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James v. RD America, LLC

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 5, 2019

TYRONDA JAMES, Plaintiff,
v.
RD AMERICA, LLC, d/b/a Restaurant Depot, JETRO HOLDINGS, LLC, d/b/a Restaurant Depot, RESTAURANT DEPOT, LLC, d/b/a Restaurant Depot, Defendants.

          RULING AND ORDER ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Victor A. Bolden, United States District Judge

         On August 24, 2016, Tyronda James (“Plaintiff”) sued RD America, LLC, Jetro Holdings, LLC, and Restaurant Depot, LLC (“Defendants”), alleging that she was fired on the basis of race, subjected to a hostile work environment, and retaliated against for protected activity, all in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e. Complaint, dated Aug. 24, 2016 (“Compl.”), ECF No. 1.

         On March 5, 2018, Defendants moved for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, dated Mar. 5, 2018 (“Mot. Summ. J.”), ECF No. 37; Defendants' Memorandum of Law in Support of Mot. Summ. J., dated Mar. 5, 2018 (“Defs.' Mem.”), ECF No. 38.

         For the following reasons, the motion for summary judgment is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         Summary judgment is granted as to Plaintiff's claims of discriminatory firing and retaliation, but denied as to Plaintiff's claim of hostile work environment.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Allegations[1]

         Tyronda James, an African-American woman, worked as a Front End Manager at the Restaurant Depot store located at 181 Marsh Hill Road in Orange, Connecticut beginning in March 2013.[2] Defendants' Statement of Material Facts (“Defs.' SMF”) ¶¶ 1, 3, ECF No. 39; Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts (“Pl.'s SMF”), ECF No. 50, ¶ 1; Compl. at 1-2.

         Defendants are limited liability corporations (“LLCs”) incorporated in Delaware. Compl. ¶ 2. RD America, LLC and Restaurant Depot, LLC are registered in Connecticut as foreign LLCs. Id. Defendants all do business as Restaurant Depot. See Compl. at 1.

         Restaurant Depot, a national chain of retail stores, sells wholesale food to restaurants. Deposition of Tyronda James, dated Sept. 14, 2017 (“James Dep.”), annexed as Ex. 1 to Defs.' Mem, at 20:1-3.

         As a Front End Manager, James supervised a team of cashiers in the “Front End” department of the Orange store. James Dep. 19:20-25. Her daily duties included

[c]oming in in the morning and checking the schedule to see who was supposed to be there, setting up the cash registers with the tills, making sure that the tills were counted correctly by the cashiers, and servicing the customers as they enter, and getting the lines moved and the customers out the door. Customers' carts have to be counted before they can exit. So I would either have my supervisors count it - cashier has to count it, the supervisor have to count it, and then I have to count it again.

         James Dep. 21:13-22. At the time of her hire, Ms. James reported to Timothy Coleman, a branch manager, as well as to more than one assistant manager. Id. at 22:10-18.

         On April 23, 2013-her second month on the job-Ms. James was disciplined for a $110 cash shortage. Defs.' SMF ¶ 5; Ex. 2 to Defs.' Mem. (“April 23 Disciplinary Form”). Ms. James does not dispute that she was disciplined, but alleges that it was originally a verbal warning modified to say “written” after she had signed it. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 5; Affidavit of Tyronda James, dated Apr. 8, 2018 (“James Aff.”), annexed as Ex. N to Pl.'s SMF, ECF No. 50-13, ¶ 7. She further alleges that Monica Franco counted her cash drawer outside of her presence. James Aff. ¶ 7.

         On May 9, 2013, Ms. James allegedly received a Discipline Action for failure to adhere to a policy for “voiding total lost receipt.” Defs.' SMF ¶ 6; Ex. 3 to Defs.' Mem. (“May 9 Disciplinary Form”). Ms. James denies that she received a written Discipline Action and asserts instead that “[t]he Disciplinary Action dated 5/9/13 was not signed by my manager and was fabricated before or for this litigation, ” that “[t]he document was tampered with and you can clearly see the erasure marks, ” and “[t]hat is not my signature.” James Aff. ¶ 9.

         On June 7, 2013, Defendants allege that Ms. James received a Disciplinary Action for permitting a cashier to enter an incorrect weight for store merchandise, which resulted in a $127.27 loss for the store. Defs.' SMF ¶ 7; Ex. 4 to Defs.' Mem. (“June 7 Disciplinary Form”). Ms. James denies receiving this Disciplinary Action. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 7. She states:

The Disciplinary Action dated 6/7/13 was an incident that occurred wherein the weight on tag of the merchandise was in error or was illegible. It was not a written warning, it was a verbal warning, and the document was tampered with and not signed by my manager, Timothy Coleman. The second signature is not clear and is not someone who can discipline me. No. white manager ever gets written up for this type of error.

