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Murray v. Cars Collision Center of Colorado

February 23, 2006

STEVE MURRAY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CARS COLLISION CENTER OF COLORADO, LLC, AN ILLINOIS LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Edward W. Nottingham

ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

This is an employment discrimination case. Plaintiff Steve Murray alleges that Defendant, Cars Collision Center of Colorado, LLC, discriminated and retaliated against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq. (2005), and 42 U.S.C.A. § 1981 ("section 1981") (2005), by maintaining a hostile work environment, demoting him, complaining about his work performance, and terminating his employment. Additionally, Plaintiff asserts claims for breach of contract and promissory estoppel, based on Defendant's alleged discrimination and retaliation, and seeks exemplary damages on all of his claims. This matter is before the court on Defendant's "Motion for Partial Summary Judgment," filed March 15, 2005. Jurisdiction is premised upon 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1331, 1343, and 1367 (2005).

FACTS

1. Factual Background

Plaintiff, an African-American male, worked for Defendant from September 24, 2002 until on or about April 14, 2003. (Compl. ¶¶ 9, 19 [filed July 15, 2004] [hereinafter "Compl."].) Defendant's general manager at the time, Tim Sewolt, hired Plaintiff. (Def.'s Mot. for Partial Summ. J., Mem. of Law in Supp. of Def's Mot. for Partial Summ. J., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 2 [filed March 15, 2005] [hereinafter "Def.'s Br."]; admitted at Pl.'s Resp. to Def's Mot. for Partial Summ. J., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 2 [filed Apr. 7, 2005] [hereinafter "Pl.'s Resp."].) Plaintiff stated on his job application that he had worked from 1980 until 2001 at his father's automobile body shop, "Imo's Body Shop," where he had performed automobile body work, painting, and detail work. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 3; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 3.) Additionally, Plaintiff stated on his job application that he had graduated from a vocational technical school, where he completed an automobile body repair program. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 4; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 4.)

Plaintiff signed Defendant's job application, which contained a disclaimer stating: (1) if hired, the applicant (Plaintiff) could be terminated with or without cause or notice; (2) no employment contract existed between the parties; and (3) no subsequent oral or written statements would create an express or implied contract unless signed by Defendant's president. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 6; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 6.) Further, upon being hired, Plaintiff signed a form in which he acknowledged that he would be an at-will employee at all times during his employment with Defendant. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 5; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 5.)

The remaining facts are highly disputed in this case. Defendant contends that within a week of Plaintiff's hire, Plaintiff's skills as an automobile body technician proved to be lacking. (Def.'s Br., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 7.) Plaintiff maintains that he is a skilled automobile body technician with thirty years of experience and he had no difficulty performing automobile body work for Defendant. (Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 8.) Plaintiff contends that Defendant gave him a lower commission rate than Defendant's Caucasian employees. (Id., Statement of Additional Disputed Facts ¶ 1.) Defendant maintains that Plaintiff received a lower commission rate not because of his race, but because Plaintiff did not own his own tools. (Def.'s Reply in Supp. of its Mot. for Summ. J., Resp. Concerning Disputed Facts ¶ 1 [filed Apr. 29, 2005] [hereinafter "Def.'s Reply"]; Pl.'s Resp., Ex. 16 [New Hire Form].) The parties do not contest that Plaintiff did not have tools and Sewolt lent Plaintiff tools. (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. 5 at 84 [Dep. of Steve Murray].)

