B&S Transportation, Inc. v. Bridgestone Americastire Operations, LLC, 021319 FED6, 17-4281

Docket Nº:17-4281
Opinion Judge:LARSEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Party Name:B&S TRANSPORTATION, INC., an Ohio Corporation; RONNIE HARRIS, an Individual, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. BRIDGESTONE AMERICASTIRE OPERATIONS, LLC, a Delaware LLC; BRIDGESTONE AMERICAS, INC., a Nevada Corporation, Defendants-Appellees.
Judge Panel:Before: SUTTON, GRIFFIN, and LARSEN, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:February 13, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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B&S TRANSPORTATION, INC., an Ohio Corporation; RONNIE HARRIS, an Individual, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

BRIDGESTONE AMERICASTIRE OPERATIONS, LLC, a Delaware LLC; BRIDGESTONE AMERICAS, INC., a Nevada Corporation, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 17-4281

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

February 13, 2019

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION

ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO

Before: SUTTON, GRIFFIN, and LARSEN, Circuit Judges.

LARSEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

Defendants Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC and Bridgestone Americas, Inc. (collectively, Bridgestone) ended a dealership agreement with plaintiff B&S Transportation, Inc. B&S and its president and principal shareholder, Ronnie Harris, sued Bridgestone, alleging that the termination constituted intentional race discrimination contrary to 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The district court granted summary judgment to Bridgestone, concluding that B&S could establish neither a prima facie case of race discrimination nor that Bridgestone's legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating the dealership agreement was pretextual. We AFFIRM.

I.

Plaintiff Ronnie Harris and his wife are the sole shareholders of B&S. The amended complaint describes B&S as "an African-American owned and operated corporation and a [m]inority owned business [which] is known as such throughout the country." B&S became an authorized dealer of Firestone tires in the late 1970s. Then, in the early 1990s, after Bridgestone acquired Firestone, B&S and Bridgestone entered into a dealership agreement. The agreement allowed B&S to pursue "minority set-aside business, "1 although B&S was not restricted to pursuing such business. Because it was pursuing minority set-aside business, B&S "receive[d] certain advantages that . . . other dealers d[id not] have." For example, B&S did not have to provide service and warranty work, and Bridgestone agreed to ship tires directly to B&S customers (known as drop-shipping), which saved B&S the cost of shipping. The agreement specified, however, that "[i]t must be understood that these advantages are to be used only to obtain incremental business for us and to genuinely assist your minority enterprise, and not to disrupt our existing distribution system by merely displacing sales which would otherwise be made by our current dealers or by Bridgestone itself." The agreement could be terminated by either party, without cause, with thirty days' written notice.

From 1991 to 2013, B&S operated under the agreement as a "tire broker," purchasing tires from Bridgestone and selling them to customers. B&S had no retail storefront and did not offer tire-related services, such as service or warranty work. Instead, B&S's business model was to broker tires by phone and computer.

In February 2013, Bridgestone ended the business relationship with B&S by letter. The letter stated that "Bridgestone's reasons for termination include[] Bridgestone's change in distribution and go to market solutions strategies." Although the parties' agreement allowed termination with thirty days' notice, the letter permitted B&S to continue to operate as a dealer until December 31, 2013.

B&S sued Bridgestone, claiming that Bridgestone's discontinuation of the dealership agreement was an intentional act of race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. B&S also asserted various state law claims. Bridgestone counterclaimed, arguing, among other things, that B&S owed it nearly $1 million for tires purchased on credit. After discovery, both parties moved for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Bridgestone on B&S's race discrimination claim and dismissed B&S's remaining state law claims and Bridgestone's counterclaims without prejudice. The court concluded that B&S could not establish the fourth element of a prima facie claim of race discrimination because it had not identified a valid comparator. In the alternative, the court concluded that Bridgestone had offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for ending the agreement with B&S: that B&S's dealership model was not aligned with Bridgestone's current distribution and marketing strategy. B&S could not meet its burden of showing that Bridgestone's reason was pretextual.

B&S...

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