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Metellus v. Wilson

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

May 25, 2018

Johnathan M. Metellus, Plaintiff,
Heather Wilson, Secretary of the United States Air Force, [1] Defendant.



         Pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF 30. Therein, Defendant, Secretary of the Air Force, requests that the Court grant summary judgment on Plaintiff Johnathan M. Metellus's claims of race discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation. Because Plaintiff has no direct evidence that Defendant's decisions not to promote Plaintiff were motivated by gender animus, and because he has no evidence to disprove Defendant's asserted non-discriminatory reasons for promoting others, and because there is no evidence of a hostile work environment, Defendant's motion will be granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Johnathan M. Metellus was hired as a civilian cook supervisor in the summer of 2014 to oversee approximately 13 employees in the hospital kitchen at WPAFB Medical Center. Plaintiff began work in October 2014, but did not assume supervisory duties until December 2014 when he completed the required training. Throughout his tenure, Plaintiff, an African-American male, reported directly to his first-line supervisor Master Sergeant Jerry Fondren, an African-American male, and second-line supervisor Lieutenant Colonel James Weinstein, a Caucasian male who oversaw the Medical Center's clinical nutrition and food services. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., ¶¶ 2-3 at PageID 262-631; ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶¶ 2-3 at 309.)

         Plaintiff's supervisors were generally pleased with the quality of his work and food preparation. He consistently received positive evaluations, was never disciplined, and never subjected to any adverse employment action. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., ¶4 at 263; ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶10 at 312.) But Plaintiff's relationship with his subordinates was sometimes difficult. Plaintiff believed his subordinates were too friendly with management and often insubordinate to him. (See, e.g., ECF 24, September 25, 2017 Deposition of Johnathan Metellus (“Metellus Dep. II”), Ex. 7 at 223; ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., Ex. F at 277-81.) They, in turn, chaffed at his managerial style and periodically complained to M. Sgt. Fondren and Lt. Col. Weinstein about how he treated them. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., ¶5 at 263; ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶10 at 312.)

         Less than three weeks after starting, Plaintiff was confronted in the hallway by Sean Fennell, one of the kitchen cooks. Fennell, upset that Plaintiff repeatedly belittled him in front of customers, yelled: “You are this close to me taking you out, ” and “How does it feel to be embarrassed in public now.” (ECF 26, Fondren Decl., Ex. A at 315-19.) Several individuals including M. Sgt. Fondren and Lt. Col. Weinstein observed the exchange. (Id.) Weinstein instructed Fondren to collect witness statements and sent Fennell home until Civilian Personnel could be contacted. (Id. at 315.) When Fennell returned to service, he apologized to Plaintiff several times and continued to work in the kitchen. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., ¶6 at 263.)

         The USAF disciplined Fennell in accordance with its policies, which require the first-level supervisor to propose discipline action and the second-level supervisor to approve the final decision. (ECF 27, Declaration of Monica Bryant-McGuire (“Bryant-McGuire Decl.”), ¶3 at 364- 65.) Because Plaintiff had not completed his supervisory training, responsibility for Fennell's discipline fell to Fondren and Weinstein, who were serving as Fennell's first and second-level supervisors, respectively. (ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶5 at 310-11.) Fondren consulted with Monica Bryant-McGuire from Civilian Personnel and shared with her the witness statements he had collected. (ECF 27, Bryant-McGuire Decl., ¶5 at 365.) While Plaintiff had requested that Fennell be terminated or suspended, an option Fondren and Weinstein considered, Bryant-McGuire determined that, under the USAF's progressive discipline policy, the appropriate discipline for Fennell's outburst was an oral admonishment. (Id.; ECF 26, Fondren Decl., Ex. O at 350.) She stated that she assessed Fennell's statements against the Metz factors and concluded that they did not constitute a true threat. See Metz v. Dep't of Treasury, 780 F.2d 1001 (Fed. Cir. 1986). Her recommendation also took into consideration Fennell's clean disciplinary record. (ECF 27, Bryant-McGuire Decl., ¶5 at 365.) Bryant-McGuire, an African-American, was not even aware of Plaintiff's race at the time or the color of either Plaintiff or Fennell, who is Caucasian. (Id.)

