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Crawford v. Karcher North America, Inc.

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

April 30, 2019



          P. K. Holmes, III, Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant Karcher North America, Inc.'s (“Karcher”) motion (Doc. 31) for summary judgment, brief (Doc. 32) in support, and statement of facts (Doc. 33). Plaintiff Charlene Crawford has filed a response (Doc. 35) in opposition, a brief (Doc. 37) in support, and a statement of facts (Doc. 36). Karcher filed replies to Crawford's response (Doc. 42) and statement of facts (Doc. 41). For the reasons set forth below, Karcher's motion for summary judgment will be GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Defendant Karcher North America, Inc. is a “manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and consumer cleaning equipment.” (Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶ 2). Karcher is headquartered in Denver, Colorado and has a distribution center in Fayetteville, Arkansas that employs ninety workers. Id. at ¶¶ 2-3. Ed Taylor is the Director of Operations at Karcher's Fayetteville facility. Id. at ¶ 6. This is the top leadership position at the Fayetteville facility. (Doc. 33-1, p. 13). Plaintiff Charlene Crawford worked at Karcher's Fayetteville facility as warehouse manager. (Doc. 36, p. 2, ¶ 10). In this role, Crawford reported directly to Taylor and managed fifty-nine employees. (Id. at ¶ 11; Doc. 36, p. 20, ¶¶ 66-67). Crawford was recruited to Karcher by Taylor. (Doc. 36, p. 1, ¶ 8). Crawford and Taylor had worked together at a different company before Taylor began working at Karcher. Id. at ¶ 7. Crawford was hired at Karcher as a shipping supervisor. (Doc. 33-1, p. 4). Taylor promoted Crawford to her position as warehouse manager in May of 2012. Id. At the time, Crawford and Taylor had a “good working relationship.” (Doc. 33-1, p. 5). However, Crawford began complaining of issues with Taylor's management of the facility to Amber Hollinger, Karcher's on-site human resources generalist, around July of 2013. (Doc. 36, p. 2; Doc. 33-1, p. 5). Crawford complained on many occasions of Taylor's demeaning communication with her and other employees. (Doc. 33-1, pp. 5-6). Crawford alleges that Taylor was demeaning regardless of who was around. Id. at 6. When Crawford complained to Hollinger, she “discuss[ed] the issues of the people that were having issues with him. And that was all women.” (Doc. 33-1, p. 7). Crawford also complained about Taylor's lack of professionalism and frequent absences. (Doc. 33-1, p. 149). However, Crawford does not recall specifically complaining to Hollinger that she felt that Taylor treated women differently than men. Id. Hollinger did not believe that Crawford was complaining that Taylor treated her differently because she was a woman. Id. Despite Crawford's complaints spanning as far back as 2013, Crawford did not believe that her initial complaints to Hollinger led to her firing. (Doc. 33-1, p. 10). Rather, Crawford believes that her firing was a result of the incidents that occurred from April 12, 2016 until she was terminated. Id.

         On April 12, 2016, after a weekly meeting with the managers and team leads, Taylor asked Crawford, Hollinger, Blaine Ahrents, and Franci Wood to stay after to discuss an upcoming facility town hall meeting. (Doc. 36, p. 6, ¶ 25). During the discussion, Crawford asked Taylor for more details regarding the meeting and Taylor responded, “It'll be 30- or 40-something.” Id., ¶ 26. Crawford then said “Ed, I need to know.” “Ed, I need to know how much, because our people are working overtime, and I need to be able to account for it.” Id.[1] Taylor then stated, “it's going to happen anyway.” Id. Crawford replied by saying “You don't have to be hateful in your response.” Id. