Gray v. Toshiba America Consumer Products

Decision Date09 March 2001
Docket NumberNo. 99-6460,99-6460
Citation263 F.3d 595
Parties(6th Cir. 2001) Connie D. Gray, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Toshiba America Consumer Products, Inc., Defendant-Appellant. Argued:
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville, Nos. 94-00712; 95-00616, Robert L. Echols, Chief District Judge.

Michael Ray Jennings, Lebanon, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Karen L.C. Ellis, J. Davidson French, BASS, BERRY & SIMS, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

Before: KRUPANSKY, BOGGS, and BATCHELDER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

ALICE M. BATCHELDER, Circuit Judge.

Toshiba America Consumer Products, Inc., appeals the district court's denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial, following a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff back pay and compensatory and punitive damages on her claim that Toshiba had terminated her employment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5. Because we hold that the plaintiff failed to adduce evidence sufficient to support the verdict, we reverse and remand with instructions to enter judgment for Toshiba.

I. Procedural Background

Plaintiff Connie Gray filed a complaint against Toshiba America Consumer Products, Inc. ("Toshiba") on August 23, 1994, alleging that Toshiba discriminated against her based on her gender when it terminated her employment. Gray alleged (1) sex discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. 2000e-5 ("Title VII"), (2) violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981a and 1983, and a Tennessee civil rights statute, and (3) a claim under state common law for alleged breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. Gray also filed a complaint against the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local No. 429, alleging breach of fair representation, which was consolidated with her claims against Toshiba.

Toshiba filed a motion for summary judgment that the district court granted in part, dismissing Plaintiff's § 1983 claim and the state claims against Toshiba. The remaining claims were tried to a jury in January of 1999. At the close of the plaintiff's evidence, Toshiba moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, claiming that the plaintiff had failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that the non-discriminatory reason promulgated by Toshiba was a pretext for discrimination. The court denied the motion. Toshiba renewed the motion at the conclusion of the trial, and it was again denied.

The jury returned a verdict against Toshiba on the Title VII and § 1981a claims and awarded Gray $60,000.00 in back pay, $5,000.00 for emotional pain and suffering, and $30,000.00 in punitive damages. The jury also found that Local 429 breached its duty of fair representation in handling Gray's grievance, and awarded Gray $10,000.00 in back pay against the union.

Toshiba filed post-trial motions reiterating the Rule 50 motion in regard to pretext, and claiming that there was not sufficient evidence to support the award of punitive damages. In the alternative, Toshiba sought a new trial, claiming that the district court had erred in several respects during the course of the trial. These motions were denied. Toshiba filed a timely appeal on these issues. The Union has not appealed.

II. Factual Background

Plaintiff-Appellee Connie Gray was employed in Toshiba's Lebanon, Tennessee, plant from 1986 until June 11, 1993. Early in June of 1993, Gray and a Toshiba employee named Tammy Lynch became embroiled in an argument involving another employee, Pam Chapman, and the company's policy on appropriate attire in the workplace. The conflict between Gray and Lynch escalated when Chapman volunteered to Gray that Lynch had been calling Gray a bitch. According to Chapman, Gray stated that she would confront Lynch, and if the allegations were true, she would hit her. Chapman advised Gray to let the matter lie.

The next day, another employee told Gray that Lynch had called her a bitch. Gray informed her assistant supervisor, Jackie Harris, about Lynch's derogatory statements, and asked what would happen to her if she hit Lynch. Ms. Harris advised against that course of action, and suggested that Gray simply ignore Lynch. Gray sought a second opinion from Joe Collins, the Plant Manager. Collins also advised against attacking Lynch, and warned Gray that she could be fired for such an act.

By mid-morning, however, Gray had decided to confront Lynch regarding her alleged comments. Gray told fellow employee Audrey Duke that Lynch would not get away with calling her a bitch. According to Duke, Gray then removed her hair-clip and earrings, and put her hair in a ponytail and left her work station. On her way to see Lynch, Gray passed Joyce Mitchell, Personnel Manager at Toshiba. Gray recounted the statements allegedly made by Lynch, and again, asked what would happen if she hit Lynch in retaliation. Mitchell repeated the company line in regard to hitting fellow employees, warning Gray that she could be fired if she hit Lynch. Gray told Mitchell that she was just going to talk to Lynch to determine if she had in fact called her a bitch.