         M. Sgt. Fondren and Lt. Col. Weinstein followed Civilian Personnel's recommendation. An oral admonishment issued on November 17, 2014 and was entered onto Fennell's permanent record. (ECF 26, Fondren Decl., Ex. D at 322.) Fondren also sent letters to Plaintiff and Fennell informing them of the availability of counseling services through the Employee Assistance Program. (ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶4 at 310.) During the two and half years he served as Fennell's direct supervisor, Plaintiff never had to discipline him and even nominated him as employee of the quarter. (ECF 24, Metellus Dep. II, 10:25-12:2 at 166.) While Plaintiff alleges that he orally requested a transfer following the incident to avoid working alongside Fennell, he never pursued that option or submitted a written request. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., ¶15 at 266.)

         Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant racially discriminated against him by undermining his supervision of his Lead Cook, Christian Budzinack. Budzinack resigned after only eight months, when the USAF initiated removal proceedings against him at the behest of Plaintiff and with the support of Civilian Personnel.

         Plaintiff's issues with Budzinack began shortly after Plaintiff's arrival at WPAFB. Plaintiff documented his initial concerns in a letter of counseling that he issued to Budzinack on December 8, 2014. The letter charged that Budzinack's actions were disrespectful and were undermining Plaintiff's authority in front of the other kitchen staff. (ECF 24, Metellus Dep. II, Ex. 7 at 223.) Plaintiff elected not to pursue discipline at this point, even though it was within his discretion (and his responsibility) as first-level supervisor to do so.

         Around this time, Plaintiff also suspected that Budzinack was drinking on the job. He raised this concern with Lt. Col. Weinstein. After consulting with Human Resources, Weinstein emailed an alcohol observation checklist to Plaintiff along with instructions on how to document his suspicions. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., Ex. A at 267-69.) Plaintiff never raised the issue with management again nor documented the concern in his letters of counseling or his memoranda regarding Budzinack's performance. Plaintiff concedes that he never submitted a completed form because he was not able to fully verify that Budzinack was drinking on the job. (ECF 24, Metellus Dep. II, 34:15-35:1 at 172.)

         Plaintiff continued to find fault with Budzinack's attitude and proficiency as a cook. In January 2015, he drafted a second counseling letter detailing Budzinack's shortcomings and perceived insubordination over the previous month. He sent a draft of the letter to Lt. Col. Weinstein and asked that the Colonel “make recommendation if necessary and we can discuss.” (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., Ex. B at 270-73.) Weinstein did not make any recommendations. He reminded Plaintiff that responsibility for discipline fell to Plaintiff as the first-level supervisor and that Civilian Personnel would assist him as needed. (Id., ¶11 at 264.) Several weeks later Plaintiff issued Budzinack a final version of the counseling letter, identical to the draft he had circulated to Weinstein. (ECF 24, Metellus Dep. II, Ex. 9 at 226-28.)

         In March 2015, Plaintiff drafted a negative performance review for Budzinack that marked him deficient in 4 of 5 categories and listed his overall performance as unacceptable. (ECF 27, Bryant-McGuire Decl., Ex. C at 379.) M. Sgt. Fondren, as Budzinack's second-level supervisor, reviewed the rating and did not feel comfortable signing the report because he felt there was not adequate documentation at the time to support the rating. (ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶8 at 311.) On the advice of Civilian Personnel, M. Sgt. Fondren drafted his own review and Lt. Col. Weinstein submitted the non-concurring appraisals. (Id.; ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., ¶13 at 265.) Before the final appraisals could be given to Budzinack, however, Plaintiff voluntarily elected to withdraw and shred his review in order to avoid any unnecessary tension. (ECF 24, Metellus Dep. II, 41:5- 15 at 174.) Weinstein instructed Plaintiff on multiple occasions that he was not required to withdraw his review and that it was incumbent that he submit the appraisals he thought appropriate. Weinstein documented these conversations in two contemporaneous memorandums for the record. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., Ex. D & E at 275, 276.)

