United States District Court, D. Colorado
D. Domenico United States District Judge.
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.
UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS 
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
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. 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
Green River, pre-tax profit was a very important driving
metric and a focus for both Messrs. Bohannon and
Johnson. 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.
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.
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.
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 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. 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
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
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.
basis, Ms. Summers believes Mr. Plummer did not want a
“black masculine woman” in a leadership position
and decided to demote her.
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 ...