488 F.3d 397 (6th Cir. 2007), 06-3845, Jones v. Potter

Docket Nº:06-3845.
Citation:488 F.3d 397
Party Name:Eric JONES, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. John E. POTTER, Postmaster General, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:June 20, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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488 F.3d 397 (6th Cir. 2007)

Eric JONES, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

John E. POTTER, Postmaster General, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 06-3845.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

June 20, 2007

Argued: April 27, 2007

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Akron. No. 05-00163-Christopher A. Boyko, District Judge.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

ARGUED:

John L. Wolfe, Akron, Ohio, for Appellant.

Ray E. Donahue, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

John L. Wolfe, Akron, Ohio, for Appellant.

Ray E. Donahue, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

Before: GUY, BATCHELDER, and GILMAN, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

RONALD LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.

Following a verbal, on-the-job altercation with a female coworker in March of 2002, Eric Jones was discharged from his post as a torn-mail handler with the United States Postal Service (USPS). An arbitrator subsequently determined that Jones's dismissal was disproportionately harsh, which resulted in the USPS returning him to active duty in July of 2003. His reinstatement included backpay for all but 30 days of wages and benefits lost during the period of his unemployment. Despite having thus been "made whole," Jones filed the instant suit in federal district court seeking compensatory damages for having allegedly suffered emotional distress as a result of his earlier firing. He also sought attorney fees and costs. As grounds for the suit, Jones alleged that his termination had been based on improper motives relating to his race, gender, physical disabilities, and prior litigious activity against the USPS.

The district court granted summary judgment to the USPS, holding that Jones was unable to meet his burden of demonstrating

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that the USPS's articulated reason for his termination-namely, its zero-tolerance policy regarding violence in the workplace-was a pretext designed to mask discrimination. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual background

Jones's employment with the USPS began in 1988, when he was hired as a mail handler. His employment has been marked by numerous on-the-job as well as off-the-job injuries followed by a corresponding number of workers' compensation claims and changes in job status. In total, he has filed four claims, three of which have been allowed, and he has changed job title or status (i.e., full or limited duty) no fewer than five times.

In 1993, Jones injured his cervical and thoracic spine while dumping bags of mail as part of his mail-handling duties. He filed, and was allowed, a workers' compensation claim for subluxation of the spine. At some point thereafter, the USPS assigned Jones to the limited-duty position of torn-mail handler. This job required minimal lifting and allowed Jones to sit for eight hours a day.

In 1997, he suffered new injuries as a result of a car accident, but was denied additional compensation because those injuries were unrelated to his 1993 on-the-job accident. Jones returned to full-time status as a mail handler in late 1998. But he reaggravated his preexisting injuries a little more than a year later while at work and was again placed on limited-duty status as a torn-mail handler. He was assigned to a different limited-duty position in early 2001, this time preparing "flats" of unbundled magazines. Less than a month into his new job assignment, Jones injured his wrist. He filed another workers' compensation claim, which resulted in his being once again returned to the torn-mail handler position.

USPS policy required Jones to support his claims and reassignments with medical documentation on an ongoing basis. For the most part, Jones complied. But on two separate occasions near the end of 2001, a workers' compensation specialist in the Akron office questioned why Jones remained in the torn-mail-handler position, which was considered internally as having a "lost production" status. Felton Miller, Jones's supervisor, was promptly notified that Jones had failed to properly document his claim of continuing problems in his neck, shoulder, and back. Miller subsequently ordered Jones "off the clock" for "want of medical documentation" at the end of January of 2002. Soon thereafter, Jones filed a complaint with the EEOC. He was returned to his post as a torn-mail handler a month later after his claim was resolved with the help of an EEO dispute-resolution specialist.

The issues in the present appeal revolve around the events of March 13, 2002. That morning, unlike almost every other morning that had preceded it for the previous 12 years, Cynthia Ortiz did not give Jones a ride to work. The two had been intimately involved from 1991 through 1999, but even after their relationship "officially" ended, Ortiz continued to give Jones a ride to and from work. They both worked for the same "tour" at the USPS Akron facility, and both were mail handlers. Jones took exception to Ortiz's standing him up, and he confronted her once he eventually made his way in to work on the morning in question.

