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Rainieri v. Alliance Tubular Products LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

July 16, 2019

JOSEPH RAINIERI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ALLIANCE TUBULAR PRODUCTS LLC, et al., DEFENDANTS.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE SARA LIOI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is the motion of defendants, Alliance Tubular Products LLC and Alliance Tubular Holdings LLC (collectively “Alliance Tubular”), for summary judgment (Doc. No. 30 [“MSJ”]). Plaintiff Joseph Rainieri (“Rainieri) opposes the motion (Doc. No. 33 [“Opp'n”]), and Alliance Tubular has filed a reply (Doc. No. 34 [“Reply”]). For the reasons to follow, the motion is granted and the case is dismissed.

         I. Background

         Rainieri was employed by Alliance Tubular as a maintenance shift supervisor from 2014 to February 3, 2017, when he voluntarily resigned to take a position at another company. Rainieri was 56 years of age when he was hired by Alliance Tubular and was 58 when he left. During his tenure with Alliance Tubular, Rainieri reported to Bob McClellan, who was the maintenance superintendent for the Alliance, Ohio, facility. Bob McClellan, in turn, reported to Rob Utley, who was the Alliance Tubular facility plant manager. McClellan was 52 and Utley was 48 when Rainieri resigned. These initial facts are beyond dispute.

         In late 2016 or early 2017, Alliance Tubular maintains that it instituted a position requirement for all supervisors that they have a college degree in order to be hired. (Doc. No. 30-14 (Declaration of Robert Utley [“Utley Decl.”]) ¶ 6.) According to Alliance Tubular, the college degree requirement was abandoned in July 2017 when the company encountered difficulty filing supervisory positions with college-educated candidates. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 8.)

         Rainieri began reapplying for the maintenance shift supervisor position shortly after he resigned in February 2017. (Doc. No. 30-2 (Excerpts from Deposition of Joseph Rainieri (Day 1) [“Rainieri Tr.”]) at 291[1]; Doc. No. 30-18 (Declaration of John Lamb [“Lamb Decl.”]) ¶ 3[2].) It is undisputed that Rainieri applied for reemployment twelve times between February and March 31, 2017; and seventeen times between March 31, 2017, and the end of July 2017. (Lamb Decl. ¶¶ 4-5.) Utley made the first decision not to rehire Rainieri in February 2017. (Utley Decl. ¶¶ 25-26.) According to Alliance Tubular, Utley's initial decision was based on the fact that Rainieri did not meet the then-requirement of a college degree and Rainieri had performance and management deficiencies as a maintenance shift supervisor that caused problems for his superiors and subordinates. (Doc. No. 30-17 (Excerpts from Deposition of Robert Utley [“Utley Tr.”]) at 625; Utley Decl. ¶¶ 10-21, 25-27.) Even after the college degree requirement was lifted in July 2017, Alliance Tubular contends that it continued to deny Rainieri reemployment based on Utely's decision that Rainieri was not qualified because of his performance and management deficiencies. (Lamb Decl. ¶ 14.)

         Rainieri claims that age discrimination is the real reason behind the decisions not to rehire him. He also insists that some of the later decisions were motivated, in part, by unlawful retaliation for Rainieri having filed a charge of discrimination with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (“OCRC”) on March 31, 2018, and for hiring a lawyer sometime between the filing of his charge and the OCRC mediation on May 23, 2017.

         On February 7, 2018, Rainieri filed the present lawsuit. In his second amended complaint (“SAC”), he raises claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621, et seq.; retaliation under Ohio Rev. Code § 4112.02; failure to pay overtime compensation, pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 216(b); and willful violation of the FLSA, under 29 U.S.C. § 216(e)(2). (Doc. No. 15 (SAC).) Alliance Tubular moves for summary judgment on all counts, arguing that the undisputed facts show that Rainieri was not denied reemployment due to age discrimination or retaliation for filing an administrative charge, and that he was properly denied overtime compensation.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is material if its resolution affects the outcome of the lawsuit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. If a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, then summary judgment is not appropriate. Id.

         The moving party must provide evidence to the court which demonstrates the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. Once the moving party meets this initial burden, the opposing party must come forward with specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. It is the nonmoving party's duty to point out specific facts in the record that create a genuine issue of material fact; the trial court does not have a duty to search the record “to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479-80 (6th Cir. 1989) (citing Frito-Lay, Inc. v. Willoughby, 863 F.2d 1029, 1034 (D.C. Cir. 1988)); Fulson v. City of Columbus, 801 F.Supp. 1, 4 (S.D. Ohio 1992) (citation omitted).

         The nonmoving party may oppose a summary judgment motion “by any of the kinds of evidentiary material listed in Rule 56(c), except the mere pleadings themselves[.]” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The Court must view all facts and evidence, and inferences that may be reasonably drawn therefrom, in favor of the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962). General averments or conclusory allegations of an affidavit do not create specific fact disputes for summary judgment purposes. See Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888-89, 110 S.Ct. 3177, 111 L.Ed.2d 695 (1990).

         “Summary judgment requires that a plaintiff present more than a scintilla of evidence to demonstrate each element of a prima facie case.” Garza v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 536 Fed.Appx. 517, 519 (6th Cir. 2013) (citing Van Gorder v. Grand Trunk W. R.R., 509 F.3d 265, 268 (6th Cir. 2007)). “‘The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmoving party's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmoving party].'” Street, 886 F.2d at 1477 (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         The district court's review on summary judgment is a threshold inquiry to determine whether there is the need for a trial due to genuine factual issues that must be resolved by a finder of fact because those issues may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. Put another way, this Court must determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52; see also Wexler v. White's Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d 564, 578 (6th Cir. 2003).

