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Bowman v. Res Care, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

October 19, 2017

SHANTA BOWMAN et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
RES CARE, INC., BRALEY & THOMPSON, INC., Defendants.

          OPINION

          John A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge

         Between 2013 and 2016, ResCare, Inc., and its subsidiary, Braley & Thompson, Inc. (collectively referred to as "ResCare") relocated, demoted, or terminated a number of its employees-including the plaintiffs-in an ongoing effort to cut costs and remain profitable. The plaintiffs clearly did not like working conditions at ResCare, and they blame all their dissatisfaction on either racial discrimination or unlawful retaliation. The discrimination and retaliation claims form the basis of this suit.[1]

         ResCare has moved for summary judgment on all counts of the amended complaint. The plaintiffs' discrimination claims fail either because they do not make out a prima facie showing of actionable race discrimination or because they cannot show that the defendants' legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the adverse employment actions are mere pretext. The plaintiffs' retaliation claims likewise fail because they cannot prove that the defendants took any actions against them in response to oppositional conduct.

         I. FACTS

         The plaintiffs challenge essentially everything at their workplace as some sort of illegal conduct. They find hostility in the most mundane activities, such as the punctuation of emails. The breadth of their gripes unfortunately requires the Court to delve into the minutiae of daily life at ResCare.

         ResCare provides support services such as foster care, mental health skill building ("MHSB") programs, intensive in-home treatment ("IIH"), and department of juvenile justice ("DJJ") programs throughout Virginia. ResCare employed the plaintiffs in these various programs. All of the plaintiffs are African American.

         In 2011, ResCare acquired the company that had employed plaintiffs Shanta Bowman, Erin Wilson, and Donald Cowles. After the acquisition, the plaintiffs continued to work for ResCare's MHSB and IIH programs out of their same office on Southlake Boulevard. Over time, ResCare promoted Wilson and Bowman. The Southlake Boulevard lease ended in 2014, and ResCare saved $20, 000 per year by moving the Southlake employees to the back portion of its Meadowdale Boulevard office. ResCare's Kids in Focus program already occupied the front part of that office. ResCare had moved African American and Caucasian employees into the back portion of the Meadowdale office following past office closures, and at least one Caucasian employee worked in the space right before the plaintiffs arrived. In their depositions, the plaintiffs described the Meadowdale office as run down, in an unsafe area, lacking adequate interior and exterior lighting, and lacking parking space lines.

         All of ResCare's MHSB, IIH, and DJJ program employees at the Meadowdale Office, regardless of race, entered through the back entrance. The entrance went through an employee kitchen area, but was much closer to the employees' work area than the Kids in Focus entrance.

         After the move to Meadowdale, ResCare hired Adam Long to work for the DJJ program. Many of the plaintiffs' complaints focus on Long, whom they view as a problem employee. Long, a vison-impaired, Caucasian male, applied to work for ResCare in 2013 but did not get the job. He filed an EEOC charge. To resolve the charge, ResCare and Long reached a settlement agreement to hire him full time at $20 per hour. Long had issues with his job duties at ResCare, and at times the plaintiffs helped complete Long's work. Unhappily, Long's litigious history gave him a sort of tenure with the company, and even plaintiff Bowman, as Long's supervisor, remained wary of potential lawsuits by him.

         Also after the move to Meadowdale, ResCare hired Barbara Miles and Kimberly Timmons to work for its MHSB and IIH programs. ResCare also brought Teiana Whitehead from Kids in Focus to help perform administrative duties for the office and support the DJJ program.

         In August 2015, ResCare hired painters to paint the Meadowdale office and had the plaintiffs, as well as the Kids in Focus employees, move furniture away from the walls.[2] Erin Wilson (then Erin Timmons) wrote an email to Charles Laslie, her Regional Manager, about the work. She said that "[o]ur office does not seem to function or receive equal treatment, as do the other community-based [ResCare] offices. I find it extremely difficult to believe that 2 female employees, in other offices, would have been required to move an entire office space." (Email chain between Erin Timmons and Charles Laslie, Dk. No. 33-22.) She continued, "Maybe I am wrong, but are staff in other offices moving furniture, cleaning bathrooms, sweeping/vacuuming, clearing cobwebs and dumping trash?" (Id.) Wilson also complained about the cleanliness of the office, the interior and exterior lights, and the "crime-ridden" community. She closed the email by saying, "today was confirmation that employment is not equal" at ResCare. (Id.) Laslie responded that all offices moved their own furniture (including the Kids in Focus staff), and he apologized that they did not have more strong employees in the office to help. He explained that he tried to get more men to help them and offered future help.

         On September 3, 2015, Wilson emailed Laslie and Mary Struzinsk-a member of management above Laslie-complaining that the ResCare staff at Meadowdale were overworked and stressed. Wilson also wrote that Bowman had lost her pregnancy. Struzinsky and Laslie responded separately, asking for a list of employees and their work assignments so that management could look into getting more employees.

         The plaintiffs testified to other forms of alleged discrimination that took place over the course of their employment. First, they said that Laslie, their Caucasian manager and a clinician whose approval they required for certain tasks, worked out of a separate office and did not come to Meadowdale as often as needed. They also said that Laslie mentioned a person's race on two occasions while telling a story. Further, they testified that Deborah Hendrix in human resources at times spoke to the plaintiffs in a derogatory tone and used excessive exclamation points or question marks in emails. The plaintiffs do not know if Hendrix treated Caucasian employees this way. Hendrix also asked Bowman to consent to a drug test when she tried to make a worker's compensation claim; ResCare policy required this consent and ResCare had required Long to do the same.

         The plaintiffs also testified about pay discrepancies. Timmons said that ResCare delayed reimbursing her mileage due to her race. Whitehead said that ResCare paid her less than Long because of her race. Miles and Timmons claimed that ResCare hired them as part-time employees instead of full-time employees because of their race and to prevent them from receiving full-time benefits.

         When ResCare took accounting at the end of 2015, it determined the MHSB and IIH programs at Meadowdale had lost almost $100, 000 per year for the second straight year. The plaintiffs earned higher salaries than other ResCare employees in similar roles due to their carryover from their prior employer, and ResCare determined that the Meadowdale office had more staff than needed for its client base. In 2016, ResCare conducted a large-scale restructuring of its unprofitable programs.[3] As a part of this restructuring, Mark Landis, ResCare's Director of Operations, directed Struzinsky to close the MHSB program at Meadowdale. Struzinsky instead attempted to save the Meadowbrook program by developing a reorganization plan that would cut salaries and part-time employees rather than close the programs altogether. On January 25, 2016, Struzinsky sent her proposed plan to Landis. On February 18, 2016, Struzinsky emailed Hendrix to say that Landis had approved the plan, which Struzinsky said would model ResCare's other MHSB program called Creative Family Solutions. Struzinsky said that Long, who worked for the DJJ program and not the MHSB program, would get paid $20 an hour because of his settlement but that no one else would get that pay moving forward.

         On March 9, 2016, Bowman complained to Laslie over the phone about racial inequality felt by her and the plaintiffs. He did not address her concerns. Bowman also sent an email the next day complaining about Long. In the email, Bowman asked how to handle Long not working enough hours. She did not mention race. In response to the email, another ResCare employee said that Bowman and Laslie should meet with Long "ASAP" to discuss his hours.

         Wilson testified that she spoke to Laslie in person multiple times about the unequal treatment of ResCare's employees based on race. She said Laslie denied that race had anything to do with her complaints, ...


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