Coffman v. Chugach Support Services, Inc.

Decision Date08 June 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-14382.,04-14382.
Citation411 F.3d 1231
PartiesCharles COFFMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CHUGACH SUPPORT SERVICES, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Robert C. Jackson, Harrison, Sale, McCloy & Thompson, Panama City, FL, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Catherine Ann Riggins, Miami, Gardens, FL, Patrick H. Gonyea, Venis & Bowling of Miami, P.A., Miami, FL, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

Before DUBINA, PRYOR and RONEY, Circuit Judges.

DUBINA, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff/appellant Charles Coffman appeals the district court's order granting summary judgment to defendant/appellee Chugach Support Services, Inc. ("Chugach") on Coffman's claims of employment discrimination due to his active military status, in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 ("USERRA"), 38 U.S.C. § 4301, et seq. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Facts

In October 1997, the United States Air Force awarded Del-Jen, Inc. ("Del-Jen") a contract to provide base support services at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. In the same month, Del-Jen hired Coffman as a Hazardous Materials Specialist to work at Tyndall. From that time through November 2001, Coffman worked for Del-Jen and served as a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Air Force Reserve. In July 2001, Alex Gunn, Del-Jen's project manager, promoted Coffman to the position of Hazardous Materials Program Manager. That promotion included a pay raise for Coffman.

There is some confusion over whether Coffman's position as manager was exempt from Del-Jen's collective bargaining agreement as a non-union position. One of Del-Jen's former officers, Steve Kukak, testified that Gunn did not have the authority to make Coffman's position exempt from the collective bargaining agreement by adding duties and pay. Apparently, Del-Jen discovered the mistake over Coffman's promotion while Coffman was away on active duty. As the district court noted, however, this particular dispute over Coffman's position is ultimately immaterial. At the time he left, and at the time he returned from active duty, Coffman considered his position one of management.

In November 2001, the Air Force ordered Coffman to return to active military duty for one year. Coffman notified the proper authorities at Del-Jen about his return to active service. Consequently, Del-Jen hired Rhonda Cruz as a temporary replacement for Coffman during his absence.

On October 1, 2002, while Coffman was still away on active duty, the Air Force awarded the base support services contract at Tyndall to Chugach, replacing Del-Jen as the primary contractor. The services that Chugach provided at Tyndall were similar to those services Del-Jen had provided. Del-Jen then became a subcontractor with Chugach on the project at Tyndall. Both Chugach and Del-Jen maintained separate contracts with the Air Force. For the portion of the project that was not subcontracted out, Chugach sent in a transition team to interview about 100 Del-Jen employees for employment positions with Chugach.

Previously, in anticipation of Chugach taking over, Coffman had sent Chugach his resume, service orders, and a letter explaining his interest in retaining, and returning to, his former position as a Hazardous Materials Specialist. As a result, Chugach interviewed Coffman in September 2002, but the interview was not for a specific position. Coffman testified that he thought this interview was merely a courtesy meeting. During the interview, Coffman mentioned that he held a managerial position prior to his reactivation. Coffman stated that the Chugach representatives seemed surprised and shocked to learn that he held a non-union position as a manager. Sometime during the interview, the parties discussed an available position that was similar to Coffman's previous position with Del-Jen, but different in that the Chugach position was a non-management union position. Coffman testified that he made it clear during the interview that he was willing to talk with Chugach and work something out regarding the discrepancies between the available position and his former position.

Adrian Darkow, the head of Chugach's start-up team, testified that he was involved in the interview with Coffman. He remembered discussing a management position and believed that Coffman was looking for a management position. According to Darkow, the discrepancies between the positions are why Chugach did not have a position for Coffman. Darkow also claimed that, at some point, he discussed Coffman's situation with Del-Jen representatives and left with the understanding that Del-Jen would be rehiring Coffman. Additionally, Darkow asserted that Coffman's military status was not a factor in Chugach's decision not to hire him. Patrick McCredie, another one of the Chugach representatives who was also present at Coffman's interview, testified that he thought Coffman and the representatives were discussing a vehicle maintenance position. He recalled that Chugach did not have a vehicle management position available for Coffman. He also stated that Coffman's military status had nothing to do with Chugach's decision not to hire him.

