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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Southwestern Bell Telephone

October 3, 2007

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION PLAINTIFF
v.
SOUTHWESTERN BELL TELEPHONE, L.P. D/B/A AT&T SOUTHWEST AND SBC COMMUNICATIONS DEFENDANT



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

OPINION AND ORDER

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought this action on behalf of Jose (Joe) Gonzalez and Glenn Owen alleging that they were discriminated against by Southwestern Bell because of their religious beliefs in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Southwestern Bell has filed a motion for summary judgment. For the following reasons, this motion is denied.

I.

Owen and Gonzalez, who are members of the Jehovah's Witness faith, worked as customer service technicians for Southwestern Bell, now known as AT&T, at an Installation and Repair Center in Jonesboro, Arkansas. As customer service technicians at the Installation and Repair Center, Owen and Gonzalez installed new phone and high-speed internet lines and responded to customer complaints about telephone outages.

In keeping with its 2004 agreement with the Communication Workers of America Union, the Center implemented a procedure for employees to schedule vacation time. In October or November of each year, management circulated a vacation schedule for the following year. The employees indicated on the master schedule the days or weeks that they planned to take as vacation. The employees were allowed to choose their vacation days in order of seniority. After the master schedule was complete, an employee could still ask for other days off by submitting a vacation request form. According to AT&T, during the summer months, only one technician per day could take off. If a request were made for a day that no other employee was scheduled to be off, then that request would be granted, but if a request were made for a day in which another employee was scheduled to be off, according to AT&T, the request would not be granted, though the employee requesting that day could wait to see if the senior employee who had already scheduled a vacation day changed his mind about taking that day.

As part of practicing their faith, Owen and Gonzalez attend a yearly Jehovah's Witness convention. The dates for the convention are announced early in the year, so they are always announced after the master vacation schedule has been circulated at the Jonesboro Installation and Repair Center. Thus, Owen and Gonzalez had to make a vacation request if they wanted that time off. The 2005 convention was scheduled for July 15-17 (Friday through Sunday). The only day of concern in this case is Friday, July 15, when both men were scheduled to work. They were not scheduled to work that Saturday. Customer service technicians do not work on Sundays.

For purposes of the summary judgment motion, AT&T concedes that before July 2005 Owen and Gonzalez submitted multiple written and verbal requests to Jacob Garrett, the manager of the Jonesboro Center, for vacation time on July 15. The men approached Garrett about the Jehovah's Witness convention and its importance on July 7 as well. Garrett said that he would let them know about it closer to July 15.

The decision had still not been made on July 14. Gonzalez spoke with Garrett that day about the matter by telephone approximately three times. Garrett and Phillip Farley, the area manager to whom Garrett reported, were working together that day and discussed the request made by Owen and Gonzalez. Garrett also discussed the request with Marty Benz.*fn1 Benz was the manager of the Walnut Ridge, Paragould, and Blytheville Centers, but he worked out of the Jonesboro office. Benz and Garrett discussed ways the situation could be handled, such as getting the employees who were scheduled for vacation time to switch with Owen and Gonzalez, or requesting help from computer service technicians from other centers, as they sometimes would do in circumstances of a heavy workload. After reviewing the workload information and considering other factors, Garrett told Owen and Gonzalez on the afternoon of July 14 that "the forecast doesn't look good" and he would "try to do what [he could] if the load permits." Later that afternoon or evening, Garrett informed them that the workload would not allow them to take the day off. Because Garrett suspected they might not show up the next day, he gave each man a directive to come to work or face serious consequences. Each responded that he would not be at work. Farley contacted the local union president, who called the men to reiterate that they would face serious consequences for missing work.

Owen and Gonzalez missed work on July 15. Farley and Garrett suspended the men after an investigatory meeting. Farley recommended to the director of Installment and Repair that the two men should be terminated. The director followed his recommendation.

Gonzalez and Owen filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Commission investigated the charges and issued a letter of determination finding probable cause that both men had been denied a reasonable accommodation because of their religious beliefs. The Commission filed this lawsuit on behalf of Gonzalez and Owen based on religious discrimination under Title VII.

II.

A court should enter 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, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202 (1986). 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 Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The moving party bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. at 2553. If the moving party meets this burden, "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)). A genuine issue for trial exists only if there is sufficient evidence to allow a jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, 106 S.Ct. at 2511. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draws all inferences in his favor, mindful that summary judgment seldom should be granted in discrimination cases where claims are often based on inferences. Peterson v. Scott County, 406 F.3d 515, 520 (8th Cir. 2005); Bassett v. City of Minneapolis, 211 F.3d 1097, 1099 (8th Cir. 2000) (collecting cases). But see Bainbridge v. Loffredo Gardens, Inc., 378 F.3d 756, 762 (8th Cir. 2004) (Arnold, J., dissenting).

III.

It is unlawful for 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 . . . religion . . . ." 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1) (2000). "An employee establishes a prima facie case of religious discrimination by showing that: (1) the employee has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) the employee informed the employer of this belief; (3) the employee was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement." Wilson v. U.S. West Communications, 58 F.3d 1337, 1340 (8th Cir. 1995). For purposes of the summary judgment motion, AT&T does not dispute that ...


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