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Carter v. Autozoners, LLC

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 21, 2019

FAITH CARTER
v.
AUTOZONERS, LLC.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          WARREN W. EGINTON, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Faith Carter brings a four count complaint against her former employer, the AutoZoners, LLC. (“AutoZone”), alleging wrongful discharge, demotion, constructive discharge and retaliation under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2 et seq., and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”), Conn. Gen. Stat. §§46a-60 et seq. on the basis of her gender, female.[1]

         Defendant AutoZone moves for summary judgment on all counts of the complaint.

         For the reasons that follow, defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #21] is GRANTED.

         STANDARD OF LAW

         A motion for summary judgment may be granted only where there are no issues of material fact in dispute and the moving party is therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); In re Dana Corp., 574 F.3d 129, 151 (2d Cir. 2009). The moving party may satisfy his burden “by showing- that is pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” PepsiCo, Inc. v. Coca-Cola Co., 315 F.3d 101, 105 (2d Cir. 2002) (per curiam)(internal quotation citations and marks omitted). “[T]he party opposing summary judgment may not merely rest on the allegations or denials of his pleading; rather his response, by affidavits or otherwise as provided in the Rule, must set forth ‘specific facts' demonstrating that there is ‘a genuine issue for trial.'” Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009)(quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). In order to defeat the motion for summary judgment, she must present such evidence as would allow a jury to find in her favor. Graham v. Long Island R.R., 230 F.3d 34, 38 (2d Cir. 2000). Merely verifying the conclusory allegations of the complaint in an affidavit, however, is insufficient to oppose a motion for summary judgment. Zigmund v. Foster, 106 F.Supp.2d 352, 356 (D. Conn. 2000)(citing cases).

         When reviewing the record, the court resolves all ambiguities and draws all permissible factual inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought. Loeffler v. Staten Island Univ. Hosp., 582 F.3d 268, 274 (2d Cir. 2009). If there is any evidence in the record on a material issue from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, summary judgment is inappropriate. Security Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 83 (2d Cir. 2004). However, the existence of a mere “scintilla” of evidence supporting the plaintiff's position is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Havey v. Homebound Mortgage, Inc., 547 F.3d 158, 163 (2d Cir. 2008). And because a court is foreclosed from “mak[ing] credibility determinations or weigh[ing] the evidence” at the summary judgment stage, Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000), it must “disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” Id. at 151. Thus, in “a discrimination case where intent and state of mind are in dispute, summary judgment is ordinarily inappropriate, ” Carlton v. Mystic Transp. Inc., 202 F.3d 129, 134 (2d Cir. 2000), provided that the nonmovant has done more than “simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Plotzker v. Kips Bay Anesthesia, P.C., 745 Fed.Appx. 436, 437 (2d Cir. 2018) (summary order) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)). “A trial court should exercise caution when granting summary judgment to an employer where, as here, its intent is a genuine factual issue.” Carlton, 202 F.3d at 134.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         The following facts are taken from the parties' statements of material facts not in dispute, see Def's Local Rule 56(a)(1) Stat. [doc. #21-2]; Pl's Local Rule 56(a)(2) Stat. [doc. #24-2]; and from exhibits submitted in connection with the Motion for Summary Judgment. Unless otherwise indicated, these facts are not contested. Additional facts will be introduced as necessary in the Court's analysis of plaintiff's claims.

         Background

         Plaintiff Faith Carter was hired by AutoZone in 2001, became a Store Manager in 2008, and remained in that position until February 2017. [Doc. 24-1, Pl. 56(a)(2) Stat. ¶1]. Beginning in 2013, until she resigned her employment in February 2017, plaintiff was the Store Manager at AutoZone's East Hartford location. Id. ¶8.

         In the latter part of 2016, plaintiff reported to District Manager, Jeffrey Kontnick. Id. ¶9. Plaintiff had no problems with Mr. Kontnick and knew she could reach out to him with any operational or personnel issues. Id. ¶10. Kontnick reported to Regional Manager Robert Maldonado.