         After the review period, Plaintiff began documenting his discussions and concerns in Budzinack's Personnel File. (See ECF 27, Bryant-McGuire Decl., Ex. C at 380-83.) He also sought guidance from Monica Bryant-McGuire of Civilian Personnel on how to remove Budzinack. In May 2015, he emailed her a three-page memorandum outlining his case for Budzinack's removal. (Id.) The memorandum attached a copy of the withdrawn performance review and an excerpt of Budzinack's Personnel File documenting ten counseling sessions since March 19, 2015. (Id.) Bryant-McGuire requested additional detail, which Plaintiff provided in a two-page memorandum and a follow-up email attaching photos of food that Budzinack had prepared, and which Plaintiff deemed not acceptable to serve. (Id., Ex. E & F at 391-93, 394- 97.) Bryant-McGuire reviewed the material and determined that removal would be an appropriate employment action in light of the concerns about Budzinack's performance. She relayed her recommendations to M. Sgt. Fondren along with the supporting documentation. (Id., ¶7 at 366- 67.) Because Plaintiff was going on leave, Fondren was going to serve as the first-level supervisor for the proposed action. Before removal was finalized, however, Budzinack resigned rendering the issue of his removal moot. (Id.)

         Besides Fennell and Budzinack, in his two and half years at WPAFB, Plaintiff butted heads with nearly every employee under his supervision. Plaintiff's employees would sometimes bring their complaints about his management style to Fondren and Weinstein. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., ¶5 at 263; ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶10 at 312-13.) Most of the complaints took issue with Plaintiff's condescending tone to his subordinates and did not rise to the level of actionable conduct. (Id.) In many cases, Fondren reminded the employees that Plaintiff was their supervisor and urged them to address the problem with him first. (Id.) In August 2016, however, Kellie Gerber submitted a written complaint to Fondren that he was compelled to investigate. (ECF 26, Fondren Decl., ¶12 & Ex. L at 313, 337-38.)

         Gerber alleged that Plaintiff had insisted she cook her soup in a large kettle rather than the smaller stockpot that she had previously been using without complaint. Because of her stature, Gerber did not feel safe using the larger kettle and worried that she would burn herself or those around her. (Id.) When she communicated this fear to Plaintiff, he responded by writing in her personnel file that she was unable to follow supervisor instructions. Her complaint also stated that she found Plaintiff intimidating, that workplace morale was “low to non-existent, ” and that Plaintiff had on several occasions asked her “some very personal questions about [her] private life outside of the workplace that made [her] feel uncomfortable.” (Id.)

         After consulting with Civilian Personnel, M. Sgt. Fondren investigated the claims, which were partly corroborated by other staff members. (Id., Ex. M at 339-41. For example, Michelle Arantz, an African-American employee, complained that Plaintiff had barred the kitchen staff from attending the work Christmas party and that he “goes out of his way to make us miserable.” (ECF 26, Fondren Decl., Ex. F at 325.) Similarly, Rosemarie Bozard, a Filipino employee, wrote to M. Sgt. Fondren to complain that Plaintiff had unfairly accused her of abusing sick leave. She stated that: “I felt it was very demeaning and am very frustrated that no matter how hard we work, Metellus is always quick to criticize and counsel but seldom ever provides praise.” (Id., Ex. G at 326.)

         On August 24, 2016, Fronden issued Plaintiff an Interim Notice of possible administration action. (Id., Ex. N at 342.) The Notice was non-disciplinary, and simply put Plaintiff on notice that he could face discipline if it was determined he was negligent in the performance of his duties. (Id.) The investigation proved inconclusive, however, and Plaintiff was never subjected to any discipline or other negative employment action. (Id., ¶14 at 314.)

         Two days after receiving the Interim Notice, Plaintiff requested a new supervisor. He complained to Lt. Col. Weinstein that M. Sgt. Fondren's personal relationship with the employees created an “undue hardship” in the performance of his duties and charged that Fondren was conspiring against him. (ECF 25, Weinstein Decl., Ex. F at 277.) After consulting with his Superintendent and Civilian Personnel, Weinstein did not switch out supervisors because he felt that Fondren was doing a good job and because no other supervisors ...

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