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Summers v. Green River Corp.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

July 2, 2019

MHARIEL SUMMERS, Plaintiff,
v.
GREEN RIVER CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Daniel D. Domenico United States District Judge.

         This is a case of alleged race and sex employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Following a period of poor profit figures at the television, furniture, and appliances store Plaintiff oversaw, Defendant demoted her from General Manager to Manager Trainee-an act Plaintiff views as motivated by her race and gender. Before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment on both claims. (Motion, Doc. 38; Response, Doc. 44; Reply, Doc. 46.) The Court GRANTS the Motion.

         I. UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS [1]

         Aaron's, Inc. owns and operates businesses specializing in a variety of products-including televisions, furniture, and appliances. Its franchisees offer affordable payment options to credit-constrained and under-banked customers through a process known as “rent-to-own.” Defendant Green River is a franchisee of Aaron's in the Denver, Colorado area owned by Ford Bohannon and Steve Johnson, originally with ten locations. Each store was leanly staffed and run by a General Manager (GM) who was assisted by a Customer Services Manager (CSM) and Sales Manager (SM). Most stores also employed a Manager Trainee (MT). Mr. Johnson, as Regional Manager, and Ian Plummer, as Regional Accounts Manager, oversaw aspects of all locations, including the GMs. Mr. Bohannon generally remained at home in Georgia and relied on Mr. Plummer and Mr. Johnson to ensure no discrimination took place in the stores. Green River claims to be an equal opportunity employer that does not discriminate based on sex or race.

         Green River hired Plaintiff Mhariel Summers on August 23, 2013 as an MT at one of its stores. She is an African-American, lesbian female and considers herself to have an unconventionally masculine, “less feminine” appearance. At times, customers would mistake her for a man, and she would generally not correct them. Ms. Summers was paid $11.50 per hour and worked forty-five hours per week. Only weeks after starting, she applied for a promotion to GM. Mr. Johnson, who initially interviewed her for the MT position, promoted her to GM of a different store and increased her salary to approximately $45, 000 annually. Green River then flew her to Atlanta for three days of training at Aaron's corporate office and paid all her related expenses for the trip. As GM, Ms. Summers felt the historical performance of the store she oversaw was “not bad, ” but there were areas for improvement: It was smaller than other Green River stores and had been historically difficult to grow.[2] She also felt positive about working under Mr. Johnson. According to her, he was instructive, approachable, direct, patient, and “always seemed to have [her] best interest in mind.” Jeff Sayers, another GM, reports that she was well-liked and known as hardworking.[3]

         To Green River, pre-tax profit was a very important driving metric and a focus for both Messrs. Bohannon and Johnson.[4] In 2014, while Ms. Summers was a GM, Green River sold five of its ten stores, and two of the remaining stores were new (having opened in May 2013 and March 2014)-meaning that they were not expected to be making a profit. Moreover, Green River allocates its corporate expenses, such as salaries for regional employees and general accounting and legal fees, across all stores. These circumstances made it important to Green River that existing stores generate profit to offset expected losses. After the sale, the race and gender makeup of the remaining five GMs was Hispanic female; white male; white male; African-American female (Ms. Summers); and white female.

         The financial figures at Ms. Summers's store were initially healthy. In the first half of 2014, it made $94, 813 in pre-tax profit. She received a $7, 000 bonus in May or June of 2014, and Green River increased her salary from $45, 000 to $62, 000. But in the second half of the year, the store made only $12, 264, a decline of 87% (and a 76% drop from the $50, 600 pre-tax profit it earned during the same six-month period the year before). She also had losses of $8, 652 in October 2014 and $1, 465 in December 2014. Seeking potential causes, Mr. Bohannon found there had been a steep increase in charge-offs (or write-offs for bad debt) in Q4 of 2014 at Ms. Summers's store. On October 15, 2014, Mr. Plummer issued her a “Written Counseling” identifying concerns about her not calling customers who were late on their payments. In September and December 2014, the store was short-staffed after Ms. Summers fired several employees. In January 2015, her two key associates, the SM and CSM, both voluntarily departed for different jobs, and both expressed frustrations with Ms. Summers's management. While other GMs also experienced profit decline during late 2014, none were as significant or immediate as what befell Ms. Summers's location. For example, two other stores saw only 44% and 48% reductions from the first half to second half of 2014.

         In January 2015, Mr. Plummer's job title changed to Regional Manager, and his interactions with Ms. Summers increased. Messrs. Johnson, Plummer, and Bohannon discussed whether they should terminate Ms. Summers or place her in another position. Mr. Bohannon recognized that her store had become the worst-performing in the Green River franchise. Mr. Johnson felt that the store's declining profitability was due to poor leadership. Messrs. Plummer and Johnson recommended that Green River demote Ms. Summers back to MT at a different store under Jeff Sayers-who she considered to be the best GM in its system-so that she could receive additional training and mentoring. In the end, the three collectively decided to demote her for “poor store performance and leadership deficiencies.” In February 2015, Green River replaced her with Jerry Lovett, a white male with twenty-five years of management experience, including overseeing up to 1, 500 employees. In the twelve months following Ms. Summers's demotion, the store she used to manage generated pre-tax profits of $178, 000.

         GM Jeff Sayers has expressed confusion with the decision to demote Ms. Summers. In his opinion, Green River would usually permit a GM's numbers to decline for a substantially longer period before taking such action. He felt that he had seen other people do worse things and get a “slap on the hand” or an only temporary demotion. He opined that other GMs were not disciplined for having high charge-offs[5] and that Ms. Summers was not a substandard employee. He believed her demotion was designed to open the position for Mr. Lovett and to encourage her to quit. He added that Ms. Summers was, in fact, growing the customer count at her store.[6] Mr. Sayers also stated that it “crossed his mind” that Ms. Summers was treated differently because she is a black woman and “pretty much all of our stores [were run by] white males.”[7]

         On March 25, 2015, Ms. Summers resigned. After filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she filed this case on September 5, 2017, alleging race and sex[8] discrimination in violation of Title VII. She admits that, prior to resigning, she never complained to anyone at Green River about discrimination. She now asserts that Mr. Plummer discriminated against her in the demotion process. Her belief is that her masculine presentation makes her not the “conventional woman that conservative individuals are accustomed to . . . having to deal with on a day-to-day basis” in a leadership position. She explained that Mr. Plummer had never done anything to her to make her feel like he did not like her because of her race or gender. She saw him as “a very professional guy” from whom she's “always felt professionalism” and who was never critical of her image. However, she continued:

Maybe just by the way he carries himself and the fact that there were no -- no other black employees with Green River at the time that I got hired. That is just my assumption that, you know, maybe he didn't have a lot of experience with working with and being in close quarters with -- with a black person or maybe with a black lesbian or with a young black lesbian. You know, I - I'm really the polar opposite of [Mr. Plummer]. So I guess that's why I say what he's accustomed to. I don't know him personally to say who, you know, is in his social circle or anything like that. But just based on what I could gather.[9]

         On this basis, Ms. Summers believes Mr. Plummer did not want a “black masculine woman” in a leadership position and decided to demote her.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The purpose of a summary judgment motion is to assess whether trial is necessary. White v. York Int'l Corp., 45 F.3d 357, 360 (10th Cir. 1995). Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Adamson v. Multi Cmty. Diversified Servs., Inc., 514 F.3d 1136, 1145 (10th Cir. 2008). A fact is material if it could affect the outcome of the suit under governing law; a dispute of fact is genuine if a rational jury could find for the nonmoving party on the evidence presented. Id. If a reasonable juror ...


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