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Townsend v. Autozone Stores, LLC

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

October 12, 2017



          Susan O. Hickey United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants AutoZone Stores, LLC, (“AutoZone Stores”) and Randy Magness (“Magness”). ECF No. 73. Plaintiff Joseph Townsend (“Townsend”) has filed a response. ECF Nos. 83 and 86. Defendants have filed a reply. ECF No. 89. In addition, Defendants have filed a motion for relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927. ECF No. 73. Townsend has responded to that motion (ECF Nos. 83 and 86), and Defendants have filed a reply. ECF No. 89. The Court finds this matter ripe for its consideration.

         For the reasons explained below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be granted.[1] Defendants' motion for attorneys' fees and costs under 28 U.S.C. § 1927 is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Townsend is an African-American male who previously worked at AutoZone retail stores. Townsend began his tenure with AutoZone in 1995 and was ultimately promoted to a full-time position as a Parts Sales Manager. Townsend was transferred between multiple AutoZone stores throughout the course of his employment and was employed at the Texarkana, Texas, store in early 2011.

         In April 2011, Townsend was transferred from the AutoZone store in Texarkana, Texas, to the store in Magnolia, Arkansas. The circumstances concerning the decision to transfer Townsend are a major point of dispute between the parties. The Regional Human Resources Manager, Ronnie Mongioi (“Mongioi”), made the recommendation to transfer Townsend, according to Defendants. Defendants assert that Mongioi's recommendation was partly based on the excessive number of Parts Sales Managers in Texarkana and the need for a Parts Sales Manager in Magnolia. Defendants further maintain that Mongioi believed that the transfer would be advantageous to Townsend because the Magnolia location was closer to Townsend's home than the store in Texarkana. Defendants contend that other considerations in the decision to transfer Townsend included Townsend's desire to advance within the company, as well as the belief that Townsend would benefit from the mentorship of Mareia Bell, who was the Store Manager of the Magnolia store at the time.

         Another point of dispute between the parties is what part Magness played, if any, in the decision to transfer Townsend. At the time the decision was made to transfer Townsend, Magness was the District Manager in charge of the AutoZone stores in Texarkana and Magnolia. Defendants maintain that Mongioi contacted Magness to recommend that Townsend be transferred from the Texarkana store. Magness concurred with Mongioi's recommendation and subsequently informed Townsend of the decision to transfer him to the Magnolia store.

         Townsend takes issue with the proffered reasoning behind the decision to transfer him. Specifically, Townsend maintains that the transfer was prompted, at least in part, by Magness's view that Townsend “played the race card.” According to Townsend, the transfer was effected so that Magness could orchestrate Townsend's eventual termination from the company.

         The parties appear to agree that Townsend initially objected to being transferred. Sometime after learning of the decision, Townsend maintains that he approached Magness to voice his opposition, to which Magness replied, “Boy . . . I'm going to transfer you whether you like it or not.” It is undisputed that Townsend later contacted Lonnie Nicholson (“Nicholson”), the Regional Manager, in May 2011, to inform him of his objection to the transfer. According to Townsend, Nicholson responded that the transfer violated company policy and that Nicholson promised to look into the matter. Townsend maintains that Nicholson never followed through with his promise to investigate the matter. While the parties dispute whether Townsend ultimately approved of the decision, he was eventually transferred to the Magnolia store.

         Townsend's tenure at the Magnolia store did not last long. The circumstances surrounding Townsend's termination revolve around Townsend's return of a car wash set in June 2011. The parties do not appear to dispute that the item was previously returned and marked with a “manager's dispose” sticker, which meant that the item should have been discarded. According to Defendants, Townsend claimed that the car wash set was defective. Townsend returned the car wash set by using his wife's name and driver's license to process the return despite her nonattendance of the transaction. While the parties appear to dispute whether Bell or Magness reported the transaction, upper management was eventually notified and an investigation was conducted.

         According to Defendants, the investigation revealed that the item had been returned in January 2011 and was marked with a “manager's dispose” sticker. Based on these findings, along with a statement given by Townsend concerning the incident, Defendants assert that Mongioi recommended that Townsend be terminated on the basis that he falsified company documents. Defendants specifically take the position that Townsend violated company policy by returning an item that had been marked for disposal, signing his wife's name, and using her driver's license number to complete the return as if his wife was the customer returning the item. Defendants maintain that Nicholson accepted Mongioi's recommendation and decided to terminate Townsend's employment for falsification of company documents.

         Thereafter, on October 2, 2015, Townsend initiated the instant lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Lafayette County, Arkansas. The action was removed to this Court on April 20, 2016. Townsend's Amended Complaint, filed in the Lafayette County Circuit Court, alleges race-based failure-to-promote and discharge claims against AutoZone Stores, AutoZoners, LLC (“AutoZoners”), and Magness pursuant to the Arkansas Civil Rights Act (“ACRA”) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The Amended Complaint further alleges that AutoZone Stores, AutoZoners, and Magness retaliated against Townsend in violation of the ACRA and Section 1981. Townsend also asserts Arkansas Minimum Wage Act (“AMWA”) claims against AutoZone Stores, AutoZoners, and Magness for denial of overtime wages.

         On November 4, 2016, the Court issued an Order granting in part and denying in part a motion to dismiss filed by Defendants. ECF No. 33. Notably, the Court's Order dismissed all claims against AutoZoners. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the following claims remain in this action: the ACRA and Section 1981 race discrimination claims against AutoZone Stores; the ACRA and Section 1981 retaliation claims against AutoZone Stores and Magness; and the AMWA claims against AutoZone Stores and Magness.

         On July 28, 2017, Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment. Defendants specifically argue that they are entitled to summary judgment as to all claims against AutoZone Stores on the basis that Townsend has no evidence demonstrating that AutoZone Stores was his employer. Defendants' motion also seeks dismissal of all claims asserted against Magness. In addition, Defendants move the Court for attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927 and the Court's inherent powers.


         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         When a party moves for summary judgment, “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Krenik v. Cty. of LeSueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 1995). This is a “threshold inquiry of . . . whether there is a need for trial - whether, in other words, 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 v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); see also Agristor Leasing v. Farrow, 826 F.2d 732, 734 (8th Cir. 1987). A fact is material only when its resolution affects the outcome of the case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that it could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party. Id. at 252.

         The Court must view the evidence and the inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Enter. Bank v. Magna Bank, 92 F.3d 743, 747 (8th Cir. 1996). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. The nonmoving party must then demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record that create a genuine issue for trial. Krenik, 47 F.3d at 957. A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary ...

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