Chugach then interviewed Cruz for Environmental Hazardous Materials Specialist, the Chugach position similar to Coffman's former position and, at the interview, offered her a permanent job, which she accepted. Originally, Chugach compensated Cruz at the same pay rate she had received in her prior employment with Del-Jen. Later, Chugach increased her compensation to the union pay rate, as Chugach agreed to abide by Del-Jen's collective bargaining agreement until it could negotiate its own agreement with the union. Cruz's duties at Chugach were similar to her duties at Del-Jen, except for some additional tasks, such as security.

Out of 100 former Del-Jen employees, Chugach hired 97. Coffman was one of the three Del-Jen employees not hired. Coffman was the only Del-Jen employee on military leave at the time of the transition from Del-Jen to Chugach.

On November 14, 2002, the Air Force gave Coffman an honorable discharge from active military service. In the same month, Coffman returned to Tyndall and began working for Del-Jen as a Vehicle Control Coordinator. Coffman did not wish to remain in this position, but wanted to return to his pre-activation position. Thus, in January of 2003, Coffman mailed a letter to Chugach's President, Robert Westermann, requesting to be reinstated to his pre-activation position. In the letter, Coffman specifically mentioned his reemployment rights under the USERRA. Chugach denied his request and asserted that Del-Jen's decision to bring him back to a position of comparable pay and status satisfied the requirements of the USERRA.

B. Procedural History

In September 2003, Coffman filed a three-count complaint against Chugach and Del-Jen seeking damages, attorney's fees, and reinstatement to his former position under the USERRA. Counts I and III alleged that Chugach violated the USERRA's anti-discrimination and reemployment provisions respectively. Count II alleged that Del-Jen violated the USERRA's anti-discrimination provision. Coffman and Del-Jen eventually settled their dispute.

Both Chugach and Coffman filed motions for summary judgment. Chugach filed a motion on Counts I and III. Coffman filed a motion for partial summary judgment only as to Count III, asking for reinstatement to his position. The district court granted Chugach's motion and entered final judgment in favor of Chugach. Coffman then timely appealed the district court's order.

II. ISSUES

1. Whether the district court properly determined that Chugach was not liable to Coffman as a "successor in interest" or "successor employer" and, therefore, owed no duty to reemploy Coffman under 38 U.S.C. § 4312 and 38 U.S.C. § 4313.

2. Whether the district court properly determined that Coffman could not establish a prima facie case of discrimination on the basis of his active military service under 38 U.S.C. § 4311 in regard to Chugach's decision not to hire him.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This court reviews de novo the district court's order granting summary judgment. Chappell v. Chao, 388 F.3d 1373, 1376 (11th Cir.2004).

IV. DISCUSSION
A. Statutory provisions

Congress enacted USERRA to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of military service as well as to provide prompt reemployment to those individuals who engage in non-career service in the military. See 38 U.S.C. § 4301 (2002). Sections 4311 and 4312 of the USERRA provide separate and distinct statutory protections for service members. See Wrigglesworth v. Brumbaugh, 121 F.Supp.2d 1126, 1134 (W.D.Mich.2000). Section 4311 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of military service and retaliating against individuals, whether service members or not, who testify or give statements on behalf of a USERRA claimant. Section 4311 provides, in pertinent part, that:

(a) A person who is a member of, applies to be a member of, performs, has performed, applies to perform, or has an obligation to perform service in a uniformed service shall not be denied initial employment, reemployment, retention in employment, promotion, or any benefit of employment by an employer on the basis of that membership, application for membership, performance of service, application for service, or obligation.

(b) An employer may not discriminate in employment against or take any adverse employment action against any person because such person (1) has taken an action to enforce a protection afforded any person under this chapter, (2) has testified or otherwise made a statement in or in connection with any proceeding under this chapter, (3) has assisted or otherwise participated in an investigation under this chapter, or (4) has exercised a right provided...

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