Noble v. Brinker Intern., Inc.

Decision Date03 December 2004
Docket NumberNo. 02-4190.,02-4190.
Citation391 F.3d 715
PartiesMarcus A. NOBLE, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. BRINKER INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Thomas L. Rosenberg, Ulmer & Berne, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellant. Laren E. Knoll, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Thomas L. Rosenberg, Rebecca B. Jacobs, Ulmer & Berne, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellant. Laren E. Knoll, Dennis M. McGuire, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellee.

Before: RYAN, DAUGHTREY, and CLAY, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

RYAN, Circuit Judge.

In this civil rights case, the plaintiff, Marcus A. Noble, alleges that the defendant, Brinker International, Inc., acting by and through its agent, Anthony Ficorilli, terminated Noble's employment because of his race. After a jury found in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial. This motion was denied, and the defendant now appeals from the district court's denial of its motion.

The legal issue presented — whether the district court erred in denying the defendants' request for judgment as a matter of law — is relatively simple, but the answer is obtained, for reasons we shall explain, only by conducting a close examination of the facts of the case in order to determine whether they are legally sufficient to support the jury's finding of intentional race discrimination. Therefore, we must burden our opinion with an extensive discussion of those facts, which, as will be explained, do not support the jury's verdict and should have resulted in a judgment for the defendant, as a matter of law. Therefore, we must reverse.

I.
A.

The defendant, Brinker International, is a holding company whose subsidiaries operate a number of concept restaurants throughout the country; one of these restaurants is Romano's Macaroni Grill in Worthington, Ohio. Noble, a black male, began working as a server at the Macaroni Grill on July 9, 1998. At that time, Linda Lawrence worked as the restaurant's general manager. Noble claims that Lawrence subjected him to disparate treatment in the terms and conditions of his employment during her tenure as general manager of the restaurant. Noble complained to Lawrence and others about what he perceived to be Lawrence's racial discrimination. Noble was permitted to introduce a significant amount of evidence at trial pertaining to Lawrence's allegedly discriminatory treatment of him and other minority employees.

In January 1999, however, Lawrence transferred out of the Worthington Macaroni Grill to a Macaroni Grill in Maine. Anthony Ficorilli replaced her as general manager of the restaurant. After Lawrence transferred out of Ohio, she and Ficorilli met once to discuss the restaurant. Both testified that they did not discuss Marcus Noble. Noble testified that "[t]hings were a lot better" after Ficorilli came to the restaurant. At trial, Noble testified that "99.9 percent" of the "threats and harassment" he experienced at the restaurant came from Lawrence. In his sworn deposition, also introduced at trial, Noble testified that no one but Lawrence subjected him to "threats and harassment." Noble never complained to Ficorilli or anyone else that any of the actions taken by Ficorilli prior to Noble's termination were taken on account of race.

On Thursday, April 15, or Friday, April 16, 1999, Ficorilli noticed that he had an evening shift that needed to be covered by a server that Saturday, April 17, 1999. Ficorilli claims that he asked Noble if he would be willing to cover the shift, and Noble agreed to do so. Ficorilli states that he confirmed the arrangement with Noble at least twice during their conversation. The alleged understanding between Ficorilli and Noble was not noted in the place in which such shifts are usually recorded, and Brinker was unable to produce any written record of the agreement. After Noble did not appear for work on Saturday and did not call to explain his absence, Ficorilli stated that he decided to discharge Noble for failing to appear for work or call on Saturday, April 17, 1999. An assistant manager testified that he mentioned Noble's prior claims of discrimination to Ficorilli "at the time that [Noble] had missed a shift... that he had agreed to work for Tony Ficorilli." Aside from the assistant manager's testimony that he made Ficorilli "aware that there was a history there," there was no evidence that Ficorilli was otherwise aware of the prior contentious history between Lawrence and Noble. When Noble attempted to return to work on Sunday, April 18, he was informed that he had been terminated for being a "no call/no show" the previous evening.

Noble, on the other hand, claims that he never agreed to cover a shift on Saturday, April 17, 1999. He contends that Ficorilli fabricated the incident to provide grounds for firing him. Noble argues that the real reason for his termination was his race.

B.

Noble filed suit, alleging that both Lawrence's actions and Ficorilli's decision to terminate his employment violated 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Ohio Revised Code § 4112, and Ohio public policy. Brinker filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted only as to Noble's Ohio public policy claim. The court denied Brinker's motion with respect to Noble's claims brought under the above-mentioned sections of state and federal law. Although denying Brinker's motion for summary judgment, the district court held that the only adverse employment action to which Noble had been subjected was his termination. That is, the court held that the discriminatory treatment Noble allegedly suffered at the hands of Lawrence was not actionable.

The case proceeded to trial, but the district court dismissed the jury after it was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The case again proceeded to trial, and Brinker moved for judgment as a matter of law at the end of the plaintiff's case-in-chief, again at the end of the defendant's case, and again at the close of all evidence. These motions were denied. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, and the district court entered judgment accordingly. Brinker filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The district court denied this motion as well, and Brinker now appeals.

II.

We review a district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law or a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo. United States v. Alpine Indus., Inc., 352 F.3d 1017, 1022 (6th Cir.2003). "In doing so, we use the same standard of review used by the district court." Id. That is, judgment as a matter of law "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." Gray v. Toshiba Am. Consumer Prods., Inc., 263 F.3d 595, 598 (6th Cir.2001).

III.
A.

Title VII forbids an employer "to ... discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).

The Ohio courts have held that the evidentiary standards and burdens of proof applicable to a claimed violation of Title VII ... are likewise applicable in determining whether a violation of Ohio Rev.Code § 4112 has occurred. Thus, the federal case law governing Title VII actions is generally applicable to cases involving alleged violations of Chapter 4112.

Williams v. Ford Motor Co., 187 F.3d 533, 538 (6th Cir.1999). Finally, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcing of private contracts. See 42 U.S.C. § 1981. "The elements of [a] prima facie case as well as the allocations of the burden of proof are the same for employment claims stemming from Title VII and § 1981." Johnson v. Univ. of Cincinnati, 215 F.3d 561, 573 n. 5 (6th Cir.2000) (citing St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 125 L.Ed.2d 407 (1993)).

B.

Brinker argues that "[t]he district court erred in denying [the defendant's renewed] motion for judgment as a matter of law because there was no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for Noble on his claim of illegal discrimination." Among other things, Brinker argues that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because "Noble ... failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination and [did] not present [ ] evidence to support his claim that [the defendant] discharged him because of his race."

When entertaining a motion for judgment as a matter of law following a trial on the merits in a Title VII case, "'a reviewing court should not focus on the elements of the prima facie case but should assess the ultimate question of discrimination.'" Gray, 263 F.3d at 599 (quoting Kovacevich v. Kent State Univ., 224 F.3d 806, 821 (6th Cir.2000)). The Supreme Court has explained:

when the defendant fails to persuade the district court to dismiss the action for lack of a prima facie case, and responds to the plaintiff's proof by offering evidence of the reason for the plaintiff's [termination], the factfinder must then decide whether the [termination] was discriminatory within the meaning of Title VII. At this stage, the McDonnell-Burdine presumption "drops from the case," and "the factual inquiry proceeds to a new level of specificity."

U.S. Postal Serv. Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 714-15, 103 S.Ct. 1478, 75 L.Ed.2d 403 (1983) (footnote and internal citations omitted). That is, "the sole remaining issue [is] `discrimination vel non.'" Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530...

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