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Constellium Rolled Products Ravenswood, LLC v. Rogers

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

April 28, 2017




         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 92.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Kenneth Rogers brings this lawsuit against his former employer, Constellium N.V. and its subsidiary, Constellium Rolled Products Ravenswood, LLC (collectively “Constellium”).[1]Plaintiff was formerly employed as the Vice President of Human Resources for Constellium's North America operations. Also named as Defendants are Marc Boone, Plaintiff's former supervisor and Constellium's Vice President of Human Resources, and Lloyd Stemple, the Chief Executive Officer of Constellium's plant in Ravenswood, West Virginia. Plaintiff claims he was terminated from his employment in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act (“WVHRA”), West Virginia Code § 5-11-1 et seq., and the public policy of the State of West Virginia.

         The following facts are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Plaintiff is African-American. During his tenure with Constellium, he was the only African-American member of Constellium's senior management in North America and the only black member of Constellium's international human resources (“HR”) management team. (Boone Dep. 250.) Plaintiff was also the only African-American officer at Constellium's Ravenswood plant. He began working as Constellium's Vice President of HR in North America on September 15, 2014. (See Am. Compl. ¶ 7.) Boone made the hiring decision. (Rogers Dep. 91-92.) On July 14, 2015, Constellium terminated Plaintiff's employment for cause. (Stemple Dep. 137.)

         Constellium cited poor performance as a reason for Plaintiff's termination, but the parties dispute the veracity of this claim. Plaintiff's performance evaluations provide some insight. In an employment assessment of March 2015, Plaintiff was rated at a level 9, corresponding with “insufficient performance.” (Boone Dep. 231:1-9.) A level 9 is the “lowest possible score in a category in Constellium's rating system.” (Rogers Aff. 5, ECF No. 97-1.) Plaintiff also received a 2 out of 5 rating in “overall performance.” (Rogers Dep. 264.) Boone completed the evaluation. Plaintiff denied notice of the low ratings, and indeed his Amended Complaint alleges that he received a rating of 3 out of 5 in overall performance. (Am. Compl. ¶ 9.) Curiously, during that same month, Boone rated Plaintiff as “100% on target” for each of his individual objectives. (Boone Dep. 151-152.) Boone later scheduled a meeting on July 2, 2015 to discuss Plaintiff's performance; however, Plaintiff never received notification of the meeting and therefore did not participate as planned. (Rogers Dep. 261-62.) There is no record of any formal disciplinary action taken against Plaintiff during his brief tenure with Constellium.

         Apart from Plaintiff's alleged underperformance, Constellium cited other reasons for firing him. These included “irregularities” related to Plaintiff's claims for expense reimbursement and, more significantly, concerns that Plaintiff falsified an affidavit related to a lien against his prior residence in order to secure the sale of his home through Constellium's executive relocation policy. (Termination Letter 1, ECF No. 99-4.) When Plaintiff began his employment, he was tasked with the development of an executive relocation policy. The policy was implemented on January 27, 2015, with retroactive application to January 1, 2015. (See Email from Rogers to Stemple, ECF No. 92-2 at 51.) The policy provided for the Constellium's purchase of the home of a new executive in order to facilitate the executive's relocation. (Id. at 40-41.) In Plaintiff's case, the policy afforded him the opportunity to sell his Texas home and relocate to West Virginia.

         Under the policy's “Guaranteed Buyout Program, ” the executive could choose to have the relocation firm purchase his or her home if a suitable buyer did not turn up during a defined marketing period. Plaintiff ultimately elected to pursue this option. In March 2015, and while investigating the title on Plaintiff's Texas home, the relocation firm notified Plaintiff that the title search revealed an outstanding lien against the property. (Rogers Aff. at 6.) Plaintiff was not aware of any lien against his home, nor of any unpaid judgment against him in Lamar County, Texas. (Id.) In any event, he assumed the lien was invalid because he understood Texas law to prohibit judgment liens on a primary residence. (Id.) Plaintiff signed a “not same person” affidavit to move the sale forward. (Not Same Person Aff. 1, ECF No. 92-2 at 54.)