During the mid-morning break, Gray approached Lynch, and asked if she had called her a derogatory name, and if so, if Lynch wanted to repeat it to her face. According to Gray, when Lynch accepted the invitation, Gray punched Lynch in the face, breaking her glasses and giving her a black eye. Thus vindicated, Gray returned to her work station and said to Chapman, "I told you I would hit that bitch if she admitted it." According to supervisor Harris, when asked whether she hit Lynch, Gray admitted to the assault saying, "Yes, I knocked the crap out of her." Gray was dismissed for the remainder of the day.

The following day, Gray met with Leonard Tyree, Vice-President of General Affairs, Ms. Mitchell from personnel, and Margaret Maynard, a union steward, to discuss the incident. According to Mitchell, although the plaintiff was sorry the incident had happened at Toshiba, she was not sorry she hit Lynch. Mitchell recommended that Gray be terminated because the assault was premeditated and two managers had warned her that she could be fired for hitting a co-worker. Tyree discharged Gray pursuant to Rule B-1 of the Plant Rules, which prohibits "fighting on company property where the employee is determined to be the instigator or aggressor." Rule B-1 provides that Toshiba may discharge or suspend the employee for a violation.

Gray based her gender discrimination claim on the fact that three years prior to her melee with Lynch, two workplace altercations involving male employees had occurred at the Toshiba plant. In both those instances, management elected to suspend rather than discharge the participants.

III. Analysis

An appeals court reviews a denial of a Rule 50(b) motion de novo, applying the same test as the district court must apply. K & T Enters., Inc. v. Zurich Ins. Co., 97 F.3d 171, 174-75 (6th Cir. 1996). The motion may be granted only if in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact for the jury, and reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion, in favor of the moving party. Id. at 175-76.

We note at the outset that, although Gray produced evidence to support a finding that (1) she was a member of a protected class, (2) she suffered an adverse employment action, and (3)she was qualified for the position lost, she failed to produce evidence that a similarly situated person outside of the protected class received more favorable treatment, the fourth element necessary to establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination. See Manzer v. Diamond Shamrock Chem. Co., 29 F.3d 1078, 1081 (6th Cir. 1994) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 801 (1973)). The male employees Gray claims received more favorable treatment, in this case more lenient discipline were not similarly situated to her. This circuit has held that

the plaintiff must show that the "comparables" are substantially similar in all respects.... Thus to be deemed "similarly situated," the individuals with whom the plaintiff seeks to compare his/her treatment must have dealt with the same supervisor, have been subject to the same standards, and engaged in the same conduct without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances that would distinguish their conduct or the employer's treatment of them for it.

Mitchell v. Toledo Hosp., 964 F.2d 577, 583 (6th Cir. 1992) (emphasis in original) (internal citation omitted).

However, this circuit has held that following a trial on the merits in a Title VII action, "a reviewing court should not focus on the elements of the prima facie case but should assess the ultimate question of discrimination." Kovacevich v. Kent State Univ., 224 F.3d 806, 821 (6th Cir. 2000) (citing EEOC v. Avery Dennison Corp., 104 F.3d 858, 862 (6th Cir. 1997)). For that reason, we cannot simply hold that the plaintiff's failure to provide evidence of an essential element of her prima facie case is dispositive here. Rather, we must look to the ultimate question--whether the plaintiff has proven that her discharge was intentionally discriminatory.

This does not mean, however, that plaintiff's failure to present evidence sufficient to make out a prima facie case is not relevant to our review of that ultimate question. In employment discrimination cases, if the plaintiff presents sufficient evidence to make out a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to produce evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the action taken; this burden is one of production only, not of persuasion. Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981). If the employer does so, the burden returns to the plaintiff to prove that the employer's stated reason is...

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