Thompson v. Coca-Cola Co.

Decision Date15 April 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07-2107.,07-2107.
Citation522 F.3d 168
PartiesDudley THOMPSON, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. The COCA-COLA COMPANY, Defendant, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Michael O. Shea, with whom Law Office of Michael O. Shea, P.C., was on brief for appellant.

Damon P. Hart, with whom Holland & Knight LLP, was on brief for appellee.

Before TORRUELLA, LYNCH, and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges.

TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge.

Upon returning from vacation in Jamaica, Dudley Thompson was terminated by The Coca-Cola Company ("Coca-Cola") for failure to follow office procedure including not finding someone to cover his shifts while he was away. Thompson alleges that he suffered discrimination based on his race and national origin in addition to retaliation for engaging in protected conduct. The district court granted summary judgment for Coca-Cola. Thompson appeals. After careful consideration, we affirm.

I. Background

We recite the facts from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, Thompson. See Franceschi v. U.S. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 514 F.3d 81, 83 (1st Cir.2008).

Thompson, an African-American of Jamaican origin, started working for Coca-Cola in 2000 as one of four production supervisors in the quality assurance department at Coca-Cola's Northampton plant.1 Gerald Goodsell, who Thompson alleges made discriminatory comments, oversaw the production supervisors and served as an interim production manager from August 2003 until December 2003, when Dennis Williams transferred from another plant to take over duties as production manager at the Northampton plant.

Throughout most of Thompson's tenure at Coca-Cola, he performed well. On a few occasions, however, he was reprimanded for being late to work. Production managers also gave Thompson frequent informal "coaching sessions" aimed at helping him improve his performance.

According to Thompson, in late 2002 or early 2003, Goodsell expressed irritation at an African-American disc jockey's selection of reggae music at the annual Christmas party. Thompson alleges that Goodsell said, "I hate Jamaican music and Jamaicans." Thompson asserts he did not report the comment because he feared retaliation and termination. Thompson also alleges that on another occasion, in or about August or September 2003, Goodsell said to him, "I'll deal with you, you fucking Jamaican." Thompson claims that Goodsell told him more than once that he was going to "deal with him" and that Goodsell made other threatening and harassing comments. Thompson does not provide any specifics, nor does he allege that any of these other comments were racial or discriminatory in nature.

In April 2002, Donna Harris, a white female quality assurance supervisor who was not in Thompson's chain of command, said to Ronald McKeithen (Thompson's coworker who is also of Jamaican origin), "I'm not one of [Thompson's] Jamaican bimbos." Thompson and McKeithen reported the incident to John Newton, the quality assurance manager. Newton informed Celine Lasonde, the human resources manager, and Lasonde instructed Newton to sit down with Harris and discuss her inappropriate comments. Harris was instructed to apologize to McKeithen (which she did), and she was also required to undergo sensitivity training. Thompson claims that after this incident and Harris's reprimand, she retaliated against him by using her position to negatively impact his work.2

On August 29, 2003, in response to coverage problems caused by shift-swapping, the plant manager, James Lane, sent an e-mail to all of the production supervisors outlining procedures for vacation time. Supervisors were instructed that they should "(1) obtain coverage from another production supervisor; (2) request personal vacation time from the direct manager in writing; (3) notify the other production supervisors; and (4) enter the requested vacation time into a computerized spreadsheet." Though it was protocol to give advance notice, Coca-Cola acknowledges that there was no advance-notice requirement and no formal policy implemented with respect to vacation time.

In the fall of 2003, Thompson realized that he needed dental surgery, and he decided to have the surgery performed in Jamaica because the procedure would cost less. By December, he needed urgent dental attention, and he claims that he informed the management that he needed to travel to Jamaica to have dental work done immediately. Thompson asserts that he spoke to Héctor Lepage, his "leader",3 about the dental surgery in early December 2003 and then told one of the other supervisors, Duval, about his proposed time off. Thompson claims that Duval agreed to cover his shifts. Thompson also claims that he told Duval that he might need extra time off, but he could not be sure until he was in Jamaica and had an opportunity to see his dentist. Thompson says that Duval approved and asked him to send him an e-mail confirming the details. Thompson sent Duval the confirmatory e-mail at 10:27 p.m. on December 18, 2003. Duval did not read the e-mail from Thompson until the next time he reported to work, which was on December 21, 2003. Duval claims he did not know the exact dates Thompson would be away, including the possibility of the extra week off, until he read the e-mail.