         The lien proved troublesome when the relocation firm tried to sell Plaintiff's Texas home to a third party in June 2015. At that time, the relocation firm provided Plaintiff with documentation of the judgment lien at issue. This included a document entitled “Note, Disclosure, and Security Agreement, ” revealing a loan from a Texas bank to Plaintiff dated September 30, 2011 in the amount of $34, 733.21. (ECF No. 92-2 at 63-66.) With this revelation, Constellium demanded that Plaintiff repay the money it had paid into escrow-an alleged $62, 000. Plaintiff refused. On June 26, 2015, Plaintiff drafted an email to Boone explaining his perspective. He wrote, in part:

I still to this day have not received any documents, emails etc., referencing the $62, 000. Names, dates, institutions, signatures have not been made available to me from the Company. [The relocation company] under instructions from someone are keeping their distance. Only the paperwork you showed me which are the same ones that I've seen from Buddy [Stemple] and [the relocation company] are available. None of which mentions the $62, 000, escrow company, title company, amounts, or contacts. I had to retain an attorney to research information. The quick decision that was made by the Company to pay the amount is still strange and confusing, but it cannot be reversed. Never-the-less, I am hopeful that we will quickly come to some type of resolution that will remove the Company from any liability.

(ECF No. 92-2 at 70.) Stemple and Boone terminated Plaintiff's employment several weeks later.

         Plaintiff believes more insidious motivations lay behind his termination. His Amended Complaint involves claims of racial discrimination. While employed with Constellium, the privileges of Plaintiff's employment differed from the white officers with whom he worked. Constellium issued pay raises to Ravenswood employees in March 2015. Plaintiff, Stemple, and Derek Scantlin, the Chief Financial Officer, all received raises. Plaintiff's .9% raise was lower than those of Scantlin and Stemple, although Plaintiff's pay grade was higher than Scantlin's. (Stemple Dep. 150-51.) When Plaintiff questioned Boone about the difference in pay, Boone explained that Plaintiff's pay raise was pro-rated due to his short tenure. However, Scantlin's tenure in his position exceeded Plaintiff's by only six months. (Boone Dep. 145-48.) Plaintiff also asked to refurbish his Ravenswood office upon his arrival. Stemple refused to approve Plaintiff's request, though at least one other employee with less responsibility than Plaintiff received permission to refurbish his office.

         Boone also revoked certain job responsibilities from Plaintiff shortly after Plaintiff's start date. December 4, 2014, Plaintiff attended his first face-to-face meeting with Boone since being hired. (Boone Dep. 7.) The meeting occurred in France and was part of a retreat for all Constellium HR managers. Though Plaintiff had accepted employment with Constellium on the premise that he would be responsible for HR operations throughout North America, Boone informed Plaintiff at this meeting that he would no longer have HR authority over Constellium's plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (Rogers Dep. 302.) Boone intended to be directly responsible for HR services at the plant. (Boone Dep. 10.)

         Plaintiff's suspicions of discriminatory animus grew. While attending a dinner during the same retreat, Boone shared an off-color joke with Plaintiff and his colleagues. The Amended Complaint describes the joke in detail and alleges:

Later that evening, Constellium human resource managers attended a dinner on board a boat cruising the River Seine. [Defendant] Boone told a joke at the dinner, stating that a white man had his wife's name tattooed on his penis that the white man's penis revealed only two letters of the tattoo normally, but when the white man's penis was erect the tattoo on the penis went from the first two letters which were normally visible (WY) to the entire name of his wife (Wendy). One day while on vacation in Jamaica this white man was standing at the urinal next to a black man and looked down and noticed that the black man had the initials WY tattooed on his penis too. The white man stated to the black man “I couldn't help but notice your tattoo, is your wife named Wendy also?” The black man replied “No way man. I work for a tourist company and when women get me aroused my penis reads ‘Welcome to Jamaica, have a nice day.'”

(Am. Compl. ¶¶ 20, 21; Boone Dep. 20-21 (conceding the joke, which Boone described as a “case study, ” was described accurately in Plaintiff's pleading).)

