appropriate group to operate this COC," because that department had " done nothing to advance [the COC] from its inception." Id. Instead, the UAW recommended that the COC be led by the operations department, which they believed would " take a more proactive approach" to managing and expanding the COC. Id. Ivan Mitchell shared this letter with Luqmaan during a meeting about the COC. Id. at 139-140.

The UAW's letter prompted discussion of the COC at some NRV director-level staff meetings in January and February 2013. Sutphin Decl. ¶ 4; LaFon Dep. at 12-13. During this period, Blomberg placed Kirk Sutphin, NRV's Director of Quality, in charge of the COC. Id. Accordingly, Sutphin took on responsibility of COC in addition to his duties in the Quality Department. Id. Mitchell and Worrell, in turn, relinquished control of the COC and began to work solely in the Customer Engineering Department. Id. Blomberg then asked Sutphin to develop a proposal to reorganize and grow the COC within the Quality Department in response to the UAW's concerns. Id. at ¶ 5. Sutphin presented his proposal to the NRV's director-level staff during a staff meeting in February 2013. Id. The staff approved the proposal and its implementation. Id.

Sutphin's proposal " involved several moving pieces and personnel." Id. at ¶ 6. First, to eliminate the COC's manpower issues, Sutphin made the Operations Department responsible for actually executing the options work. Id. Sutphin therefore transferred Hetherington, the COC's Production Supervisor and Luqmaan's direct report, to a position on the main production line of the Operations Department. Id. In turn, Mike Aiken, an Operations Department employee, assumed a new role as Option Center Coordinator within the COC. Id. Unlike Hetherington, who had been focused on the actual execution of the options work, Aiken's job focused on developing instructions and procedures related to option installations. Id. Sutphin also created a new bargaining unit position, the Option Center Specialist, which was designed to address the UAW's concerns about its lack of representation within the COC. Id. at ¶ 7. Tony Royal, a bargaining unit employee, assumed this position. Id.

Sutphin also believed that " it made sense for the COC to start with a clean slate from a management standpoint." Id. at ¶ 8. Sutphin therefore eliminated Luqmaan's position of COC Manager, and reallocated his duties between two new positions. Id. Specifically, Bill Padden, a 40-year Volvo employee who had been directly reporting to Sutphin in the Quality Department and had been set to retire, agreed to continue working for Volvo as the COC's Chief Business Leader. Id. Padden's role " focused on marketing [Volvo's] options business" and " managing the overall workload of the department." Id. Padden earns a grade 11 salary on Volvo's pay scale. Id. Bo Dalton, who had been working in Volvo's Logistics Department, began working as the COC's Business Leader. Id. In that role, Dalton's responsibilities include " quoting options for customers, writing purchase orders, and receiving materials for options work." Id. He earns a grade 8 salary on Volvo's pay scale. Id. Dalton reports to Padden, who in turn reports to Sutphin. Id.

Sutphin also moved Luqmaan to a new position. Sutphin stated that he " had a specific need for [Luqmaan] in the Quality Department," because Shirley Fink, another NRV employee, was leaving a position as Senior Quality Engineer at that time. Id. at ¶ 9. Sutphin " knew that Luqmaan could do this job well, as he had previously worked under [Sutphin] as a Senior Quality Engineer and held this position immediately prior to becoming COC Manager." Id. In this position, Luqmaan's responsibilities include " understanding and collecting data on how the product is getting built in their specific assigned area and addressing issues, including defects and warranty claims, from a quality standpoint." Id. As a Senior Quality Engineer, Luqmaan earns a grade 8 salary on Volvo's pay scale. Id. at ¶ 8.

Sutphin told Luqmaan about his reassignment during a meeting in Mitchell's office on February 28, 2013. Id. at 10; Luqmaan Dep. at 158-62. According to Sutphin, he explained " that [Luqmaan's] transfer was part of the overall reorganization to help address the issues within the COC." Sutphin Decl. ¶ 8. Luqmaan, however, contends that he " was not told why he was removed" from his position as COC Manager. Luqmaan Dep. at 24-25. After this meeting, Sutphin emailed other director-level staff about Luqmaan's " agitated" reaction to his reassignment. Sutphin Decl. at ¶ 10, Ex. 6. In that email, Sutphin stated that he had explained to Luqmaan that his decision was based on Volvo's recommitment to the COC and the " need to refresh the organization." Pl.'s Br. in Opp. Ex. A. The following day, NRV announced the personnel changes associated with the COC reorganization, including Luqmaan's reassignment, via internal email. Sutphin Decl. ¶ 10, Ex. 7.

The parties dispute whether Luqmaan's reassignment constitutes a lateral transfer or a demotion. Volvo contends that " Luqmaan has only benefitted from his transfer." Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 10. Although Luqmaan's salary grade technically changed from a 9 to an 8 when he was reassigned, his base salary of $91,776 did not change. Luqmaan Dep. at 181. As a Senior Quality Engineer, Luqmaan is also eligible for overtime, which means he earns an average of $950 more per month now than before his reassignment. Id. at 181-182; Shiffner Decl. at ¶ 3, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4, Docket No. 29-4. Luqmaan also received a raise in 2014, bringing his base salary to $94,529. Shiffner Decl. at ¶ 5. According to Jerry Shiffner, NRV's Director of Human Resources, the Business Leader position in the COC, which is " the closest equivalent position to Luqmaan's former COC Manager position," is also a grade 8 on Volvo's pay scale. Id. at ¶ 4. Indeed, the current COC Business Leader, Bo Dalton, currently earns a lower base salary than Luqmaan. Id. at ¶ 5. Volvo also contends that Luqmaan has retained the same position in its overall corporate hierarchy, as reflected by NRV's organizational charts. Luqmaan Dep. at 298-302, Ex. 2. Volvo maintains that Luqmaan's " opportunities for advancement within Volvo [therefore] remain the same as they were prior to his transfer." Shiffner Decl. ¶ 6. Furthermore, Volvo asserts that Luqmaan's job security may be greater in his new position, because the future of the COC continues to be " in flux" at NRV. Sutphin Decl. ¶ 11.

Luqmaan, on the other hand, characterizes his reassignment as a demotion. Initially, he notes that his current position is the same one he held prior to being selected as COC Manager. Sutphin Dep. at 46. Luqmaan " no longer [has] people reporting to [him], and [] no longer [has] the responsibility of hiring, placing, or doing anything that came along with the role of being a [m]anager." Luqmaan Dep. at 164-65. Luqmaan found this demotion to be humiliating and embarrassing, particularly because he " was not told why we he was removed" and " there was nothing in [his] employee record" to suggest that he had been unsuccessful in managing and developing the COC. Id. According to Luqmaan, he " instantly" believed that his demotion was discriminatory in nature, because he " asked why [he] was being relieved [from his position] and that question was not answered." Id. at 177-78. Luqmaan also notes that " there [are] very few, if any, African-American managers in ...

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