Thompson asserts that after he arranged coverage with Duval, he spoke to Dennis Williams, who gave him approval, so long as Goodsell was informed as well. Thompson called Goodsell at his home on December 19, 2003, at around 7 p.m., the evening before his early-morning flight to Jamaica. Goodsell did not tell Thompson that he could not take time off; Goodsell's only concern was coverage for Thompson's shifts. Thompson entered his time off on the spreadsheet through the end of December. He did not request time off in writing. As a result of Thompson's leave, Goodsell had to fill in as production supervisor at some point, and Duval had to work over forty consecutive days.

Once he was in Jamaica, Thompson realized that he would not be back until January 9, 2004, because his surgery would take longer than he initially expected. Thompson called Coca-Cola to inform management that he would need extra time; he left a message on Goodsell's voice-mail. Goodsell did not respond to Thompson's message. Thompson assumed that his extension had been approved by Goodsell. Goodsell, however, reported to Lasonde and Lane that Thompson failed to comply with vacation protocol. Lasonde interviewed Rutherford, García, Duval, and Goodsell to discuss Thompson's leave. After Thompson returned from Jamaica, he was given an opportunity to discuss the situation in a meeting with Goodsell, Lane, Lasonde, and Williams.

At the meeting, Thompson contested Coca-Cola's version of the events surrounding his vacation. He did not make any claims at the time that Goodsell had been racially biased against him. Shortly after that meeting, Lasonde, Williams, and Lane sent a "Separation Proposal" to the Coca-Cola Separation Review Committee in Atlanta, Georgia. The Separation Review Committee agreed with the Separation Proposal and terminated Thompson. Thompson claims that it is clear that Goodsell was an integral part of his termination and that he was retaliated against because of his race and national origin. According to Coca-Cola, Thompson was terminated solely for taking unauthorized vacation time without giving prior proper notice.

Thompson filed a claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination on April 30, 2004, arguing that he had been discriminated against, harassed, and retaliated against based upon his race, ethnicity, color, national origin, and ancestry under chapter 151B of the General Laws of Massachusetts. Thompson withdrew his complaint with the Commission on August 20, 2004, and filed suit in Hampshire County Superior Court on May 23, 2005. Coca-Cola removed the case to federal court on July 19, 2005. Coca-Cola then filed a motion for summary judgment on August 31, 2006. The district court granted the motion on July 16, 2007. Thompson appealed.

II. Discussion
A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and any affidavits. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Cox v. Hainey, 391 F.3d 25, 29 (1st Cir.2004). When considering arguments for summary judgment, "we must disregard improbable or overly attenuated inferences, unsupported conclusions, and rank speculation." Abbott v. Bragdon, 107 F.3d 934, 938 (1st Cir.1997), vacated on other grounds, 524 U.S. 624, 118 S.Ct. 2196, 141 L.Ed.2d 540 (1998). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the evidence offered by the adverse party cannot be "merely colorable" or speculative. Pagano v. Frank, 983 F.2d 343, 347 (1st Cir.1993) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The evidence "must be significantly probative of specific facts." Pérez v. Volvo Car Corp., 247 F.3d 303, 317 (1st Cir.2001) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505). "A dispute is genuine if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party." Sánchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir.1996) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "A fact is material if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation." Maymí v. P.R. Ports Auth., 515 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir.2008). We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. See Hegarty v. Somerset County, 53 F.3d 1367, 1372 (1st Cir.1995). We will reverse only if, "after reviewing the facts and making all inferences in favor of the non-moving party [here, Thompson], the evidence on record is sufficiently open-ended to permit a rational factfinder to...

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