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Polk v. Sherwin-Williams Co.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 28, 2019

JOHN POLK, Plaintiff,
v.
SHERWIN-WILLIAMS COMPANY Defendant. v.

          RULING ON THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff John Polk filed this action against the Sherwin-Williams Company (“Sherwin-Williams”), his former employer, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”), Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60 et seq. Polk was the manager of a Sherwin-Williams store in East Hartford, Connecticut, until he was terminated on February 24, 2015. He alleges that Sherwin-Williams discriminated against him because of his race and retaliated against him after he filed an internal complaint about harassment. Sherwin-Williams has moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that Polk has submitted no evidence from which a reasonable jury could find (1) that his employment was terminated under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination or retaliation, or (2) that Sherwin-Williams's neutral, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory explanation for his termination was pretextual. (ECF No. 60.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. Undisputed Facts

         The following facts are taken from the parties' Local Rule 56(a) statements and are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[1] Additional disputed facts are incorporated as relevant in Section III below.

         A. Polk's Employment with Sherwin-Williams

         Polk, an African American man, began working for Sherwin-Williams in July of 2003 at one of the company's retail floorcovering stores in Somerset, New Jersey. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 1, 3; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 1, 3.) In February of 2005, Polk was promoted to the position of Branch Manager at a Sherwin-Williams location in Wethersfield, Connecticut. (Complaint, ECF No. 1 ¶ 7; Answer, ECF No. 28 ¶ 7). He eventually became the Store/Branch Manager of the company's East Hartford, Connecticut floorcoverings store. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 2; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 2.) In 2015, there were three employees at the East Hartford location in addition to Polk: Assistant/Operations Manager Basil Moody, part time warehouse employee Jonathan Trapp, and Sales Representative Ahmed Saleh. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 4-5; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 4-5.) Moody and Trapp reported directly to Polk, while Saleh reported directly to Sales Manager Rich Gabe, who worked out of a different location. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 5, 8; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 5, 8.) Polk reported directly to District Manager Joseph Detreux. (Polk Deposition, ECF No. 60-4 at 21; see also Detreux Declaration, ECF No. 60-7 ¶ 2.)

         B. March 2013 Warning and Polk's Harassment Complaint

         On March 4, 2013, [2] Detreux issued Polk a formal warning letter related to Polk's interactions with Saleh and a series of customer service issues. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 14; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 14; March 4 Warning Letter, ECF No. 60-7 at 33-34.) Polk acknowledges that he received the letter but denies that there was any basis for Detreux to issue him a warning at that time. (56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 14.) The letter recounted issues purportedly discussed at a meeting on February 20 involving Detreux, Polk, and two other Sherwin-Williams human resources employees. (ECF No. 60-7 at 33.) The letter also attached the Sherwin-Williams non-harassment policy and described strategies for interacting with people in the workplace. (Id. at 34-35.) It noted that failure to exhibit “immediate and sustained improvement” in communication could “result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.” (Id. at 35.)

         On March 8, 2013, Polk filed a harassment complaint against Detreux and Saleh. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 15-16; 56(2) Stmt. ¶ 15-16; see Harassment Complaint, ECF No. 60-6 at 51-53.) The complaint asserted that Detreux and Saleh “constantly harass[ed]” him and “indicat[ed] that [he was] a difficult person to work with resulting in a corrective action for [Polk] with a possible termination.” (ECF No. 60-6 at 52.) The parties agree that Sherwin-Williams investigated the complaint but dispute the details of the investigation. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 17; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 17.)

         Sherwin-Williams asserts that the investigation was conducted by Area Human Resources Manager Michelle Fischman-Levy, who completed interviews with Polk, Saleh, Detreux, and Sales Manager Gabe. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 17-18; Fischman-Levy Declaration, ECF No. 60-7 at 49.) After the investigation, Fischman-Levy issued Polk a letter summarizing her findings. (Fischman-Levy Letter, ECF No. 60-7 at 57.) She stated that Detreux's March 4, 2013 warning letter regarding customer service issues, as well as an August 2012 warning letter by Detreux about inventory issues, were “justified.” (ECF No. 60-7 at 57.) She also explained that she “found no evidence of behavior that [was] in violation of the Company's EEO and Non-Harassment Policies.” (Id.) Sherwin-Williams produced a sworn declaration by Fischman-Levy in which she asserts that, throughout her investigation, Polk never stated that “he believed he was being harassed because of his race, or otherwise discriminated against because of his race . . . .” (Fischman-Levy Declaration, ECF No. 60-7 at 49.)

         Polk contends that he sent his complaint to Don Katen, the Vice President of Human Resources for his region. (Plaintiff's L.R. 56(a)2 Statement Part B (“56(a)2 Stmt. B”), ECF No. 62 ¶ 8; ECF No. 60-4 at 46-47.) Katen initially called Polk about the complaint but did not follow up further. (Id.) Polk asserts that another Sherwin-Williams human resources representative, Billy Fowler, participated in the investigation together with Fischman-Levy. (56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 17; Polk Affidavit, ECF No. 63 at 4.) He argues that Fischman-Levy “completely discounted [his] statements to her and she made no reference to Billy Fowler who was the primary investigator” responsible for interviewing Polk and his colleagues at the East Hartford store. (56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 21.) He asserts that he told Fowler that Detreux “appl[ied] different criteria to [his] work performance than other store managers in the region.” (Polk Affidavit, ECF No. 63 at 5.)

