Benoit v. Technical Mfg. Corp.

Citation331 F.3d 166
Decision Date09 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-1519.,02-1519.
PartiesJoseph BENOIT, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. TECHNICAL MANUFACTURING CORPORATION, Defendant, Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)

Matthew Cobb, with whom Law Office of Matthew Cobb was on brief, for appellant.

Mark A. Walsh, with whom LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, LLP was on brief, for appellee.

Before LYNCH, LIPEZ and HOWARD, Circuit Judges.

HOWARD, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Joseph Benoit ("Benoit") appeals an award of summary judgment to defendant Technical Manufacturing Corporation ("TMC") on his claims of discrimination and retaliation on account of disability, race, color, and national origin in violation of a number of federal and Massachusetts statutes. Agreeing with the district court that no genuine issue of material fact exists, we affirm.


Benoit is a black male of Haitian origin. In October 1991, TMC hired Benoit as a "finisher." TMC manufactures specialized optical and laboratory tables and tabletop platforms. Benoit's job duties included checking the flatness of completed tables, installing table siding and corners, building wooden crates for the tables, and crating the finished tables for shipping. Benoit was an at-will employee.

A. Job Performance

Benoit was a capable worker who consistently received above-average annual ratings for his job performance. His skills and ability were recognized by his former supervisors, David Byrne and Manuel Eugenio, as well as by the owner of TMC, Ulf Heide. Heide described Benoit as a "very talented employee" who was "capable of very good work." But this did not mean that Benoit's experience at TMC was a smooth one. Although Benoit displayed technical proficiency, he was late or absent during the work week for 35 out of 52 weeks in 1996, 28 out of 52 weeks in 1997, and 8 out of 12 weeks in 1998, the year in which he was fired. TMC fired seven employees for excessive absenteeism between 1995 and 1999, five of whom were white.

Benoit's annual performance evaluations reflected both his above-average work performance and his problems with tardiness and absenteeism. In 1995 and 1996, Benoit received many ratings of "exceptional" for his work ability, yet received the lowest possible rating for attendance and punctuality. His boss, Eugenio, frequently reprimanded Benoit about this behavior.

On September 23, 1996, Benoit received a formal written warning that identified his lateness as habitual and cautioned him that if it continued, he would be disciplined with a two-day suspension. TMC's employment handbook states that "[p]oor attendance and excessive tardiness are disruptive. Either may lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment." The handbook also describes the various kinds of disciplinary action that may be taken at TMC's discretion, including verbal warnings, written warnings, suspension, and termination. Although the section entitled "Progressive Discipline" indicates that these steps will "normally" be followed in order, the handbook also states that under some circumstances one or more of the steps may be bypassed altogether.

On March 3, 1997, Eugenio, Heide, Teresa Drelick (TMC's Vice President and Chief Financial Officer), and Jim Hansen (TMC's Vice President of Manufacturing) spoke with Benoit about his attendance problems. After this meeting, Benoit's punctuality and dependability improved somewhat. In October 1997, Benoit's performance evaluation noted this improvement but stated that Benoit's attendance "still needed work." Benoit's more regular attendance additionally allowed him to compete in the "attendance pool": an incentive scheme that allowed those employees who had perfect attendance for one month to submit their names for a cash prize. Benoit won this pool on three or four separate occasions.

Despite his improved attendance, Benoit was ultimately fired on March 30, 1998, without any further written warning, and without any suspension prior to termination.

B. Work Relations

Benoit had other conflicts at work, all of which involved Eugenio and Hansen. One day in July 1995, Benoit wanted to leave early, and he and a co-worker, Steve Maxwell, agreed that Maxwell would finish Benoit's work for him. When Benoit told Eugenio that he would be leaving early, Eugenio questioned his decision but allowed him to go.

Immediately upon his return the next day, Benoit was told by Eugenio to complete the work he had left unfinished the previous day. When Benoit asked Maxwell why the work was not completed, Maxwell explained that Eugenio would not let him finish Benoit's work. Benoit confronted Eugenio, who began to yell at Benoit for failing to finish the work. Benoit asked to see Hansen immediately. Eugenio agreed, but told Benoit that he had to wait "outside." Interpreting this comment as a demand that he leave the building, Benoit waited outside in the equipment yard until Hansen arrived. Benoit felt that this treatment was unfair and demeaning. After speaking with Benoit, Hansen supported Eugenio.

