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Billy Lockett v. Paul Zatko

November 16, 2011

BILLY LOCKETT,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
PAUL ZATKO, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Jack Zouhary

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

This is a race discrimination case brought by Plaintiff Billy Lockett, an African-American, against Chrysler Group, LLC ("Chrysler"), his current employer, and Paul Zatko ("Zatko"), his former supervisor. Plaintiff alleges he experienced racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation by Defendant Zatko while employed by Defendant Chrysler in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and Ohio Revised Code § 4112. Discrimination and retaliation claims brought under Ohio law are subject to the same analysis as federal Title VII claims. Hollins v. Atlantic Co., 188 F.3d 652, 658 (6th Cir. 1999) (discrimination claims); Majewski v. Automatic Data Processing, Inc., 274 F.3d 1106, 1117 (6th Cir. 2001) (retaliation claims). Plaintiff also alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress against both Defendants.

Defendants Zatko and Chrysler moved for summary judgment (Doc. Nos. 48; 47), which Plaintiff opposed (Doc. No. 54) and Defendants replied (Doc. Nos. 55--56 ).

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff began working for Chrysler in 1988 as an hourly employee at the Huntsville, Alabama assembly plant. In 1992, Plaintiff was transferred to Chrysler's Toledo machining facility, where he remains employed as an hourly employee in the material handling department. In 2000, Chrysler hired Zatko as a production supervisor at the Toledo facility. Zatko was assigned to supervise Plaintiff and other employees in the material handling department in January 2009, and remained Plaintiff's supervisor until April 2009 -- a period of approximately three months.

The February 2009 "New Rope" Comment

On February 17, 2009, Plaintiff asked Zatko for a pair of safety glasses, as all employees are required to wear safety glasses while working in the facility. Plaintiff told Zatko, "Paul, don't bring the grandma glasses" (Doc. No. 43 at 24). According to Plaintiff, Zatko retrieved a pair of glasses, gave them to Plaintiff, and said "I bet you wouldn't complain if I put a new rope around your neck" (Doc. No. 43 at 24). Plaintiff responded "what about the old rope" (Doc. No. 43 at 25). Steve Seem, a co-worker present at the scene, responded "Well, Billy, don't you know, the new rope is going to leave burn marks" (Doc. No. 43 at 25). Zatko admits making a comment about a "new rope," insisting the comment was made in the context of a conversation regarding Plaintiff's constant complaining about his work assignments. According to Zatko, he retrieved the only style of glasses available at the time and gave them to Plaintiff, who stated, "why are you giving me these old granny glasses" (Doc. No. 44 at 26). Zatko alleges he laughed at Plaintiff's response, as did Seem and Plaintiff, and Zatko then responded "you'd complain if you got hung with a new rope" (Doc. No. 44 at 26).

Shortly after this exchange, Plaintiff ran into Nick Weber, who at the time served as labor relations supervisor. Plaintiff asked Weber "if I told you that somebody just said they want to put a new rope around my neck, how would you feel about it?" (Doc. No. 43 at 26). Weber immediately responded such a comment would be inappropriate, interviewed Plaintiff about the situation, and informed Plaintiff he would investigate further (Doc. No. 43 at 26). Chrysler granted Plaintiff's request to leave work early that day and granted Plaintiff's request to transfer to third shift.*fn1

Weber investigated Plaintiff's complaint, interviewing Zatko who did not deny making the "new rope" comment. Zatko admitted he jokingly told Plaintiff "you'd complain if they hung you with a new rope"-- a comment Zatko argues referred to Plaintiff's complaining and was not intended as a racial statement. Weber also interviewed Seem, the co-worker present during the exchange, who confirmed Plaintiff did not indicate he was offended or threatened by the "new rope" comment (Doc. No. 45-1 at 13).

Weber forwarded the results of his investigation to Chrysler's Global Diversity Office, which reviewed the results and concluded Zatko's remark violated Chrysler Group's Discrimination and Harassment Policy. Chrysler issued a written warning to Zatko as disciplinary action (Doc. No. 45-1 at 17). On February 25, 2009, Weber informed Plaintiff that Chrysler had completed its investigation and taken appropriate action.

Shortly thereafter, on March 9, 2009, Plaintiff filed a charge of racial harassment with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission ("OCRC") based on the "new rope" comment. In December 2009, the OCRC determined there was no probable cause to support Plaintiff's allegations (Doc. No. 43-1 at 22). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") adopted the OCRC's findings in February 2010 (Doc. No. 43-1 at 23).

The March 2009 BMF Comment

On March 23, 2009, Zatko approached Plaintiff, who was operating a forklift, to assign him to a project requiring the operation of a crane. When asked if he had a crane operator's license, Plaintiff responded that Zatko was already aware his license had expired. The parties disagree as to how the exchange continued. Plaintiff alleges he immediately asked for a union steward to be present during the conversation, and Zatko's response was "I don't need a damn steward to talk to you" (Doc. No. 43 at 32). Because Plaintiff felt the need to get away from Zatko, Plaintiff claims he backed up his forklift and began to drive away, at which time Zatko allegedly said "Don't you back away from me, you black mother fucker" (Doc. No. 43 at 32). Defendants' side of the story is quite different: Plaintiff refused to clarify why he did not have a crane operator license, became argumentative, disrespectful, and responded to Zatko by shouting and saying "fuck you" directly to his face before driving away. Zatko denies calling Plaintiff a "black mother fucker" (Doc. No. 44 at 45).

Sean Mack, a human resources generalist and labor relations representative, investigated the incident at Plaintiff's request. Mack interviewed Plaintiff and obtained a written statement from Zatko. Mack also interviewed a witness identified by Plaintiff; however, the witness was unable to substantiate either version of the event. Because Mack could not substantiate the conflicting stories, his investigation was inconclusive (Doc. No. 46 at 12).

The"Tick Tock" Comments

During his deposition, Plaintiff, for the first time, alleged that between the time Zatko made the "new rope" comment and when Zatko called him a "black mother fucker," Zatko repeated "tick tock" to him on numerous occasions as they passed each other in the facility. Plaintiff did not reference this allegation in the charges filed with the OCRC or in the Complaint ...


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