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Dawson v. Washington Gas Light Co.

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

September 9, 2019

KYLE DAWSON, Plaintiff,



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 40) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.

         Plaintiff is a biracial, part Caucasian, part African-American, light-skinned man. Plaintiff began working for Washington Gas Light Company ("WGLC") in 2007. Between the summer of 2013 and July 24, 2018, Plaintiff worked as a crew mechanic, crew leader in-training, and crew leader. Plaintiff also twice participated in the Crew Leader Development Program ("CLDP") with successful completion on the second attempt.

         Beginning around the summer of 2013 to fall of the same year, Plaintiff began to experience what he believed was harsh treatment from his supervisor, Robert Surdam, in the CLDP. Plaintiff stated Surdam would yell at Plaintiff while not yelling at other employees in the CLDP. One instance in particular, Plaintiff stated that Surdam yelled at him for not wearing his safety glasses. It is unclear whether Surdam knew that Plaintiff was biracial.

         Between October 2013 and the beginning of 2014, Plaintiff worked as a crew mechanic under Joseph Dobbins and James Hudson, though Dobbins was his primary supervisor. Finally, from November 2016 to his termination in July of 2018, Plaintiff worked primarily as a crew leader once he successfully completed the CLDP after his second time in the program. During this final portion of his tenure at WGLC, Plaintiff was supervised by Dennis Samuel, who himself reported to Kevin Gordon. It is unclear whether either Gordon or Samuel were aware that Plaintiff is biracial. At some point during his time under Samuel and Gordon, Gordon told Plaintiff that he needed to shave his face in order to comply with WGLC policy that requires field operations staff to be clean shaven so they can wear gas masks. Gordon also at one point showed pictures of Plaintiff's work vehicle to Plaintiff which showed the vehicle to be dirty. Plaintiff felt harassed by both of Gordon's actions as he did not feel respected.

         Throughout the times relevant to this case, Plaintiff was a union member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 96 (the "Union"). There were two contracts between the Union and WGLC, both of which laid out the same five-step disciplinary action guidelines. The steps were: (1) a written reprimand, (2) a written reprimand and two-day suspension, (3) a written reprimand and five-day suspension, (4) a final warning of potential discharge and ten-day suspension, and (5) discharge. For every twelve months an employee went without receiving additional discipline, he would drop by one step on the progressive plan.

         On June 28, 2013, Surdam issued Plaintiff a first-step written reprimand for repeated tardiness. WGLC records show that Plaintiff was late at least twelve times between February 2012 and June 2013. Employee discussion logbooks show that Plaintiff was counseled on a number of occasions about the importance of timeliness prior to receiving the written reprimand. Two other employees were also frequently late, but did not receive reprimands. The first, an African-American man, was given grace by Surdam because he was a single father and was frequently late due to caring for his young child and he called every time to explain the situation to Surdam. The second, a white man, was allegedly told by Surdam to enter the building from the rear to avoid detection of his consistent lateness; Surdam disputes that he gave such instructions.

         Plaintiff stated that he spoke to Surdam on July 23, 2013 to discuss what he felt was unfair treatment and discrimination. It is unclear whether this discussion actually occurred, and, if it did, the exact date it happened.

         On August 14, 2013, Plaintiff received a second-step disciplinary action of a written reprimand and two-day suspension for his involvement in a motor vehicle accident that occurred on July 17, 2013 while driving a WGLC vehicle that was deemed by the WGLC safety department to have been avoidable. Surdam was not part of WGLC's investigation into the accident.

         Plaintiff had a meeting with Hudson and Surdam on September 24, 2013 in which Plaintiff complained about the treatment he had received from Surdam. No. significant change in Plaintiff s treatment came from this meeting.

         On September 25, 2013, Plaintiff received a third-step disciplinary action of written reprimand and five-day suspension from Surdam for not properly locating a water service line prior to digging and hitting said line. Plaintiff stated that no other employee had been punished for this type of accident. In fact, another employee previously hit a marked utility line and was not punished, though this individual did not report to Surdam. Surdam stated that Plaintiff was his only supervisee that had struck a water line or other utility. Plaintiff had received training from WGLC on how to locate utility lines prior to digging. Surdam also stated that the timing of the disciplinary action was a result of when WGLC's safety department decided how it would proceed with the matter. Due to this third disciplinary action, Plaintiff was removed from the CLDP the first time causing a decrease in pay. Removal from the CLDP after a third-step disciplinary action was required by the Union contract in force at the time. During the October 4, 2013 meeting in which Plaintiff was informed of his removal from the CLDP, he complained to both Surdam and Dobbins about what he felt was discrimination and harassment from Surdam.

         Plaintiff filed a grievance through the Union regarding the third-step disciplinary action. A meeting was held on May 6, 2014. At the meeting, Plaintiff complained that the discipline was issued by Surdam for discriminatory reasons. This disciplinary action was later reversed and Plaintiff received backpay in September 2014 after the grievance process was completed.

         On November 20, 2013, Plaintiff received a fourth-step disciplinary action for his failure to timely disclose an incident where Plaintiff bumped a WGLC garage door with a work vehicle. The incident was filmed by a security camera nearby. Numerous employees had issues with the garage door and WGLC knew of the issue, but Plaintiff was the only employee known to WGLC to not timely report an incident where the garage door and a vehicle made contact. Another employee, Jovan Torbic, stated that he did not report bumping into the garage door and did not receive any discipline for that failure to report. WGLC claims to not have had knowledge of Torbic hitting the garage door. Dobbins issued the discipline one month after becoming Plaintiff's supervisor and stated that Plaintiff was his only employee that he knew of that had an incident like this one. It is unclear if Plaintiff did in fact tell Dobbins about the incident prior to it being recorded and his receiving discipline, as well as whether Dobbins told him he did not need to report the incident. It is also unclear whether Dobbins knew Plaintiff was biracial or assumed he was solely African-American.

         On his end-of-year employee performance appraisal from Surdam and the 2014 mid-year appraisal from Dobbins, Plaintiff received the second highest rating available in the "meeting requirements" category. The appraisals each had both positive and constructive comments regarding Plaintiff. Plaintiff found these reviews to be harsh.

         On March 28, 2014 Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). WGLC received notification of the charge on March 31, 2014. The EEOC opened an investigation and continued to examine evidence until issuing a probable cause determination on April 20, ...

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