Richards v. Schaeffler Grp. U.S., C. A. 20-02024-SAL-KDW

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtKaymani D. West, United States Magistrate Judge
Docket NumberC. A. 20-02024-SAL-KDW
PartiesJonathan Richards, Plaintiff, v. Schaeffler Group USA Inc., Defendant.
Decision Date21 December 2021

Jonathan Richards, Plaintiff,

Schaeffler Group USA Inc., Defendant.

C. A. No. 20-02024-SAL-KDW

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rockhill Division

December 21, 2021


Kaymani D. West, United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Jonathan Richards (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against his now-former employer, Defendant Schaeffler Group USA Inc. (“Defendant” or “Schaeffler”), alleging reverse-sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.) for a report and recommendation (“Report”) regarding Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 34. Having reviewed the Motion and accompanying materials, ECF Nos. 34, 34-1 through 34-8; Plaintiff's Response, ECF Nos. 38, 38-1 through 38-5; and Defendant's Reply, ECF No. 42; and applicable law, the undersigned recommends Defendant's Motion, ECF No. 34, be denied.

I. Factual Background[1]

A. Overview of Plaintiff's employment

Plaintiff, a male, was employed by Defendant from 1995, until August 13, 2019, as an engineer. Compl. at ¶¶ 9-13, Pl. Dep 22, ECF No. 34-2 at 7. When he began in 1995, Mike Natusch, Schaeffler's manager of application engineering at the time of the hiring, was Plaintiff's supervisor. Pl. Dep. 22. Natusch was Plaintiff's supervisor for approximately 24 years, and, overall, Plaintiff had a positive


relationship with him. Id. at 22-23. Plaintiff discussed his career goals with Natusch and believed Natusch helped him reach those goals. Id. at 23. In 2010, Natusch recommended that Plaintiff be promoted to industry manager for Fluid and Pneumatics. Id. at 34; Natusch Email, ECF No. 34-2. Plaintiff worked in this position as an industry manager until he was terminated from employment in August of 2019. At the time of his termination, Ericka Kauer was his supervisor-Kauer had become Plaintiff's supervisor in 2018. Natusch Dep. at 21, ECF No. 34-6 at 2.

B. August Meeting that Led to Termination

Kauer scheduled an in-person meeting with Plaintiff for August 9, 2019, beginning at 9:30, and scheduled it to last an hour. Pl. Dep. at 72; Calendar Meeting Notification, ECF No. 34-2 at 48; Kauer Dep. at 25, ECF No. 34-5. The meeting was referred to as “Biweekly Meeting-Jon CR-IBC-Corp-B-4” on the Event Details. Id. In deposition testimony, Plaintiff recalled that he and Kauer discussed general customers, projects, and things that needed to be done-that it was an hour-long meeting, and there was a lot that was discussed. Pl. Dep 72. Plaintiff testified that “certain things” stood out from the meeting, but he does not remember it “100 percent.” Id.

Plaintiff recalled that at the beginning of the meeting, Kauer told him that she wanted to “have this discussion outside of a regular project meeting where [they] could talk about things away from Eric [Ovendorf].” Id. at 73. Plaintiff recalled that Kauer requested that he grow the customer base and travel to visit customers. Id. at 75. He represented that it had been several months since he had travelled to visit with customers and admitted to “putting a lot of time into the engineering responsibility....” Id. Plaintiff testified that he agreed with Kauer regarding the need to increase marketing and customer development and explained to her that he “was in discussion[s] with different regions, different salesmen, different customers of potential to get into the customer, talk about new projects, new opportunities.” Id. At this point in the conversation, Plaintiff recalled that Kauer asked about “specifics of who those customers were.” Id. Plaintiff testified that he responded with specific names and offices of the new


customers, and in response, Kauer asked: “You can't just give me a month? September, October, November?” Id. at 75-77. Plaintiff testified this was “[v]ery condescending” and further recalled:

She was not willing to work with me with the information. I told her again I would put the information together. This went back and forth probably about four, maybe five times. I remember looking up and seeing her face bright red. The reddest I have ever seen anybody in my life. Her ears were bright red she was furious. I had to put a stop to the escalation. I struck the table. I raised my voice, that's the only time I raised my voice to that point, and said “Stop.” All I wanted to do was get out of the room. So I stood up and went for the door. She said something along the line of you don't speak to me like that, I don't remember. That caused me to pause for a moment, and I left. That occurred over 30 seconds, maybe a minute
That was - - the only thing I can describe, it was a reaction because my request, [Kauer], she continued to escalate. I was not able to deescalate the situation verbally. It was a form of shock to break the escalation.

