Sparks v. Sunshine Mills, Inc.

Decision Date04 September 2013
Docket NumberCV 3:12-CV-02544-IPJ
PartiesDAVID MAC SPARKS, PLAINTIFF, v. SUNSHINE MILLS, INC., DEFENDANT.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
MEMORANDUM OPINION

Pending before this court is Defendant Sunshine Mills, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment (doc. 35), brief in support of said motion (doc. 36), and evidentiary materials in support of said motion (doc. 37). Plaintiff David Mac Sparks filed a response in opposition to Sunshine Mills's motion (doc. 41) and evidentiary material in opposition to said motion (doc. 40) to which Sunshine Mills replied (doc. 42). Also pending is Defendant's motion to strike evidentiary material (doc. 44) and Plaintiff's response to said motion (doc. 45).

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Defendant Sunshine Mills, Inc. ("Sunshine"), a pet food and treat manufacturing company, owns and operates a plant in Red Bay, Alabama. Decl. ofJaneice Gober1 ¶ 3 (doc. 37-1). Plaintiff David "Mac" Sparks began working at Sunshine's Red Bay Plant as a temporary employee in June 2006. Plaintiff Depo. pp. 18-19 (doc. 37-2). Sparks became a full-time employee at the Red Bay Plant in September 2006 and worked as an Expander Operator there until Sunshine terminated him on August 5, 2010 Id. at 53. At the time Sparks worked at Sunshine, Sunshine employed Michael Myrick as Sparks's immediate supervisor, Charles "June" Holland as the Plant Superintendent, and Mark Suiter as the Plant Manager. Id. at 56.

As an Expander Operator, Sparks was responsible for the following: putting ingredients such as salt, corn, and rice bran in the mixer; sending the ingredients to the expander machine; adding dye, if necessary; and checking the food's moisture as it left the machine. Plaintiff Depo. at 57-58. Expander Operators complete this process approximately four or five times until an order is complete. Holland Depo. p. 30 (doc. 37-3). Each batch ranges from 4,300 to 4,500 pounds, and Expander Operators run several batches a day, totaling an average of fifty to sixty thousand pounds of dog food each shift. Id. at 20, 29. In running the Extruder, the Expander Operator also manages raw materials, sorts unsuitable materials, and inspectsmaterials throughout the process. Plaintiff Depo. at 85.

Sunshine has no written disciplinary policy, but claims to follow a "three write-up rule." Gober Depo. pp. 5-6 (doc. 37-4); Decl. of Gober at ¶ 6. According to this rule, an employee generally receives "three serious or critical write-ups" before being terminated. Gober Depo. at 39. Sparks disputes that Sunshine has a "three write-up rule," and insists that "there does not appear to be rhyme nor reason to employee discipline at Sunshine." Plaintiff's Response p. 2 (doc. 41). Holland, Suiter, and Gober all testified that employees are not automatically fired after receiving three write-ups, nor are employees guaranteed future employment by virtue of not having violated the three write-up policy. Holland Depo. at 72; Gober Decl. at ¶ 6; Suiter Depo. p. 124 (doc. 37-6). Neither party disputes that Sunshine distributes a Good Manufacturing Policy ("GMP"), which provides that an employee may be disciplined, including termination, for jeopardizing feed quality. Plaintiff Depo. at 84-85. Additionally, neither party disputes that Sparks received, reviewed, and understood the GMP. Id. at 68.

On September 17, 2009, Holland issued Sparks a write-up for running his feed at the wrong density, a production error that could have resulted in termination had Sparks not improved his performance. Plaintiff Depo. at 90-91; Disciplinary Notice of 09/17/09 (doc. 37-7). On April 19, 2010, Sparks allegedlyreceived another write-up after he ran "feed from the dryer to the bed instead of to regrind, after being told to put in regrind. Adjusting Propylene Glycol and corn syrup and caused feed to blow apart." Disciplinary Notice of 04/19/10 (doc. 37-8). Sparks disputes the validity of this write-up as it was unsigned by any supervisor. Suiter Depo. at 74. On June 7, 2010, while at work, Sparks stepped backward into a hole while sweeping under the dryer and twisted his ankle. Plaintiff Depo. at 115-16. Sparks saw a doctor on the day he injured his ankle and returned to work unrestricted. Id. at 120. Subsequently, Sparks received workers' compensation benefits Id. at 173-76. Sparks also started physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medication, but remained on full-duty status until he was terminated. Id. at 133-34.

