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Robinson v. Nucor Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division

September 29, 2016




         Kenneth Robinson commenced this action against Nucor Corporation, d/b/a Nucor Steel, alleging race discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993, Ark. Code Ann. § 16-123-101 et seq. Robinson alleges that Nucor violated the law when it demoted him from his position of shift supervisor and disciplined him on several occasions between 2012 and 2014. Nucor has filed a motion for summary judgment, and Robinson has responded. For the following reasons, Nucor's motion for summary judgment is granted.


         Robinson, an African-American, has worked for Nucor since 1992. He began as a crane operator in the shipping department and was promoted to a shift supervisor in the same department in 2001. Nucor has four crews (A, B, C, and D crews) that work in the shipping department, each with its own supervisor. Robinson was initially assigned as the B-crew supervisor. When Robinson was promoted to shift supervisor, Steve Pienaar was the manager of the shipping department and David Chase was the general manager at Nucor. A year later, in 2002, Sam Commella became the general manager at Nucor, and in 2005, Robert Byrd became Robinson's direct supervisor as manager of the shipping department.

         While Robinson was supervisor of the B crew, he underwent a leadership assessment. Nucor hired an industrial psychologist to conduct the assessment for developmental purposes. Although not all supervisors underwent the assessment, Robinson was not the only supervisor to be assessed. Robinson's assessment noted areas of strength as well as weakness. For example, the assessment described Robinson as calm, level-headed, composed, and resilient. But it also found that Robinson struggled to hold crew members accountable successfully. Overall, the assessment concluded that Robinson could effectively enforce safety policies but that he had a tendency to micromanage and miss opportunities to build teamwork. Robinson would later complain that Byrd never reviewed the assessment with him.

         In 2009, issues with Robinson's crew began to percolate. Commella and Byrd became aware that members of Robinson's crew did not trust or respect him. A 2009 annual peer review of Robinson reflected that a large majority of his peers rated him as “Sometimes”[1] earning the respect of others. The peer review also reflected that half of his peers rated him as “Sometimes” demonstrating leadership. Byrd evaluated Robinson on the peer review and noted such things as Robinson's “micromanagement approach to leadership is counterproductive to team building, ” Robinson “has obvious ‘favorites' on his crew, ” Robinson “[f]ails to gain respect and trust of others, ” and Robinson “could put more emphasis on holding the people that work with him more accountable.” Commella testified that Robinson had leadership issues prior to 2009, but they “really started to percolate systemically around [2009].”

         In December 2009, Byrd decided to move Robinson from the B crew to the C crew. Byrd wanted to give Robinson a fresh start with a new crew, hoping to resolve the issues that had cropped up with B crew. But eventually, the same issues Robinson experienced with B crew recurred with C crew. In July 2012, Robinson attempted to address some of these issues in a meeting with his crew. Robinson asked Doug Johnson, another supervisor, to attend and observe the meeting. After the meeting, Johnson met with Byrd and discussed the meeting. Byrd asked Johnson to follow up with Robinson's crew members to get more information about some of the issues. Johnson's notes from following up with the crew reflect that some members of the crew did not trust or respect Robinson and that the crew lacked harmony.

         Based on the meeting and Johnson's follow-up, Byrd took disciplinary action against Robinson. Byrd served a written disciplinary notice on Robinson and warned him that he needed to meet the expectations of a Nucor supervisor. The written notice outlined Robinson's leadership failures, citing Robinson's failure to hold his crew members accountable, effectively communicate, and instill teamwork and team unity “for a period of greater than seven months.” Robinson signed the written disciplinary notice. After receiving the written notice, Robinson met with Commella to discuss the discipline. At the meeting, Robinson did not disagree with the issues cited but thought that the time-frame of seven months was inaccurate. Commella told Robinson that he was more concerned about the substance of the issues than the time-frame. Commella offered Robinson resources and help, but Robinson declined them.

         Robinson's issues with his crew became known to other workers at Nucor. Don Wilson, Doug Johnson, Chris Booker, Tommy O'Malley, and Steve Bennett all testified that Robinson had leadership issues with his crew. In a further step to assist Robinson with the crew issues, Byrd assigned Bennett, an experienced and well-respected crewman, to Robinson's crew. Byrd intended Bennett to provide Robinson with helpful feedback from his observations of and discussions with the crew. Nevertheless, the issues persisted.

         In late September 2012, Robinson and Byrd met with members of Robinson's crew to discuss continuing complaints of Robinson's leadership. The notes from the meeting show that the crew lacked respect and trust for Robinson and was upset that Robinson did not address issues as they came up. This meeting precipitated another meeting between Commella and Robinson at the beginning of October 2012, in which Commella told Robinson that he would be demoted if he did not show improvement within three months.

         In December 2012, Robinson underwent his annual peer review. The peer review indicated that the widespread discord within his crew continued. A majority of his crew gave him low ratings in the categories of dealing with people, respect of others, and leadership.[2] Also, after the October meeting with Commella, Robinson failed to take proper corrective action against a crew member on two separate occasions. In January 2013, Commella decided to demote Robinson from a shift supervisor to a port crane operator. Robinson's written demotion noted that “[o]ver the course of the past year, the performance, morale, teamwork, communication and accountability of [Robinson's] crew has been on a steady decline.” The demotion also cited Robinson's leadership failures and the resources and clear expectations provided to Robinson.

         Robinson appealed his demotion, claiming that he was discriminated against by Byrd. In a meeting with Kellie Crain, Nucor's Human Resource supervisor, and Commella, Robinson stated that Byrd discriminated against him based on his race. Robinson cited things such as Byrd not reviewing the leadership assessment with him, Byrd's lack of hiring or promoting African-Americans, and Byrd singling him out for discipline and extra scrutiny. Nucor's investigation did not uncover any evidence that Robinson was subjected to discriminatory treatment.

         Between 2012 and 2014, Robinson violated Nucor's safety policies on four occasions, three of which resulted in disciplinary action. In all three incidents, Robinson admitted to engaging in the conduct. He was disciplined for the infractions but was not demoted. One of the infractions resulted in a five-day suspension. Two ...

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