The parties strongly dispute what actually took place during this exchange, but for the purpose of this appeal from the grant of summary judgment, we must accept

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Jones's version of the events. In his testimony before the EEOC administrative law judge (ALJ), Jones recalled the confrontation with Ortiz as follows:

I parked in the dock. I come in the building like I usually come in with Cynthia.

And I said, "Thank you."

And she said, "Thank you for what?"

I said, "All I asked you was for a ride and if you couldn't, to let me know."

And she was putting a package in an APC [adjustable parcel container].

I was talking to her in her ear. I was close.

And she turned around and it knocked the coffee out of my hand.

And I said, "That's why we can't make it, is because you be acting so crazy."

She turned and put her hand in my face like, "Talk to the hand."

I moved her hand out of my face.

And she said, "Leave my work area", twice.

Once she said it. And she said it loud.

I turned around and I walked away.

I went to my work area.

Ortiz's version of the confrontation indicates a much greater degree of misconduct by Jones, including cursing and pushing. But even Jones's version concedes both that he initiated the confrontation with Ortiz ("I said, 'Thank you.' ") and that he touched her at least once ("I moved her hand") during the approximately two minutes that it lasted.

Upon learning of the incident from an eyewitness and after talking personally with Ortiz, Supervisor Miller sent both Jones and Ortiz home for the day. Jones and Ortiz subsequently gave several statements recounting their respective versions of the events. Less than a week later, Ortiz was placed on administrative leave with pay, but was not removed from duty. Jones, however, was assigned to emergency placement without pay until further notice on the ground that he was "injurious to others." In May of 2002, Jones received a "notice of removal" for having violated the USPS's zero-tolerance policy regarding violence in the workplace.

The USPS has a longstanding written policy that prohibits any and all forms of workplace violence. This "zero-tolerance policy" provides in pertinent part as follows:

[E]ach and every act or threat of violence from this day forward, regardless of the people involved and/or circumstances, will elicit a prompt investigation of facts and an appropriate response. While certain behaviors can lead to discipline or removal, our emphasis is on providing a safe and healthful workplace environment for each and every employee.

This zero tolerance policy places all employees on notice that threats, assaults, or other acts of violence committed against other postal employees or customers will result in severe disciplinary action.

B. Procedural background

Jones filed several claims challenging his May 2002 termination as discriminatory. He first filed a grievance through the process set forth in the collective bargaining agreement between the USPS and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. This claim resulted in an arbitration award in Jones's favor that was issued in June of 2003. The arbitrator determined, in essence, that Jones's punishment did not fit his "crime." There was little doubt that Jones's actions, as an initial matter, fell within the scope of the USPS's zero-tolerance policy. As the arbitrator explained:

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Despite his denials of having "cursed" the involved co-worker, called her a "bitch" or, even, to have forced her arm from his face and/or pushed her against a mail container, his admissions of having entered her work area in a "confrontational" posture, having "scolded" her and having "touched" her, in doing so, had been sufficient "misconduct" for discipline purposes.

But these actions did not, in the arbitrator's opinion, justify the severity of the discipline that the USPS ultimately imposed on Jones. Instead, "the evidence persuades that the behavior of the grievant had supported no more than a suspension penalty" of 30 days, which had long since elapsed. The arbitrator accordingly ordered the USPS to reinstate Jones and make him "whole" by awarding him lost wages and benefits for the period of his unemployment, less 30 days. In July of 2003, the USPS complied with the order and returned Jones to active status.

Jones's pending EEOC claim, which he had filed at the same time as his grievance, was ultimately resolved against him more than a year later. In that claim, he had alleged that his termination was the result of the USPS's discriminatory and retaliatory motives. Following a hearing in November of 2004, however, the ALJ determined that the USPS's zero-tolerance policy on violence in the workplace constituted a...

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