On July 27, 2010, Holland issued Sparks another write-up for failing to "adjust the feed flow on the troll[e]y," which caused "the bed [to run] over onto the catwalk and locked up the trolley." Plaintiff Depo. at 98; Disciplinary Notice of 07/27/10 (doc. 37-9). Sparks disputes that the July 27th incident constituted a production error on his part, because the trolley was locked up when Sparks started the machine; Sparks and his partner promptly tried to unclog it; but Holland wrote Sparks up even though Sparks had done nothing wrong. Plaintiff Depo. at 98-104. Sparks also claims that these type of incidents occur weekly without resulting in operator discipline. Decl. of Plaintiff ¶ 3 (doc. 40-30).

Sparks claims that on July 28, 2010, he informed Mr. Myrick that "the way it was looking,. . . it was very possible that he was going to have to have surgery." Sparks alleges that on July 29, 2010, he informed Mr. Holland of the same. Plaintiff Depo. at 122, 140-41. Sparks claims that on July 28, his physician told him that it was "possible that he might have to do surgery." Id. at 135. Sparks's physician, Dr. Goodman, testified at his deposition that the notes from his July 28 visit with Sparks did not indicate a plan for surgery. Goodman Depo. pp. 15-17 (doc. 37-10). Dr. Goodman further testified that he did not recommend surgery to Sparks until August 23. Id. at 18. Sparks claims that Holland said "okay" when he told him about the possibility of surgery, but that Holland "looked like he was a little upset." Plaintiff Depo. at 125-26. Sparks admits that he was not incapacitated for more than three or more consecutive days because of his injury and that his injury did not prevent him from doing anything. Id. at 204.

Sunshine claims that on August 3, 2010, Sparks "produce[d] very large and small pieces of the 3072 'stick' product," "choked up the oscil[l]ator and trolley," and "sent [the feed] to regrind but [the] slide gates were still set for regular bins which cross-contaminated feed." Disciplinary Notice of 08/03/10 (doc. 40-2). Holland claims that Sparks's production error resulted in the loss of 35,000 pounds of feed. Holland Depo. at 131. Sparks disputes the validity of the August3rd write-up as it was unsigned by any supervisor. Plaintiff Depo. at 107-08, 111-13. Instead, Sparks claims, he tried to send the feed to regrind. Sparks does not dispute the August 3, 2010, incident but maintains it was not his fault. Id.

Sunshine claims that Holland informed Suiter of the incident and suggested that Sparks be terminated. Holland Depo. at 87-88, 140-41. Sparks claims that Suiter suggested suspension for Sparks and that Holland continued to recommend termination. Plaintiff Depo. at 108. Holland, however, maintains that Suiter made the decision to terminate Sparks. Id. at 154. Sunshine maintains that on August 3, Sparks failed to perform his duties satisfactorily and failed to take steps that he had taken "as a matter of routine for years." Holland Depo. at 104. On August 4, 2010, Sparks took the day off to attend a doctor's appointment. Plaintiff Depo. at 114. When Sparks returned to work on August 5, 2010, Suiter informed him that he was being terminated. Holland Depo. at 105.

On April 27, 2011, Sparks executed a Petition to Approve Worker's Compensation Settlement Agreement with Sunshine, which stated the following:

Plaintiff understands that this settlement, if approved, is a compromise of all claims which Plaintiff may now have or may have in the future as a result of this injury, and that no further Worker's Compensation benefits, vocational rehabilitation or vocational rehabilitation expenses will be paid as a result of the aforesaid accident and injury. All parties agree that this settlement contains the entire agreement between the parties hereto, and that there are no agreements or understandings otherthan as set forth herein.

(doc. 37-12 pp. 2-3). Further, on April 27, 2011, a Franklin County Circuit Court entered an order approving the settlement and petition which provided as follows:

It is further ORDERED, ADJUDGED, and DECREED by the Court that upon payment of said sum and the court costs the Defendant is discharged from any further liability to the plaintiff arising from the accident made the basis of the plaintiff's complaint except that the Defendant shall continue to be liable to the plaintiff for any future medical or surgical benefits provided by the Act.

(doc. 37-13 p. 2).

Sparks filed his complaint with this court on July 25, 2012 (doc. 1).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A court may grant a movant's motion for summary judgment "when the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 820 (11th Cir. 2010); Hamilton v. Southland Christian School, Inc., 680 F.3d 1316, 1318 (11th Cir. 2012). An issue is "material" if it is a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which might affect the outcome of the case. It is "genuine" if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir.1997).

In determining whether to grant the motion, the court must view "the evidence and all reasonable inferences from that evidence. . . in the light most favorable to the nonmovant." Id; Moton v. Cowart...

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