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Smith v. Be Printers Americas

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

August 29, 2017



          Michael F. Urbanski, Chief United States District Judge.

         In this case, plaintiff James Franklin Smith claims his former employer, Be Printers Americas ("Be Printers"), discriminated against him because of his Christian faith by demoting and later firing him. He also alleges that Be Printers created a hostile work environment, and retaliated against him for filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Before the court is Be Printers' motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 20. This matter has been fully briefed, and the court heard oral argument on June 28, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Be Printers' motion.


         For approximately twenty-five years, Smith worked as printing manager at Berryville Graphics, Inc., a subsidiary of Be Printers located in Berryville, Virginia. ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 5, 7. In November 2013, Smith was transferred to Coral Graphics, a separate facility also operating under the control of Be Printers. Id. ¶ 8. In February 2014, while on loan to Coral Graphics, Smith was promoted to Manufacturing Manager and given a $20, 000 pay increase. ECF No. 5, at 8. However, in August 2014, Be Printers returned Smith to Berryville Graphics, and restored his pay to its original level.[1] Id. ¶¶ 8, 9. Be Printers alleges that he was returned to Berryville Graphics pursuant to a review conducted by senior management designed to remedy poor performance at the Berryville Graphics facility. ECF No. 5, at 8.

         After Smith was returned to Berryville Graphics, Be Printers became aware that, while at Coral Graphics, Smith participated in the hiring of Adam Cullen. Id. Be Printers argues that Smith "materially deviated from [Be Printers'] employment policies, practices, and procedures, " by failing to "disclose Mr. Cullen's criminal record to senior management, set[ting] Mr. Cullen's starting rate of compensation higher than could be justified based on his demonstrable lack of experience, and assigning] Mr. Cullen to be supervised by his relative." Id. at 9. These actions "constitute serious violations of the 'Nepotism' policy, " "as well as the Conflict of Interest policy, " and "were inconsistent with the ethical requirements of Be Printers." IcL Smith, however, argues that he had only slight involvement in the Cullen hiring, which, in his telling, was primarily overseen by co-supervisor Robert Davis. ECF No. 26, at 4.

         In November 2014, Smith was informed by Mark Bone, his superior at Berryville Graphics, that his employment was terminated. ECF No. 1, ¶ 10. He was given two reasons: his role in the hiring of and setting of the pay rate for Cullen, and his job performance at Coral Graphics. Id. Bone indicated that the decision was made by Mitchell Weiss, Be Printers' Vice President of Sales. Id. ¶ 11. Smith appealed Weiss's decision to Chief Executive Officer David Liess, to no avail. Id. ¶ 13. Smith's last day of employment was November 24, 2014. Id.

         Weiss, alleges Smith, had a history of "bias against the Christian faith and those who practice it." Id. ¶ 12. He told Smith, "I know you are a religious person, but that is not working, " and noted to Smith that he "ha[d] to watch what [he] sa[id] around you Christians because it will offend you." Id. He also linked Smith's Christianity to incompetence, stating, "I know you are a religious person, but that is not working, " and "[t]he reason you guys can't do your jobs is that you are churchgoers." Id. (brackets in original).

         Smith filed his EEOC complaint on September 4, 2015, alleging that he was "discriminated against due to [his] religion (Christian), and retaliated against, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended." See ECF No. 20-16. Though he alleged discriminatory acts running from July 2014 to November 24, 2014, he declined to specify his discriminatory treatment as a "continuing action." Id. Smith now claims, for the first time, that Liess planned to rehire him, only to decline after he learned of Smith's EEOC complaint. ECF No. 26, at 1-2. Smith filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia on June 16, 2016, and the case was transferred by the consent of the parties to this court on September 7, 2016. ECF No. 8.


         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court must "grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett. 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Glynn v. EDO Corp.. 710 F.3d 209, 213 (4th Cir. 2013). When making this determination, the court should consider "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with. . . [any] affidavits" filed by the parties. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Whether a fact is material depends on the relevant substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id. (citation omitted). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex. 477 U.S. at 323. If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.. 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).