         The Regional Human Resources Manager for the Hartford region was Nuno Antunes. Plaintiff testified that Antunes treated her respectfully and never did anything to make her question his integrity over the years that she had interactions with him. Id. ¶¶12-13. The Divisional Human Resource Manager was Marie Saball. [Doc. 21, Ex. 3, Saball Decl. ¶3].

         Plaintiff read and reviewed the Employee Handbook and throughout her employment reviewed the Handbook each time it was updated. [Pl. 56(a)(2) Stat. ¶¶2-4]. Plaintiff knew that AutoZone prohibited gender discrimination and harassment and retaliation. Id. ¶5. Employees are advised that if they experience or receive a report of any discrimination or harassment, the “should complain immediately...to the HR manager. As an alternative, AutoZoners...may submit a written complaint to AutoZoner Relations. Plaintiff was also informed that employees could be terminated for “acts or conduct which may be detrimental to an AutoZoner” and/or for “abusive language.” Id. ¶¶6-7.

         As the East Hartford Store Manager, plaintiff was the highest ranking employee in the store. Id. ¶18. She knew that customer service was important to AutoZone and that it was part of her job to train employees on how to provide good customer service. Id. ¶16. She knew that customer complaints of any kind must be elevated to corporate. Id. ¶17. As Store Manager, plaintiff was expected to uphold the values of the company as well as ensure all of the policies and procedures contained in the handbook were enforced. Id. ¶19. Plaintiff was responsible for complying with the company's policies and procedures and for making sure all the employees in her store did so as well. Id. ¶20. Plaintiff was responsible for training employees on the company's policies and ensuring they followed the policies. Id. ¶21. Plaintiff knew if she failed to follow the company's policies, she could be disciplined, up to and including termination. Id. ¶22.

         In addition to training employees, plaintiff knew it was her job to hire and retain employees; to ensure employees worked in a safe environment; to be an effective leader with excellent communication skills; to foster a positive environment for employees; to ensure all policies and procedures were followed; and to provide performance counseling and discipline to employees when necessary. Id. ¶23. As Store Manager, plaintiff issued Corrective Action Reviews to employees in the store, and her District Manager approved everyone she submitted for his or her review. Id. ¶24. Plaintiff knew that she must report when an employee made a derogatory comment about a customer and she could be disciplined if she failed to do so. Id. ¶25. Plaintiff knew that if two employees discussed sexual acts with women she would need to address that by issuing Corrective Action Reviews because such conduct would not be appropriate. Id. ¶26. She knew that all AutoZone managers, supervisors, and employees were expected to treat people with respect and, if they failed to do so, they could be disciplined up to and including termination of employment. Id. ¶27. Plaintiff was aware that as the Store Manager of the East Hartford store, she was held to a high standard of conduct in how she behaved in the store and that she needed to model good behavior for the employees to follow. Id. ¶28.

         Plaintiff admitted that she received counseling regarding her behavior at work. Id. ¶29.

         In January 2016, Regional Human Resources Manager Nuno Antunes spoke to plaintiff as a result of an employee complaint regarding the way plaintiff communicated with employees. Id. ¶30. Antunes also counseled plaintiff regarding the importance of holding employees accountable for their conduct. Id. ¶31.

         In the Fall 2016, plaintiff received a performance review with an overall rating of below average. Id. ¶32. She received a rating of “expectations not consistently met” in customer satisfaction. Id. ¶33. Plaintiff testified that she did not think her 2016 performance review was based on her gender. Id. ¶34.

         As a Store Manager, plaintiff was responsible for writing evaluations for the employees in her store. Id. ¶35. Employees' pay raises were linked to their evaluations. Id. ¶36. In September or October 2016, after receiving a performance evaluation from plaintiff, one of her male subordinate employees, DaJavon White-Hill, a Parts Sales Manager, complained to plaintiff about his pay raise and expressed his belief that his raise should have been higher. Id. ¶37. Before White-Hall's complaint about his raise to her, plaintiff had worked with him “fine” for the past year or so that he was assigned to the East Hartford store under her supervision. Id. ¶38. Plaintiff knew White-Hall before he was transferred to the East Hartford store from doing inventories with him at other AutoZone stores. She had no problem with him during these inventories. Id. ¶39. December 23, 2016

         On December 23, 2016, at approximately 5:20 PM during one of the admittedly busiest times in the store, plaintiff and White-Hall had a verbal exchange in front of customers. Id. ¶40.

