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Rooney v. Rock-Tenn Converting Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

August 2, 2016

AARON C. ROONEY PLAINTIFF
v.
ROCK-TENN CONVERTING COMPANY, ROCK-TENN SERVICES, INC., and WESTROCK COMPANY DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY L. BROOKS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Currently before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 16) filed by Rock-Tenn Converting Company, Rock-Tenn Services, Inc., and Westrock Company (collectively, "Rock-Tenn"). Plaintiff Aaron C. Rooney has filed a Response (Doc. 20) in opposition to the Motion, to which Rock-Tenn has filed a Reply (Doc. 21). For the reasons stated herein, Rock-Tenn's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 22, 2010, Rooney, a Christian male, was hired by Dean Metter, a Jewish male, to work for Rock-Tenn as an account executive out of the company’s Bentonville, Arkansas office. Rooney was hired from a relatively large pool of candidates-somewhere between 29 and 35 individuals who applied for the job.[1] Rooney admits that during the interview process, his religious affiliation was never mentioned. For approximately the first three years of Rooney’s employment with Rock-Tenn, he reported directly to Metter, who worked out of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania office.

         By the summer of 2013, there were four employees working in the Bentonville office, including Rooney. One of the four employees reported directly to Rooney, one reported to a supervisor located in the New Jersey office, and Rooney reported to Metter in Pennsylvania. During the fall of 2013, Metter hired Nancy Collom to serve as Sales Director of Rock-Tenn's Bentonville office. At the time Rooney first met Collom, Metter described her as a “nice Jewish lady from Philadelphia.”[2] (Doc. 1, p. 3). Rooney admits that when he learned he would have to begin reporting to Collom as his local supervisor, he “had mixed feelings about it, ” mainly because he understood Collom would likely take over all prospective business with Walmart, a client with whom Rooney had already developed significant contacts. (Doc. 15-5, p. 11). Rooney admitted in his deposition that he did not like the fact that he was directed to report to Collom instead of Metter. Id.

         Rooney claims that shortly after Collom began working in the Bentonville office, she began making comments to Rooney that he considered to be sexist. The comments included: “I can’t wait until we have more women in these desks”; “I can’t wait until there are more ladies in the office”; “Now we have just as many women in the office as men”; and “Now the ladies overpower the men.” (Doc. 1, pp. 3-4; Doc. 20, p. 9). He also alleges that Collom went out to lunch with women in the office, and Rooney was not invited. Rooney admits that Metter had no animus towards him because of his gender, but speculates that Metter was likely the “cat’s paw” for Collom to further her personal desire to increase the number of women in the office by discriminating against men.[3]

         Rooney also claims that another reason Metter fired him was that Rooney was not Jewish. Rooney testified that Metter told him he was “going to have to start learning to take direction from a Jewish woman, ” meaning Collom, in October of 2013. (Doc. 15-5, p. 29). Further, it was Rooney’s view that Metter had a “resurgence in his Jewish beliefs” and expressed in September of 2013 a desire to “tap into the Jewish network” at Walmart. Id. at p. 30. In addition, another employee told Rooney that Metter “felt more comfortable . . . working with people who go to church on Saturday.” Id. at p. 31. Rooney believes he was terminated so that Mark Benjamin, a Jewish employee who was already working at Rock-Tenn, could take over Rooney’s accounts. Id. at p. 32.

         Rooney was fired by Metter on February 5, 2015. Rooney filed a charge of discrimination based on religion and gender with the United States Equal Opportunity Commission on May 4, 2015. He received his Right to Sue letter on June 30, 2015, and he filed a Complaint in this Court on August 20, 2015. Rock-Tenn filed its Motion for Summary Judgment on June 10, 2016, after the parties engaged in discovery.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         When a motion for summary judgment is filed, the court must "grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving 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 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The Court must review the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and give that party the benefit of any inferences that logically can be drawn from those facts. Canada v. Union Elec. Co., 135 F.3d 1211, 1212-13 (8th Cir. 1997).

         "While employment discrimination cases are often fact intensive and dependent on nuance in the workplace, they are not immune from summary judgment, and there is no separate summary judgment standard for employment discrimination cases." Fercello v. Cnty. of Ramsey, 612 F.3d 1069, 1077 (8th Cir. 2010). A plaintiff can survive summary judgment on a discrimination claim "either by providing direct evidence of discrimination or by creating an inference of unlawful discrimination" using circumstantial evidence. Bone v. G4S Youth Servs., LLC, 686 F.3d 948, 953 (8th Cir. 2012). When a plaintiff relies on circumstantial evidence to prove discrimination based on disparate treatment, the claim is analyzed using the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Gray v. Univ. of Ark. at Fayetteville, 883 F.2d 1394, 1398 (8th Cir. 1989) (applying the McDonnell Douglas model to a gender discrimination claim); Shirrell v. St. Francis Med. Ctr., 793 F.3d 881, 885 (8th Cir. 2015) (applying the McDonnell Douglas model to a religious discrimination claim).

         Under the burden-shifting framework, the employee must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. A minimal evidentiary showing will satisfy this burden. Johnson v. Ark. State Police, 10 F.3d 547, 551 (8th Cir. 1993). Once the employee meets it, a presumption of discrimination is created. Tex. Dept. of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 254 (1981). The burden then shifts to the employer to offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment actions taken. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. "Once the employer's burden is met, the presumption of discrimination disappears, and the employee must prove that the proffered justification is merely a pretext for discrimination." Pope v. ESA Servs., Inc., 406 F.3d 1001, 1007 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Sprenger v. Fed. Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, 253 F.3d 1106, 1111 (8th Cir. 2001)). "At all times, the burden of persuasion remains with the plaintiff." Id. (citing Gagnon v. Sprint Corp., 284 F.3d 839, 847 (8th Cir. 2002)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Prima Facie Case

         To establish a prima facie case based on either gender or religious discrimination, Rooney must show that: (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he met Rock-Tenn's legitimate expectations; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination. See Shirrell, 793 F.3d at 887 (religious discrimination); Holland v. Sam's Club, 487 F.3d 641, 644-45 (8th Cir. 2006) (gender discrimination). There is ...


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