[Summary judgment is required] against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be no genuine issue as to any material fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing of an essential element of [his] case with respect to which [he] has the burden of proof.

Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         III. Discussion

         A. ADEA Claim

         ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer to “fail or refuse to hire” an individual “because of such individual's age[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). A plaintiff bringing an ADEA claim “must prove that age was a determining factor in the adverse action that the employer took against him or her.” Phelps v. Yale Sec., Inc., 986 F.2d 1020, 1023 (6th Cir. 1993) (citing Kraus v. Sobel Corrugated Containers, Inc., 915 F.2d 227, 299-30 (6th Cir. 1990)). The Supreme Court has held that the ADEA does not permit “a mixed-motives” claim; instead, a plaintiff alleging a violation of § 623(a) must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that “age was the ‘but-for' cause of the employer's adverse action.” Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 175, 177, 129 S.Ct. 2343, 174 L.Ed.2d 119 (2009); DeBra v. JPMorgan Chase & Co., No. 17-1411, 2018 WL 4212493, at *4 (6th Cir. Sept. 5, 2018).

         1. Direct Evidence of Age Discrimination

         Age discrimination may be established by either direct or circumstantial evidence. Rainieri suggests that his ADEA claim is based on direct evidence; namely, a remark made by McClellan shortly after Rainieri had advised Alliance Tubular that he was leaving to take another position. It is Rainieri's position that, in a conversation in Rainieri's office during a shift change that took place “probably maybe in January [2017]”, McClellan advised Rainieri that he was going to replace Rainieri with someone “stronger than [him] electrically and younger.” (Rainieri Tr. at 280-81.) Rainieri suggests that this remark is direct evidence of age discrimination.

         “Direct evidence is evidence that proves the existence of a fact without requiring any inferences.” Rowan v. Lockheed Martin Energy Sys., Inc., 360 F.3d 544, 548 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing, among authority, Manzer v. Diamond Shamrock Chem. Co., 29 F.3d 1078, 1081 (6th Cir. 1994)). “[O]nly the most blatant remarks, whose intent could be nothing other than to discriminate on the basis of age, . . . constitute direct evidence of discrimination.” Carter v. City of Miami, 870 F.2d 578, 582 (11th Cir. 1989).

         Determining whether a statement constitutes direct evidence of age discrimination requires an evaluation based on the following factors:

(1) whether the statements were made by a decision-maker or by an agent within the scope of his employment; (2) whether the statements were related to the decision-making process; (3) whether the statements were more than merely vague, ambiguous or isolated remarks; and (4) whether they were made proximate in time to the [adverse employment action].

Peters v. Lincoln Elec. Co., 285 F.3d 456, 478 (6th Cir. 2002) (citing Cooley v. Carmike Cinemas, Inc., 25 F.3d 1325, 1330 (6th Cir. 1994)). “No single factor is necessarily dispositive and courts should ‘tak[e] all of the circumstances into account.'” Smith v. Chester Cty. Bd. of Educ., 218 F.Supp.3d 619, 624 (W. D. Tenn. 2016) (alteration in original) (quoting Peters, 285 F.3d at 478).

         “‘In assessing the relevancy of a discriminatory remark, [courts] look first at the identity of the speaker.'” Sharp v. Aker Plant Servs. Grp., Inc., 726 F.3d 789, 798 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Ercegovich v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 154 F.3d 344, 354 (6th Cir. 1998)). “Discriminatory remarks by decision makers and those who significantly influence the decision-making process can constitute direct evidence of discrimination.” Id.

         Here, it is undisputed that the speaker (McClellan) was not the ultimate decision maker. Alliance Tubular contends that the decision to deny Rainieri reemployment was made by Utley, though Utley concedes that he made his decision “after consulting with” McClellan and John Lamb. (Utley Decl. ¶¶ 25-26.) It was Utley's belief that Rainieri was “not qualified for the position and [Utley] was adamant about not bringing him back.” (Id. ¶ 26.) As set forth above, Utley insisted that he made the initial decision based on the facts that Rainieri did not have a college degree and that he had performance and management deficiencies. (Id. ¶ 27.) According to Utley, Rainieri had “an abrasive and argumentative management style” that interfered with his ability to be an effective shift manager. (Id. ¶¶ 10-13.) All subsequent decisions to deny Rainieri reemployment, include those made after the college degree requirement was lifted, were based upon Utley's initial decision that Rainieri's management deficiencies rendered him unqualified for the position. (Lamb Decl. ¶ 14.)

         In evaluating the actions of a non-decision maker, “a biased employee's ‘position [of] influence' is probative of that employee's ability to influence the ultimate decisionmaker.” Chattman v. Toho Tenax Am., Inc., 686 F.3d 339, 353 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Ercegovich, 154 F.3d at 355)). All that is know about McClellan's role in the decision-making process is that he (along with Lamb) “provided input” but that the decision was made by Utley, who was “adamant” in his determination that Rainieri was not qualified for the position. (Utley Decl. ¶ 25.) However, given the fact that McClellan was Rainieri's immediate supervisor, and viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Rainieri, the ...


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