Id. at 77-78. Plaintiff explained that by hitting the table he hoped it could be “enough of a shock that it would break the chain of events that kept escalating.” Id. at 90. When asked what specifically Kauer was doing to escalate the situation, Plaintiff responded that she did not allow him to reply and just “continued to come after me, demanding information that I told her that I didn't have at the time there and that I could not provide right then and there.” Id. at 78.

Plaintiff recalled that Kauer had a laptop in the conference room where the meeting was held- it was on her desk on her side of the table. Id. Plaintiff testified that he did not see Kauer's laptop or a cell phone move when he struck the table. Id. Plaintiff testified: “All I remember in that time frame was I wanted out of that room. I needed to get away and that was my sole intention.” Id. at 79. He recalled that he did not know where the escalation was going next, and he did not want it to go any further than it already had. Id.

Plaintiff testified that after he left the meeting, he went back to his desk to collect his thoughts. Id. at 85. He did not want to leave things “that way” so he returned to the conference room, opened the conference room door, did not enter, and asked Kauer if they could continue the conversation. Id. According to Plaintiff, Kauer agreed, and with her permission, he reentered the room, and sat down in


the spot where he had been prior to exiting. Id. Plaintiff testified that Kauer apologized, he responded the apology was not necessary, and Plaintiff apologized as well. Id. Plaintiff recalled they began the discussion again and he “thought it was done.. .thought it was over.” Id. He testified that he reiterated to Kauer that he needed assistance and could not continue to maintain his current workload or “hold down two positions that were being asked of [him].” Id. Plaintiff testified that he believed they had come to a mutual agreement, and things were settled when the meeting finally ended. Id. at 91. Plaintiff has not spoken to Kauer since the August 9, 2019 meeting. Id.

C. Post-Supervisor Meeting[2]

On the morning of August 12, 2019, a Monday, Kauer met with Leon Nett from Human Resources (“HR”) to discuss that transpired in the meeting she had with Plaintiff the Friday before. Kauer Dep. at 43-49; Nett Dep. at 33-44, ECF No. 34-4; Natusch Dep. at 24. After meeting with Kauer and questioning her about the meeting with Plaintiff, [3] Nett met with Natusch and asked if he would sit in on a meeting with Plaintiff and get his side of the story. Id. at 44. Nett testified he wanted to have Natusch there because of his previous manager-employee relationship with Plaintiff and because Nett wanted another person in the room. Id. at 44. Plaintiff then had an in-person meeting with Nett and Natusch. Id.; Pl. Dep. at 91.

During his deposition, Plaintiff testified that Nett first spoke, saying “you know why you're here, ” to which Plaintiff responded, “I got a pretty good understanding.” Id. Nett asked for Plaintiff's account about his meeting with Kauer. Id. Plaintiff testified that he gave Nett a very brief account of what he recalled happening at the meeting. Id. Plaintiff recalled admitting in the meeting that he had


raised his voice, admitted to standing up, and admitted to striking the table once. Id. at 125-26; Nett Dep. at 48. Plaintiff specifically testified that Nett told him: “[T]his situation is different because [Kauer is] a female. And because of that, we're going to have to ask you to leave the premises.” Id. at 106. Plaintiff recalled that Nett told him he would be placed on a paid suspension. Id. at 126.

Specifically, Nett testified that they asked Plaintiff to leave the premises on a paid suspension while they reviewed what happened, determined what other steps they needed to take, and they would follow up with him in a day or two about the outcome. Nett Dep. at 51. Plaintiff testified that Nett called him the following morning, referenced a code of conduct or a company policy, and fired him. Id.[4] Nett testified that after discussing the situation with his manager, Greg Tinnell, [5] they decided to terminate Plaintiff because “the policy is zero tolerance, ” and the company “wouldn't stand for that type of behavior....” Nett Dep. at 54.

Plaintiff testified that he was familiar with the policy but thought he had not violated it. Id. at 107. Plaintiff testified he did not know who from the company made the decision to terminate him. Id. He testified that after the incident he was embarrassed about what happened, but he did not think his behavior was “improper.” Id. at 125. Plaintiff testified that he was treated differently than other employees who had had similar disagreements with their managers, but Plaintiff did not know whether, in those instances, any employees had reported their disagreements to HR. Id. at 136. Plaintiff filed an administrative charge of...

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