James Aff. ¶ 10.

         On June 17, 2013, Defendants allege that Ms. James received a Disciplinary Action for failing to complete a task in a reasonable amount of time. Defs.' SMF ¶ 8; Ex. 5 to Defs.' Mem. (“June 17 Disciplinary Form”). Ms. James denies receiving this Disciplinary Action as well. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 8. She states that “[t]he Disciplinary Action dated 6/17/13 was fabricated before or for this litigation, ” that “wrapping pallets is not in [her] job function, ” and that “Timothy Coleman did not sign it.” James Aff. ¶ 11.

         On March 7, 2014, Defendants allege that Ms. James received a Disciplinary Action for poor work quality, and a “coaching report” indicating that she had failed to ensure that the registers worked properly. Defs.' SMF ¶ 9; Ex. 6 to Defs.' Mem. (“March 7 Disciplinary Form”). Ms. James objects, Pl.'s SMF ¶ 9, and claims that “[t]he Disciplinary Action dated 3/7/14 was fabricated before or for this litigation, ” and “is not signed by [Ms. James] or [her] manager Timothy Coleman.” James Aff. ¶ 12.

         On March 10, 2014, Defendants allege that Ms. James received a Disciplinary Action again for poor work quality, which this time included a “coaching report” indicating that she had failed to keep the front end clean. Defs.' SMF ¶ 10; Ex. 7 to Defs.' Mem. (“March 10 Disciplinary Form”). Ms. James objects, Pl.'s SMF ¶ 10, and again claims that “[t]he Disciplinary Action dated 3/10/14 was fabricated before or for this litigation” and “is not signed by [Ms. James] or [her] manager Timothy Coleman.” James Aff. ¶ 13.

         On March 20, 2014, Ms. James wrote a letter to Timothy Coleman and the “Jetro Cash and Carry Corporate Office.” Defs.' SMF ¶ 15; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 15; Ex. 13 to Defs.' Mem.; Ex. G to Pl.'s SMF (“March 20, 2014 Letter”). She complained about being disrespected by upper management, and being subjected to unbearable working conditions at Restaurant Depot because she was an African-American woman. Id. The letter states:

On several occasion [sic] members of upper management have under-minded [sic] and disrespected me in front of my associates. This kind of behavior has been brought to the attention of Tim on several occasions. Awilda went behind my back and ask [sic] a new cashier (Reggie) who had only been working here for two days, to assist them in spying on the staff members of the front-end. The cashier was called on his personal cell phone by Inventory Manager and ask [sic] to assist in spying on all the associates on the front-end who might be stealing. In addition on March 20, 2014 Inventory Manager Awilda ask [sic] supervisor Yvonne to train the new upcoming supervisor, · Debra. Awilda ask [sic] this question on the floor in front of the Front-End manger Tyronda James, When I responded I had already be working with her. She ignored me and told Yvonne someone needs to train her with some knowledge and direct Yvonne to tell Leesha to train her. The working conditions at this company are becoming unbearable, I feel being a afraican-American [sic] female has a lot to do with it. I feel the upper management feels a blantant [sic] disrespect and disregard for Afraican-American [sic] authority.

         March 20, 2014 Letter. In her affidavit, Ms. James alleges that, during the course of her employment, she “complained to Timothy Coleman about harassment, discrimination and retaliation.” James Aff. ¶ 5. She allegedly did this not only in the March 20, 2014 letter, but also in letters dated April 29 and June 27, “and at least 4 other times in writing and daily complaints verbally.” Id.

         Ms. James's affidavit alleges that Inventory Manager Awilda Pillard “used the word ‘my-n--ga' daily, ” which she found offensive. James Aff. ¶ 19. Her affidavit also alleges that HR Manager Monica Franco: (1) called her “stupid” in front of “staff and subordinates”; (2) “shoved papers into my stomach while I was on the phone with a customer, ” “in front of staff and my subordinates”; and (3) blocked her from assisting an injured white female cashier, telling Ms. James not to come near her. Id. ¶¶ 21-23.

         The affidavit also alleges that both Ms. Pillard and Ms. Franco “undermined my authority as a manager by changing my instructions to my subordinates, humiliating and belittling me in front of my coworkers and subordinates, refusing to help my department when they were called, telling a coworker ‘glad that black bitch is gone,' telling a new employee to spy on me to see if I am stealing (increased scrutiny other managers did not have), [and] speaking to me in a disrespectful manner in front of my employees and other staff.” Id. ¶ 20.