Benoit eventually complained to Hansen, on February 18, 1997, that Eugenio routinely treated him worse than his white and Asian co-workers. Benoit stated that Eugenio's disparate treatment was evident from Eugenio's practices of disciplining him in front of everyone and writing him up for his poor attendance even when he had an excuse. Benoit also made reference to a number of specific incidents, including the unfinished work incident in 1995, an incident during which Eugenio screamed at Benoit because he left his work station two minutes before break to use the men's room, and an incident during which Eugenio told Benoit that if he left early on a Friday, he would not be eligible to work overtime on Saturday. A written summary of these complaints was made, and TMC began a formal inquiry into the matter.

On February 24, 1997, Benoit signed a more detailed complaint, which was sent to Drelick. Benoit additionally complained about discriminatory treatment at a meeting with Drelick, Hansen, Heide, and Eugenio on March 3, 1997. In notes written by Heide at the meeting, Heide observed that Eugenio was a "very demanding" boss, but stated that he was also their "best supervisor when it comes to knowing what a good day's work is." Heide suggested that the real problem was not race, but Benoit's failure to appreciate the disruptive effect he caused by continually arriving at work late and leaving early. Heide further stated that Eugenio's treatment of Benoit was "not picking on him" but was "a simple expectation of department efficiency."

Benoit believed that his treatment by Eugenio only worsened after making these complaints. On February 17, 1998, Eugenio ordered Benoit to clean up a mess another employee had left in the workroom. Benoit told Eugenio that the mess was not his, but Eugenio insisted that Benoit clean it anyway. Hansen later discussed this incident with Benoit on the assembly floor, stating: "If I drop this cup of coffee on the ground, and ask you to come and clean it up, you just have to do it." Hansen then approached Benoit and told him that if he didn't get off the shop floor, he could "get hurt." Benoit interpreted Hansen's demeanor as threatening. Although there is no record of any formal complaint, Benoit states that he reported this incident to Heide, and shortly afterwards was approached by Hansen, who told him never to discuss the incident with anyone again. Benoit also stated that Hansen apologized for his behavior after the incident.

C. Physical Effects of Employment

Benoit's job was physically demanding. Benoit and his co-workers often had to move tables measuring up to twenty feet long and weighing up to 2000 pounds. Benoit began complaining orally to Eugenio about back pain in 1994. He suggested that TMC install "simple stands" to take the pressure off his back when crating and packaging tables. At least one other department at TMC used stands similar to those Benoit was requesting, but in Benoit's department, TMC supplied a forklift, which was rarely used because it was quite time consuming to operate. In 1996, TMC also made a pulley available for assistance with lifting. Other than the addition of the pulley, which was made available independent of any requests by Benoit, no accommodation was made.

Benoit did not see a doctor regarding his back pain until March 26, 1998. The day before his doctor's appointment, on March 25, 1998, Benoit's hand slipped off a table and he twisted his back. He immediately reported the injury to Eugenio. The next day, Benoit went to his previously scheduled appointment, where he told the doctor that his back pain had begun about six weeks after he began working for TMC, and had steadily worsened. The doctor diagnosed "low back strain and strain of the knees with possible early osteoarthritis." He further explained that some of the pain was caused by "improper lifting techniques," and that a major contributing factor may have been the fact that Benoit had "gained 20 pounds over the last 10 years." The doctor did not prescribe any drug treatment for the pain, nor did he give Benoit any instructions to limit himself to light duty at work. He did, however, schedule Benoit for further tests, and he suggested that Benoit talk to his employer about the problem.

Benoit returned to work on Friday, March 27, 1998, and told Hansen about his recent work injury and doctor's visit. Benoit did not have a similarly detailed conversation with Eugenio. Benoit was subsequently put to work as a "grinder," grinding the tops and edges of the tables in preparation for finishing. Although the duties of a grinder require no bending and are less strenuous than those of a finisher, Hansen denies having officially put Benoit on light duty. Benoit had worked as a grinder on previous occasions, despite the...

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