         C. Other Customer Service Complaints Involving Polk

         In May of 2013, Detreux sent Polk a letter in connection with his annual performance review. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 11; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 12.) The letter summarized Detreux's conversation with one of Polk's customers, who reportedly described Polk as “very difficult to work with” and stated that he “talk[ed] down to customers.” (ECF No. 60-7 at 39.) The letter advised Polk to make an effort to provide “Trademark Customer Service in both your words and actions at all times.” (ECF No. 60-7 at 40.) Polk notes that he nevertheless received a raise of more than 7% following his review. (56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 11; 2013 Annual Review, ECF No. 63 at 46.)

         In March of 2014, Saleh received an email from a customer complaining about the East Hartford “office manager, ” which Saleh forwarded to Detreux and Gabe. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 12; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 12; March 2014 Customer Email, ECF No. 60-7 at 42.) The customer's email stated that she called the East Hartford office “and spoke to the office manager (He should be Fired!!!) I called head office and complained about him.” (ECF No. 60-7 at 42.) Detreux memorialized the complaint and formally warned Polk about customer service issues in a letter on May 20, 2014. (ECF No. 60-7 at 46.) Polk denies that he was the “office manager” to whom the customer referred. (56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 12; Polk Deposition, ECF No. 60-5 at 50.)[3]

         D. February 2015 Complaint and Termination

         On February 9, 2015, an individual named E. Paul Grimmeisen called Sherwin-Williams's customer service line. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 22.) Grimmeisen explained that over the past several years he had offered housing and other assistance to individuals struggling with poverty, including Jonathan Trapp. (Id. at 25-26.) He reported that Trapp had resigned his position with Sherwin-Williams as a result of abuse and mistreatment by Polk. (Id. ¶ 27.) Six days later, Grimmeisen sent Sherwin-Williams a written complaint detailing Trapp's issues with Polk. (Id. ¶ 29; see Grimmeisen Letter, ECF No. 60-7 at 66.) Sherwin-Williams immediately contacted Trapp and requested that he provide a statement outlining why he chose to resign, which Trapp provided the same day. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 30-31.) The company assigned Area Human Resources Manager Melissa Tyler to investigate the complaint. (Id. ¶ 32; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 32.) Tyler met with Trapp, who confirmed that his statement was accurate and that he had resigned because of Polk's treatment. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 33-35.) Tyler also interviewed and obtained statements from Moody and Saleh. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 36-40; 56(a)2 ¶ 37, 39.)

         Tyler and Gabe traveled to the East Hartford store on February 18, 2015 to interview Polk. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 40.) When they arrived, Polk was leaving the store for lunch. (Id. ¶ 41.) Polk did not return to the store for at least one hour. (Id. ¶ 42 (asserting that Polk arrived 80 minutes later); 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 42 (asserting that Polk returned approximately 60 minutes later).) When Polk returned, Tyler and Gabe continued to wait while Polk spoke with another employee at the store. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 43; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 43.) Tyler and Gabe then informed Polk about Trapp's complaints against him; Polk responded by accusing Trapp of being a “performance issue.” (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 44-45; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 44-45.) At one point in the interview, Polk left the room. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 49 (asserting that Polk “became agitated and abruptly exited the interview”; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 49 (asserting that Polk left because he had to use the restroom).) While he was out of the room, he spoke with Saleh. The content of the conversation is disputed. Sherwin-Williams asserts that Polk confronted Saleh, asking why he was “telling people [they had] a problem.” (56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 50; see Tyler Declaration, ECF No. 60-3 ¶ 11(d) (“At one point, [Polk] abruptly exited the interview and confronted Saleh and stated, in an aggressive fashion: ‘do you have a problem with me?'”).) Polk counters that he simply asked Saleh to “assist in clarifying some of the issues raised by Jonathan Trapp's complaint.” (56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 50; Polk Aff., ECF No. 63 ¶ 11-12.)

         Polk was placed on administrative leave immediately after his interview. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 53; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 53.) Based on her investigation, Tyler determined that Polk's conduct warranted termination. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 54; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 54.) She presented her findings to VP Katen, and the two agreed to terminate Polk's employment. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 55.) On February 24, 2015, Tyler and Gabe met with Polk in person to inform him of his termination. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 57; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 57.) Following Polk's termination, Detreux interviewed and promoted Basil Moody to fill Polk's position. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 60; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 60.) Moody is African American. (56(a)1 Stmt. ¶ 60; 56(a)2 Stmt. ¶ 60.)

         Polk agrees that he has never heard Detreux say anything racist or derogatory towards African Americans. (56(a)1 ...


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