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Griffin v. Tyson Foods

May 24, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Leon Holmes United States District Judge


Elbert L. Griffin brought this suit against Tyson Foods, Inc., alleging sex discrimination and sexual harassment in violation of Title VII and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act as well as several other state-law claims. Tyson filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Griffin's claims. In his response to that motion, Griffin agreed with Tyson that all his state-law claims, with the exception of those under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, should be dismissed. Griffin disagreed with Tyson that summary judgment is appropriate for his claims of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. For the following reasons, summary judgment is granted in favor of Tyson on all of Griffin's claims.

A court should grant summary judgment when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis of its motion and identifying the portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed. 2d 265 (1986); Group Health Plan, Inc. v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 344 F.3d 753, 763 (8th Cir. 2003). When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), "the nonmoving party must come forward with 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed. 2d 538 (1986) (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party sustains this burden by showing that "there are genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S.Ct. at 2511. When a nonmoving party cannot make an adequate showing on a necessary element of the case on which that party bears the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. at 2552. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Boerner v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 260 F.3d 837, 841 (8th Cir. 2001) (citing Rabushka ex rel. U.S. v. Crane Co., 122 F.3d 559, 562 (8th Cir. 1997)). If the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party, summary judgment should be denied. Derickson v. Fid. Life Ass'n, 77 F.3d 263, 264 (8th Cir. 1996) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510).

The Eighth Circuit has said "that 'summary judgment seldom should be granted in discrimination cases where inferences are often the basis of the claim.'" Duncan v. Delta Consol. Indus., Inc., 371 F.3d 1020, 1024 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting Breeding v. Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., 164 F.3d 1151, 1156 (8th Cir. 1999)); see also Bassett v. City of Minneapolis, 211 F.3d 1097, 1099 (8th Cir. 2000). But see Bainbridge v. Loffredo Gardens, Inc., 378 F.3d 756, 762 (8th Cir. 2004) (Arnold, J., dissenting).


The following facts are undisputed. Griffin was a line supervisor at Tyson's poultry processing plant in Pine Bluff. Tyson had a harassment and discrimination policy in place prohibiting any form of harassment, including sexual harassment. Griffin received training on the policy and agreed to abide by it. The policy provides that if an employee witnesses or experiences harassment or discrimination, the employee must report it immediately. Tyson operates a toll-free "Tell Tyson First Line" that an employee can contact to report harassment or discrimination at any time. Once reported, a human resources representative is assigned to investigate and resolve the complaint as quickly as possible. If an employee is not satisfied with the results of the investigation, he can appeal the determination to another level of management, and an additional investigation will be conducted.

On January 20, 2006, TW, a female team member on a production line supervised by Griffin, complained of sexual harassment by Griffin to Tyson's human resources department. Kendra Bishop-Tatum, a shift human resources manager at Tyson, investigated TW's complaint. Griffin was placed on unpaid suspension pending the completion of the investigation. During the course of her investigation, Bishop-Tatum interviewed TW, eleven of Griffin's team members, one supervisor from another line, and Griffin. According to Bishop-Tatum's investigative notes and interviews, some team members corroborated TW's allegations. Many more team members stated that they did not witness any inappropriate conduct by Griffin. Others stated that, while they had no knowledge of the specific instances of which TW complained, they had witnessed Griffin make sexually-suggestive comments. Still others stated that sexual banter was common on the line and originated from the female team members. Griffin asserted that TW's allegations were false and denied making any other inappropriate comments.

After the conclusion of Bishop-Tatum's investigation, Griffin was terminated on February 3, 2006. Griffin did not appeal Tyson's decision to terminate him, although he was informed that he had a right to appeal the decision. Following his termination, Griffin filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging sex discrimination. Griffin received his right to sue letter on May 12, 2006, and on August 14, 2006, filed this lawsuit.


A. Disparate Treatment

Griffin asserts that his termination was the result of unlawful sex discrimination. Under Title VII, an employer cannot discharge or otherwise "discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . sex . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The Arkansas Civil Rights Act guarantees "[t]he right of an otherwise qualified person to be free from discrimination because of . . . gender," including "[t]he right to obtain and hold employment without discrimination." ARK. CODE ANN. § 16-123-107(a)(1).

"The Arkansas Supreme Court looks to decisions interpreting the federal civil rights laws in analyzing gender discrimination claims under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act . . . ." Crone v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 301 F.3d 942, 945 (8th Cir. 2002) (citing Flentje v. First Nat'l Bank, 340 Ark. 563, 570-72, 11 S.W.3d 531, 537 (2000)). Because he offers no evidence of direct discrimination, Griffin's sex discrimination claims under both statutes are analyzed under the burden-shifting framework set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed. 2d 668 (1973).

Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination by showing that (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was qualified for his job; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the adverse action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. See Rorie v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 151 F.3d 757, 760 (8th Cir. 1998). If the plaintiff does so, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. See id. If the employer offers such a reason, the plaintiff must then present evidence sufficient to create a fact issue as to whether the employer's articulated reason is pretextual and to create a reasonable inference that sex was a motivating factor. See id.

Assuming Griffin can establish a prima facie case, he has not met his burden to present evidence sufficient to create a fact issue as to whether Tyson's articulated reason for terminating him was a pretext for sex discrimination. Tyson asserts that it terminated Griffin because, at the conclusion of its investigation into TW's harassment charge, it believed -- and continues to believe -- that Griffin violated its harassment and discrimination policy. Violation of a company policy is a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for an adverse employment action. Although Griffin challenges whether Tyson correctly believed that Griffin had violated its harassment policy, that is not the inquiry at the pretext stage. Arraleh v. County of Ramsey, 461 F.3d 967, 976 (8th Cir. 2006) ("[T]he employment-discrimination laws have not vested in the federal courts the authority to sit as super-personnel departments reviewing the wisdom or fairness of the business judgments made by employers, except to the extent that those judgments involve intentional discrimination."). Rather, the question is whether Griffin's sex motivated the decision to terminate Griffin.

Griffin argues that Tyson's proffered reason is pretext because he was disciplined while his female team members who engaged in sexually-suggestive horseplay were not. "While evidence of disparate treatment can of course support an assertion of pretext, the employee or employees with whom a plaintiff wishes to be compared must have been similarly situated to the plaintiff in all relevant respects." Forrest v. Kraft Foods, Inc., 285 F.3d 688, 691-92 (8th Cir. 2002). On pretext, this is a rigorous test. Rodgers v. U.S. Bank, N.A., 417 F.3d 845, 853 (8th Cir. 2005). Specifically, the "individuals used for comparison must have dealt with the same supervisor, have been ...

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