a. Plaintiff's Allegations of Harassment

Plaintiff asserts that shortly after he began working for Defendant, Ron Beeman, a Caucasian co-worker, began racially harassing Plaintiff. (Id., Statement of Additional Disputed Facts ¶ 2; Compl. ¶ 11.) Plaintiff maintains that throughout the course of his employment, Beeman regularly harassed Plaintiff and directed racially and sexually charged derogatory remarks at Plaintiff, including calling Plaintiff "brown shit," stating Plaintiff was "brown because [Plaintiff] was full of shit," and telling Plaintiff to "suck my dick." (Id., Statement of Additional Disputed Facts ¶¶ 2, 19, 20, Ex. 4 ¶¶ 3, 8 [Aff. of Steve Murray]; Compl. ¶¶ 11, 15.) Plaintiff maintains, and Defendant denies, that he reported Beeman's harassment to Sewolt within ten to fourteen days after beginning to work for Defendant. (Id., Statement of Additional Disputed Facts ¶ 3, Ex. 5 at 45--46 [Dep. of Steve Murray].) Defendant contends that: (1) Plaintiff never reported any racial or other harassment to Sewolt; (2) the only derogatory remark Defendant knew Beeman made was the race-neutral "suck my dick" comment, for which Beeman received a two-day suspension; and (3) Sewolt never heard or witnessed Beeman harassing Plaintiff. (Def.'s Reply, Resp. Concerning Disputed Facts ¶¶ 2, 3, 19, 22.)

b. Plaintiff's Reassignment to the Automobile Detail Department

Plaintiff denies the following factual allegations. Defendant asserts that Plaintiff's work was of poor quality, and Plaintiff worked too slowly, often failed to include important parts in repair jobs, often did not know where certain automobile parts belonged on the automobile, did not know how to weld, and routinely attempted to hide his mistakes. (Def.'s Br., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 8, 9, 18, 19; denied at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 8, 9, 18, 19.) Defendant maintains that Plaintiff was unable to perform basic automobile body work, and other employees had to assist Plaintiff with basic tasks. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 10; denied at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 10.) Defendant asserts further that the errors other employees made were minor in comparison to those made by Plaintiff. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 11; denied at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 11.) Defendant alleges that Sewolt would remain at work after hours to complete or perfect work that Plaintiff had either not performed or had performed poorly. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 12; denied at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 12.)

Based on the foregoing complaints, Defendant contends that approximately one or two weeks after Sewolt hired Plaintiff, Sewolt transferred Plaintiff from the automobile body technician department to the automobile body detail department. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 13; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 13.) Plaintiff asserts that Sewolt: (1) transferred Plaintiff within a few days of Plaintiff's voicing complaints about racial harassment, and (2) told Plaintiff that he made the transfer because Defendant needed help in the automobile detail department. (Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 13.) Upon transfer to the automobile detail department, Defendant placed Plaintiff on an "hourly wage compensation package," paying ten dollars per hour. (Def.'s Br., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 14; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 14.) Defendant maintains that Plaintiff was paid two dollars more per hour than the only other employee in the automobile detail department, TJ Gash, who was Caucasian and who had been working in the department longer that Plaintiff. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 15.) Plaintiff maintains that he and Gash earned identical wages. (Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 15.)

Defendant contends, and Plaintiff denies, that shortly after Plaintiff's transfer to the automobile detail department, Plaintiff's work performance declined in quality. (Def.'s Br., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 20; denied at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 20.) More specifically, Defendant maintains that Plaintiff failed to clean the shop as required, took excessive breaks, was routinely tardy to arrive at work, and garnered complaints for leaving automobiles dirty after performing work on them. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 21, 24.) Plaintiff asserts that: (1) the quality of his work did not decline; (2) he did not take excessive breaks; (3) he was not routinely tardy to arrive at work; (4) he lost morale and pride in his work because of harassment and discrimination; (5) the cleaning and maintenance work he was asked to do was "demeaning" and "far beneath his level of skill and experience;" and (6) customers complemented his work. (Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 19, 20, 21, 24.) The parties do not contest that Plaintiff's co-worker Gash noticed a decline in Plaintiff's work ethic and a slowing of Plaintiff's work pace. (Def.'s Br., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 23; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 23.)

