Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 90-8925

Decision Date19 April 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-8925,90-8925
Parties, 13 Employee Benefits Ca 2451 Bill CLARK; Herbert Futch; Austin Hurst; Louis Sliker and William Barrineau, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. COATS & CLARK, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Jeanne M.L. Player, Spriggs & Kidder, Tallahassee, Fla., for plaintiffs-appellants.

William K. Principe and Rosemary C. Lumpkins, Constangy, Brooks & Smith, Atlanta, Ga., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

Before KRAVITCH and COX, Circuit Judges, and RONEY, Senior Circuit Judge.

COX, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs Bill Clark, Herbert Futch, Austin Hurst, Louis Sliker and William Barrineau appeal the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Coats & Clark, Inc. Because we conclude that the district court improperly construed the Supreme Court's decision in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986), we reverse and remand for further proceedings.


All five plaintiffs are former employees of Coats & Clark, Inc., and all five were participants under an employee pension plan covered by section 510 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). 1 Futch and Hurst were terminated in December 1983, after 21 and 26 years of service, respectively. Sliker and Barrineau were terminated in March 1985 after 9 and 25 years service, respectively. Clark was either terminated or accepted voluntary early retirement 2 in October 1985 after 38 years of employment.

Each plaintiff alleges that Coats & Clark terminated him for the purpose of interfering with his attainment of pension and retirement benefits, in violation of section 510 of ERISA. Clark also asserts that his termination violated section 7(b) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) 3 and was carried out in a manner intended to inflict severe emotional distress, in violation of Georgia law.

Coats & Clark moved for summary judgment and the district court granted the motion. The court rejected all five plaintiffs' ERISA claims because it found that the plaintiffs could "not establish even a prima facie case that the defendant was motivated by a specific intent to deprive the plaintiffs of pension benefits in violation of Section 510." District Court Opinion and Order, Sept. 20, 1990, at 4. Clark's emotional distress claim was barred, the court held, by the Georgia workers' compensation statute, 4 and even if it were not barred, the court found that Clark alleged "no facts ... that rise to the level of 'extreme and outrageous' conduct required to constitute an intentional infliction of emotional distress." Id. Finally, the court dismissed Clark's ADEA claim because he "fail[ed] to present evidence sufficient to establish a prima facie case that the defendant intended to discriminate against him because of his age." Id. Even if Clark had presented a prima facie case of age discrimination, the court said, Coats & Clark asserted valid reasons for terminating Clark, and Clark had not and could not "establish that the reasons asserted by the defendant for his termination are simply pretextual." Id. at 4-5.


The district court misplaced the burdens in ruling on Coats & Clark's motion for summary judgment. Unfortunately, this problem is not uncommon in our circuit. We think it would be helpful to set out the basic contours of summary judgment law and then describe how Coats & Clark, as the movant, as well as the district court, misinterpreted that law.

A. Summary Judgment--Pre-Celotex

In Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970), the Supreme Court discussed the proper allocation of the parties' burdens on a motion for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. 5 Adickes alleged a conspiracy between Kress employees and the police to refuse her service in Kress's restaurant. The Supreme Court held that the district court erred in granting Kress's motion for summary judgment. Id. at 153, 90 S.Ct. at 1606. "As the moving party, [Kress] has the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact, and for these purposes the material it lodged must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party." Id. at 157, 90 S.Ct. at 1608. Kress had not "carried its burden because of its failure to foreclose the possibility that there was a policeman in the Kress store while [Adickes] was awaiting service, and that this policeman reached an understanding with some Kress employee that [Adickes] not be served." Id. Kress, as the moving party, failed to negate an element of Adickes's claim. Because a jury could decide, based on the material in the record, that such an agreement was reached, a genuine issue of material fact remained, and a trial would be necessary to resolve that issue.

The Court stated that because Kress had not met its initial burden, Adickes "was not required to come forward with suitable opposing affidavits" or other evidentiary material. Id. at 160, 90 S.Ct. at 1610. Adickes therefore held that unless the movant meets its burden under Rule 56, the obligation of the opposing party does not arise even if no opposing evidentiary material is presented by the party opposing the motion. Further, the Adickes Court concluded that this was the rule regardless of which party would bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 157, 90 S.Ct. at 1608. Our circuit adheres to the Adickes rule. See, e.g., Impossible Elecs. Techniques, Inc. v. Wackenhut Protective Sys., Inc., 669 F.2d 1026, 1031 (Former 5th Cir.1982) ("the party seeking summary judgment bears the exacting burden of demonstrating that there is no actual dispute as to any material fact in the case"; "the party opposing a motion for summary judgment need not respond to it with any affidavits or other evidence unless and until the movant has properly carried its burden").

B. Celotex

In 1986, the Supreme Court revisited summary judgment law in a trio of cases, Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986), Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986), and Matsushita Electric Industrial Corp. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Of the three, Celotex is the most notable, not because it significantly changed summary judgment law, but because it is so commonly misunderstood and misapplied.

Celotex involved an unusual situation. Catrett sued several asbestos manufacturers, including Celotex Corp., alleging her husband's death resulted from his exposure to products containing asbestos. Thirteen of the defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that since Catrett had presented no evidence that her husband was ever exposed to any products that contained asbestos manufactured by the defendants, there was no genuine issue of material fact. The district court agreed and granted the motions. The Court of Appeals reversed. A two-judge majority held that Celotex's summary judgment motion was "fatally defective" because Celotex "made no effort to adduce any evidence, in the form of affidavits or otherwise, to support its motion." Catrett v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 756 F.2d 181, 184 (D.C.Cir.1985), rev'd, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (emphasis in original). The court believed it was bound by the Adickes rule that "the party opposing the motion for summary judgment bears the burden of responding only after the moving party has met its burden of coming forward with proof of the absence of any genuine issues of material fact." Id. (emphasis in original; footnote omitted). The dissenting judge argued that courts should not apply the Adickes rule "even in cases where there is not a triable, factual dispute." Id. at 188 (Bork, J., dissenting).

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the Court of Appeals. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Essentially, the Court agreed with the dissenting judge below. The Court held that in the unusual situation presented in Celotex, where neither party could prove either the affirmative or the negative of an essential element of the claim--exposure to Celotex's products--Celotex had met its burden by showing that Catrett would not be able to meet its burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23, 106 S.Ct. at 2552. Celotex met its burden by noting that Catrett "had failed to identify, in answering interrogatories specifically requesting such information, any witness who could testify about the decedent's exposure to [Celotex's] asbestos products." Id. at 320, 106 S.Ct. at 2551. The Court's inquiry did not end there, however. By meeting its burden, Celotex merely shifted the burden to Catrett to point to other portions of the record that would show that there was indeed a genuine issue of fact regarding the causation issue. 6 The Court's conclusion that Celotex had met its burden under these circumstances is understandable. To have required a trial when it was clear from the materials in the record that Catrett could not prove her claim would have been a waste of time and resources, and would have unnecessarily restricted the proper use of summary judgment.

The Court established an exception to the Adickes rule for this uncommon situation. We must emphatically state, however, that the Court did not overrule Adickes. Rather, the Court reiterated that "[o]f course, a party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. at 2553 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P....

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