         Plaintiff claims that the incident began when a customer told her that she smelled nice that day and asked whether she was going out. Id. ¶42. She testified that she told the customer, “No, I don't party. I'm a Christian.” Id. ¶43. Plaintiff identifies as a Christian. Id. ¶44. Plaintiff claims that after hearing plaintiff's remark, White-Hall said “she's a fake Christian.” Id. ¶45. Plaintiff responded to White-Hall by saying “you need to stay out of my personal life because I never slept with a pastor man and I know who my father is.” Id. ¶46. Plaintiff admits that her retort was not respectful and was not appropriate. Id. ¶47. Plaintiff testified that in response to her retort, White-Hall called her a “whore” and a “bitch” and said to “suck his dick” and said he would hit her in the face. Id. ¶48. Plaintiff stated that White-Hall then followed her as she walked to the back of the store and threatened to harm her. Id. ¶49. Plaintiff then repeated “your mama” to White-Hall. Id. ¶50. She knew that “your mama” is disrespectful and a direct insult to the person and the person's mother. Id. ¶51. Plaintiff knew that two wrongs do not make a right. Id. ¶52.

         Protected Activity

         Immediately following the interaction, White-Hall and Carter separately contacted District Manager Kontnick to make a report. [Pl. 56(a)(2) ¶¶53-54]. Kontnick instructed Carter to leave the store immediately as her shift was nearly over. [Pl. 56(a)(2) ¶55]. Two minutes into her drive home, Kontnick called plaintiff and informed her that she should return to the store and that he had suspended White-Hall. [Pl. 56(a)(2) ¶56].

         White-Hall was transferred to another AutoZone store to allow time for the company to conduct an investigation. Id. ¶57. Plaintiff never had to work with White-hall after December 23, 2015. Id. ¶58.

         Investigation and Employment Action

         Regional Human Resources Manager Nuno Antunes investigated the complaints brought by plaintiff and White-Hall. [Pl. 56(a)(2) ¶59]. He interviewed plaintiff on January 5 and 13, 2017; Odell Crawford on January 12, 2017; Toriano Powell on January 13, 2017; and White-Hall on January 24, 2017. [Nunes Aff. ¶¶3-14; Ex. A-D].

         On January 5, 2017, Nunes interviewed Carter regarding the December 23, 2016, incident with White-Hall. [Pl. 56(a)(2) ¶61-73; Doc. #21, Carter Interview Stat. 1/5/17]. Carter told Nunes that:

• White-Hall “told me that I am a bitch, I am a whore, and I must go suck his dick and he followed me home and he knew where I live and that he was going to kill me and my son. He continuously told me to shut the fuck up and gave me the finger.” Id.
• White-Hall “said I was messing with his money.” Id.
• The incident took place “[b]y the front of the store near pod #2.” Two to three customers were in the store at the time of the incident. Id.
• Odell Crawford, part-time sales associate, was a witness to the incident. Id.
• She told White-Hall that she “never slept with a pastor man and [she] knew who her father is.” “I meant nothing towards him it was not directly to him, it was meant to say God is the judge of me. It was when he called me a fake Christian. Id.
• She contacted the police immediately following the incident to report that White-Hall threatened to go to her house and kill her and her son. Id.
• The police told White-Hall to leave the premises. Id.
• She immediately contacted her District Manager Jeffrey Kontnick following the incident. Kontnick immediately transferred White-Hall to the Manchester AutoZone store. Id.
• Two and a half to three months before the December 23 incident, Carter heard White-Hall having a discussion with another AutoZone employee Tito Powell about a women and “[h]ow many times they had sex and how she kept coming back for more.” Carter spoke to White-Hall and told him “not to discuss his personal business in the store.” She did not report to anyone in the company or issue a Corrective Action or create a note or record of her discussion with ...

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