         On May 6, 2014, Defendants allege that Ms. James received a Disciplinary Action for failing to cash out her drawer before leaving work for the previous day, despite allegedly having signed a notice on April 10, 2014 that failure to do so would result in her being written up. Defs.' SMF ¶ 11; Ex. 8 to Defs.' Mem. (“May 6 Disciplinary Form”). Ms. James objects, Pl.'s SMF ¶ 11, and, once again, claims that “[t]he Disciplinary Action dated 5/5/14[3] is not my signature, the dates look tampered with, and I have never seen the document before.” James Aff. ¶ 14.

         On or around May 17, 2014, Jose Pena replaced Timothy Coleman as the Store Manager for the Orange store. Deposition of Jose Pena, dated June 14, 2018 (“Pena Dep.”), annexed to Plaintiff's Supplemental Objection to Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 58-1, at 12:9-19.

         On June 11, 2014, Defendants allege that Ms. James received a Disciplinary Action after a conversation about her personal shopping at Restaurant Depot, and “[t]he conversation included ensuring that anyone shopping for James on her account were signatories of her account.” Defs.' SMF ¶ 12; Ex. 9 to Defs.' Mem. (“June 11 Disciplinary Form”). The Disciplinary Action states:

DETAILS:
As a Front End Manager with a RD account there is a concern over a conflict of interest when purchasing merchandise through the company. While we may appreciate your business you are required to ensure that there is absolutely [no] impropriety. Therefore, you are expected to follow the rules and guidelines as a customer would. Starting with ensuring those who you employ to shop under your numbers are required to become signatory on the account, including having the proper rights to use your credit cards and checks. Please be reminded you can not use company time to make purchases or payments. Returns, of merchandise will be done properly without exception. If there is an issue of credits, exchanges, etc. you are to bring those issues directly to my attention and I will make the final decisions, In the event of my absence, I will assign the appropriate party who may required to provide a written statement of the transaction you have requested.
CORRECTIVE ACTION PLAN:
Tyronda is required to have the proper signed paperwork for his [sic] employee (s) to shop and any returns must be conducted as stated above.

         June 11 Disciplinary Form. Mr. Pena testified that he raised the issue because Ms. James-who was responsible for verifying and authorizing customer purchases before cashiers could complete the transaction and allow them to exit the store-should not be playing this role with respect to any transactions being made by friends or associates in relation to her business:

So we had a conversation based on the way she was handling her account, meaning you're not to supposed you know, like let's say you have a cashier and a sister or someone come in, that cashier [sic] not supposed to scan that person going through because it's kind of like a conflict of interest . . . . Somebody else should check out or a supervisor have a mother or sister there, that supervisor should not be able to, you know, check on the receipt of that person or check that person out because it would be a conflict of interest . . . .
I never questioned her shopping in the store. If she's shopping, she shouldn't do it on store time but she can shop in the store. My conversation with her was strictly based on the people that shopped for her, she's not to oversee those transactions . . . .

Pena Dep. at 61:15-62:3, 79:5-9.

         Ms. James objects to Defendants' characterization of the June 11, 2014 incident. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 12. She claims that while she signed the Disciplinary Action,

the information is false. I was not in violation of a company policy. They created a policy just for me. Chez Darden told Jose Pena to take it out of my file because I was being singled out. Chez Darden and Jose Pena agreed that it would be taken out of my file and they never did take it out. Statements were added after I signed it because the typed information was not in there when I signed. The milk receipt transaction in question was handled by Alex Lowery not me.

James Aff. ¶ 15.

         On June 14, 2014, a day when Mr. Pena was not in the store, Defendants assert that Ms. James twice used her work identification to authorize shopping done on her behalf, contradicting the explicit instructions Defendants claim Mr. Pena gave her. Defs.' SMF ¶ 13; Ex. 10 to Defs.' Mem. (“June 19 Disciplinary Form”); Ex. 11 to Defs.' Mem. (“Personnel Action Form”). The Disciplinary Action issued several days later states that, “[o]n 6/14, Tyronda shopped twice which was Jose's day off. Also, she used her manager ID on the account which should not be happening at all.” June 19 Disciplinary Form.

         Ms. James objects to this account of the day's events. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 13. She asserts that she “never tampered with [her] account” and was “setup to be forced to handle [her] account and keep the line moving because the Manager Joey refused to assist with the transaction.” James Aff. ¶ 16.

         On June 19, 2014, Defendants allege that Ms. James “was going to be given a final warning regarding her personal shopping at Restaurant Depot but as a result of her behavior during the meeting to address her warning, she was terminated.” Defs.' SMF ¶ 14; June 19 Disciplinary Form; Personnel Action Form. Shez Darden, a regional HR representative for ...


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