         In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court views the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Glynn. 710 F.3d at 213 (citing Bonds v. Leavitt. 629 F.3d 369, 380 (4th Cir. 2011)). Indeed, "[i]t is an 'axiom that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'" McAirlaids. Inc. v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., No. 13-2044, 2014 WL 2871492, at *1 (4th Cir. June 25, 2014) (internal alteration omitted) (citing Tolan v. Cotton. 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863 (2014) (per curiam)). Moreover, "[credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge . . . ." Anderson. 477 U.S. at 255. However, the non-moving party "must set forth specific facts that go beyond the 'mere existence of a scintilla of evidence.'" Glynn. 710 F.3d at 213 (quoting Anderson. 477 U.S. at 252). Instead, the non-moving party must show that "there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Res. Bankshares Corp. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co.. 407 F.3d 631, 635 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249). "In other words, to grant summary judgment the [c]ourt must determine that no reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party on the evidence before it." Moss v. Parks Corp., 985 F.2d 736, 738 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing Perini Corp. v. Perini Const. Inc.. 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990)).


         "Tide VII renders it 'an unlawful employment practice for an employer ... to discriminate against any individual with respect to [her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . religion.'" Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp.. 786 F.3d 264, 276-77 (4th Cir. 2015) (brackets and first ellipsis in original) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1)).

To establish a claim of disparate treatment based on religious discrimination, an employee must show that based on his religious beliefs, the employer treated him differently. In order to satisfy this burden at the summary judgment stage, a plaintiff must demonstrate that, (1) his job performance was satisfactory and (2) provide direct or indirect evidence that supports a reasonable inference that the adverse employment action was discriminatory.[2]

Westbrook v. N.C. A & T State Univ.. 51 F.Supp.3d 612, 618 (M.D. N.C. 2014) (citations omitted); Huggins v. N.C. Dep't of Admin., No. 5:10-cv-414-FL, 2013 WL 5201033, at *15 (E.D. N.C. Sept. 13, 2013) ("To establish a Title VII claim for religious discrimination, Plaintiff must demonstrate that Defendant treated her differently than other employees because of her religious beliefs.").[3] "Direct evidence of discrimination is either direct evidence of a stated purpose to discriminate, or circumstantial evidence of sufficient probative force to raise a genuine issue of material fact." McIntyre-Handy v. W. Telemarketing Corp.. 97 F.Supp.2d 718, 729 (E.D. Va. 2000); see Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt. Inc.. 354 F.3d 277, 284-85 (4th Cir. 2004) (Direct evidence of discrimination requires "the production of 'evidence of conduct or statements that both reflect directly the alleged discriminatory attitude and that bear directly on the contested employment decision."' (quoting Fuller v. Phipps. 67 F.3d 1137, 1142 (4th Cir. 1995))). "However, because subjective intent and motivation are so difficult to prove, a plaintiff may also use the burden-shifting framework similar to the one articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), and develop an inferential case." McIntyre-Handy, 97 F.Supp.2d at 729-30 (parallel citations omitted).

         "To satisfy the McDonnell Douglas test, a plaintiff must [first] put forward sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation." Huggins, 2013 WL 5201033, at *15.

If a prima facie case is presented, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Assuming the employer meets this burden of production, "the McDonnell Douglas framework-with its presumptions and burdens-disappear[s], and the sole remaining issue [is] discrimination vel non.[4]

Hill. 354 F.3d at 285 (brackets in original) (quoting Reeves v. Sanderson Pluming Prods. Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142-43 (2000)).

         The Fourth Circuit "ha[s] long observed a strict distinction between claims proceeding with direct evidence of discrimination and those proceeding under the McDonnell Douglas framework." Baker v. City of Chesapeake. 644 F.App'x 222, 223 (4th Cir. 2016) (finding that the plaintiff proceeded only under the McDonnell Douglas framework, and therefore declining to consider arguments as to direct evidence of discrimination "in the absence of exceptional or extraordinary circumstances").

         Here, in his brief in opposition to summary judgment, Smith advanced arguments only under the McDonnell Douglas framework, and did not argue that he has presented sufficient direct evidence of religious discrimination to survive summary judgment. See ECF No. 26, at 3-4 (identifying the McDonnell Douglas framework as controlling on the issue of summary judgment). ...

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