c. Termination of Plaintiff's Employment

The parties do not contest that toward the end of Plaintiff's employment, Defendant transferred Plaintiff back to the automobile body technician department with salary by commission. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 28; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 28.) Defendant contends that John Gwinner, a quality control representative for Defendant, observed Plaintiff performing substandard work, and reported his observations to Sewolt. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 29, Ex. A--9 ¶¶ 5, 6 [Aff. of John Gwinner].) On or about April 14, 2003, after receiving Gwinner's input, Sewolt terminated Plaintiff's employment. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 31; admitted at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 31.) Defendant contends, and Plaintiff denies, that after terminating Plaintiff's employment, it discovered that Plaintiff had misrepresented his education and work experience on his job application. (Id., Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 32; denied at Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Facts ¶ 32.) Specifically, Defendant asserts that on his job application, Plaintiff stated he worked at Imo's Body Shop from 1980 through 2001, but Plaintiff testified Imo's Body Shop stopped offering services to the public in 1984. (Id., Ex. A--2 [Application for Employment], Ex. A--3 at 9 [Dep. of Steven Murray].) Plaintiff maintains that he worked at the same automobile body shop from 1980 through 2001, which was owned Plaintiff's father, Imogene Murray. (Pl.'s Resp., Resp. to Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 32, Ex. 3 ¶ 2 [Aff. of Imogene Murray], Ex. 4 ¶ 15 [Aff. of Steve Murray].) Plaintiff asserts that after his father retired in 1984, Plaintiff continued operations of the automobile body shop under the business name "Imo's Body Shop" through 1989, and subsequently changed the business name of the automobile body shop to "Steve's Body Shop." (Id., Ex. 4 ¶ 15 [Aff. of Steve Murray].) Plaintiff contends that he used the name "Imo's Body Shop" on Defendant's job application, because that name had been in use longer than "Steve's Body Shop," and to him, the two entities were the same business. (Id.)

2. Procedural History

On July 15, 2004, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. (Compl.) Plaintiff alleges three claims for relief: (1) racial discrimination under Title VII and section 1981 by Defendant's maintenance of a hostile work environment, demotion of Plaintiff, complaints about Plaintiff's work performance, and termination of Plaintiff's employment; (2) retaliation under Title VII and section 1981 by Defendant's demotion of Plaintiff, complaints about Plaintiff's work performance, and termination of Plaintiff's employment; and (3) breach of implied contract and/or promissory estoppel by Defendant's termination of Plaintiff's employment. (Compl. ¶¶ 20--33.) On August 30, 2004, Defendant filed an answer. (Answer [filed Aug. 30, 2004].)

On March 15, 2005, Defendant filed a motion for partial summary judgment. (Def.'s Br.) Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot maintain his claims for: (1) discrimination or retaliation under section 1981 or Title VII, except for his claim for maintenance of a hostile work environment, because Plaintiff cannot establish the requisite prima facie cases, or if he can, Plaintiff cannot debunk Defendant's legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions as pretextual; and (2) breach of contract and/or promissory estoppel because Plaintiff was an at-will employee and no implied contract or promise existed between the parties. (Def.'s Br. at 9--24.) On April 7, 2005, Plaintiff filed a response to Defendant's motion. (Pl.'s Resp.) On April 29, 2005, Defendant filed a reply in support of its motion. (Def.'s Reply.) This matter is fully briefed.

On April 8, 2005, Plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions for spoliation of evidence. (Mot. for Sanctions for Spoliation of Evid. [filed Apr. 8, 2005].) Plaintiff argued that Defendant intentionally destroyed crucial evidence in the form of Plaintiff's time cards, which purportedly would establish Plaintiff's work attendance history. (Id. at 4--10.) Plaintiff argued further that such records of his work attendance history would be critical in this case because of Defendant's contention that it terminated Plaintiff's employment in part because of repeated tardiness, missed work, and Plaintiff's practice of leaving work early. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff requested that this court:

(1) assume an adverse inference against Defendant that the time cards would not have supported its asserted reasons for terminating Plaintiff's employment, and that such inference is sufficient evidence of pretext to deny Defendant's motion for summary judgment; (2) exclude at trial testimony and other evidence regarding Plaintiff's alleged tardiness and unexcused absences; and

(3) grant Plaintiff attorneys' fees and costs as a sanction for Defendant's destruction of evidence.

(Id. at 9--10.) On April 27, 2005, Defendant filed a response to Plaintiff's motion, in which it argued that it did not misplace or destroy Plaintiff's time cards willfully or in bad faith. (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Mot. for ...


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