         Plaintiff was the only black individual on the river cruise, a fact of which Boone had apparently taken note. Plaintiff testified that Boone subsequently harassed him, hearkening back to his “Wendy” joke, on two occasions. The first incident occurred in March 2015 while Plaintiff and Boone attended mid-year management meetings in Amsterdam. While in Amsterdam for meetings, Plaintiff happened to be using the restroom at the same time as Boone. Boone stood beside Plaintiff at the bank of urinals, looked down toward Plaintiff's penis, and asked, “How's Wendy?” (Rogers Dep. 312.) The second occurred on June 17, 2015 while Boone was visiting the Ravenswood facility. Boone came upon Plaintiff using the men's restroom. Boone occupied the urinal next to Plaintiff's and asked the same question: “How's Wendy?” Plaintiff did not respond. Plaintiff recalled these events at his deposition. “When he would stand beside me at the urinal and say, ‘How is Wendy?' [it] was degrading and insulting to me and was a message for me to stay in my place or that he saw me only a certain way, reminded me that he saw me as a black man and not as a professional or like the other people.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint also includes allegations of reprisal related to gender discrimination. During Plaintiff's first days on the job, he became aware of a company investigation into the conduct of Steve Mosser, a former employee. (Rogers Dep. 273.) Mosser had resigned before Plaintiff's start date in the wake of sexual harassment allegations lodged against him by various female employees at the Ravenswood plant.[2] (Id.) Plaintiff learned that Mosser would be briefly returning to Constellium's Ravenswood location to finish an uncompleted project. Plaintiff grew concerned about Mosser being on the worksite with exposure to the women he had allegedly harassed. He advised Stemple that Mosser should not be allowed in the Ravenswood plant. Nevertheless, Mosser returned to Constellium's Ravenswood plant, if only briefly, on three separate occasions. During the second visit, Mosser attended a meeting with one of the female employees he had allegedly harassed. The female employee complained to Plaintiff about Mosser's presence at the meeting. (Rogers Dep. 275.) When Mosser was scheduled to return to the plant the third time, this time as a representative of an important customer, Plaintiff again cautioned Stemple against permitting him entrance. Stemple did not heed Plaintiff's advice. Plaintiff claims his termination was motivated, in part, by these complaints.

         Also as relevant to his gender discrimination retaliation claim, Plaintiff describes a meeting with Stemple and other members of the Ravenswood leadership team. During the meeting, the discussion turned to a lawsuit filed against Constellium by female employees. West Virginia's appellate court had just issued a decision unfavorable to Constellium. See Constellium Rolled Products Ravenswood, LLC v. Griffith, 775 S.E.2d 90 ( W.Va. 2015). Stemple purportedly expressed outrage, using the term “bitches” to refer to the female plaintiffs. (Rogers Dep. 283.)

         Plaintiff further claims that Constellium terminated his employment in retaliation for resisting age discrimination. According to Plaintiff, Boone had a practice of preferring young candidates for vacant positions. While reviewing applications for managerial positions at the Ravenswood plant, Boone repeatedly expressed a preference for applicants below the age of 35. (Rogers Dep. 290.) In April 2015, Plaintiff and Boone conversed via email about a specific job vacancy at the plant. Plaintiff proposed a particular candidate to fill the vacancy, but Boone responded that he “would like to see a younger individual so we can develop the team for the long term.” (Boone Dep. 238.) Plaintiff insisted on hiring an older applicant. When asked about Boone's response, Plaintiff testified without elaboration, “I don't think he liked that.” (Rogers Dep. 290.)

         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint includes five counts. Counts I, II, IV, and V arise under the WVHRA and allege retaliation in response to gender and age discrimination, race discrimination, and racially hostile work environment. Count III alleges a common-law claim for retaliation in violation of the substantial public policy found in the Health Insurance Portabilitiy and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”).[3] Count III finds footing in the West Virginia appellate court's decision in Harless v. First National Bank, 246 S.E.2d 270 ( W.Va. 1978), and is commonly known as a Harless claim. At a telephonic status conference held April 25, 2017, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the Harless claim with the consent of Defendants. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment remains pending as to Counts I, II, IV, and V. The motion has been fully briefed and is ready for disposition.

         II. ...

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