Graham v. Shoals Distributing, Inc.

Decision Date03 December 1993
Citation630 So.2d 417
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Kathryn A. King, Florence, for appellants.

John D. Clement, Jr., Tuscumbia, and John B. Gamble, Jr. of Fisher & Phillips, Atlanta, GA, for appellee.

ALMON, Justice.

Gary Graham and Dwight Faulkner were employed as helpers by Shoals Distributing, Inc. Both took workers' compensation leave in the late winter and early spring of 1990. When they returned to work in April 1990, they were informed that their positions were being terminated because of corporate restructuring. Graham and Faulkner then filed separate complaints against Shoals under Ala.Code 1975, § 25-5-11.1, arguing that they had been discharged in retaliation for filing workers' compensation claims. Shoals moved for a summary judgment on January 11, 1993, as to each case, submitting the affidavit of Charles Lockridge, the president of Shoals; excerpts from the depositions of Graham and Faulkner; in-house memoranda of performance appraisals of Graham; post-termination letters to Faulkner and one other terminated employee, Christopher Rickard, who is not a party to these appeals; and a memorandum in support of its motion. The circuit judge set a hearing for February 8, 1993. Graham and Faulkner's attorney then moved for a continuance. The judge granted the continuance, rescheduling the hearing for February 16, 1993. On February 16, 1993, Graham and Faulkner's attorney appeared in court with Graham and Faulkner for the hearing. However, the plaintiffs did not submit a memorandum in opposition to Shoals's motion for summary judgment, nor did they submit any affidavit or other evidence in opposition to the motion. The trial court, under Rule 56(e), Ala.R.Civ.P., entered a summary judgment for Shoals in both cases.

A summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(c), Ala.R.Civ.P. Once the moving party makes such a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to present substantial evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact. Ala.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Ala.Code 1975, § 12-21-12; Specialty Container Mfg., Inc. v. Rusken Packaging, Inc., 572 So.2d 403 (Ala.1990).

Ala.Code 1975, § 25-5-11.1, states:

"No employee shall be terminated by an employer solely because the employee has instituted or maintained any action against the employer to recover workers' compensation benefits under this chapter."

In regard to actions brought under § 25-5-11.1, this Court has held:

"[A]n employee may establish a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge by proving that he was 'terminated' because he sought to recover worker's compensation benefits, which would be an impermissible reason. The burden would then shift to the defendant employer to come forward with evidence that the employee was terminated for a legitimate reason, whereupon the employee must prove that the reason [given by the employer] was not true but a pretext for an otherwise impermissible termination."

Twilley v. Daubert Coated Products, Inc., 536 So.2d 1364, 1369 (Ala.1988); see also Culbreth v. Woodham Plumbing Co., 599 So.2d 1120, 1122 (Ala.1992).

In the context of a summary judgment motion by the defendant in a retaliatory discharge action, this Court has said:

"[I]f the defendant has supported a summary judgment motion with evidence of a legitimate reason for terminating the plaintiff, the plaintiff must then refute that showing with his own prima facie case; of course, the plaintiff has no burden to produce evidence before trial until the defendant has made and properly supported a motion for summary judgment. If the defendant's showing of a legitimate reason is conclusive enough to establish that 'there is no genuine question as to [that] material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law,' Rule 56(c), Ala.R.Civ.P., the plaintiff would also have to produce evidence to refute that showing."

Culbreth, 599 So.2d at 1122.

In the present cases, each plaintiff presented a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge. In Culbreth, this Court held that a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge was established by an employee's proof that he had filed a workers' compensation claim for a work-related injury, that the injury prevented him from working for a period of time, and that when he returned to work he was informed that he no longer had a job. Culbreth, 599 So.2d at 1122. In these two cases, the employees established that they both filed workers' compensation claims, that their injuries prevented them from working for a period of time, and that upon their return to work they were informed that they no longer had a job.

Although the plaintiffs presented prima facie cases of retaliatory discharge, the affidavit of Charles Lockridge sets forth legitimate reasons for firing both Graham and Faulkner. 1

Shoals, a beer distributorship, began plans in November or December 1989 to implement a new distributing plan, called the "peddle-upgrade system," in lieu of its prior peddle system. Graham and Faulkner had been employed as helpers under the old peddle system, and their jobs involved riding with the driver of a beer truck and assisting the driver in loading and unloading beer from the truck. The drivers were paid partially on a commission basis and were responsible for selling the beer to the customers. Under the new peddle-upgrade system the drivers would be assisted by merchandisers, who would travel ahead of the drivers and set up displays and otherwise make room for the beer, so that the drivers would be responsible only for unloading and selling the beer. This new system required fewer helpers, because the drivers would have more time to unload the beer.

Lockridge stated in his affidavit that in late January 1990, he held a meeting with the operations managers and supervisors of Shoals to discuss the restructuring of jobs that would be needed to implement the new peddle-upgrade system. The people at that meeting decided that of the seven helpers employed by Shoals, all but three were to be laid off under the new plan. Lockridge said it was important under the new plan that the helpers who remained with Shoals be interested in becoming drivers and be qualified to be drivers, i.e., that they have qualities of salesmanship. At the January meeting, Lockridge stated, it was decided that Graham, Faulkner, and Christopher Rickard, 2 would be terminated from employment. 3 At that time, neither Graham nor Faulkner was on workers' compensation leave.

Lockridge stated that Graham was "unsuited for continuing to work under the new system because he rarely, if ever, talked to customers or even to his fellow employees,...

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    ...prevented him from working," and 3) "that when he returned to work he was informed that he no longer had a job." Graham v. Shoals Distrib., Inc., 630 So.2d 417, 418 (Ala.1993); see also Rickard v. Shoals Distrib., Inc., 645 So.2d 1378 (Ala.1994); Overton v. Amerex Corp., 642 So.2d 450 (Ala.......
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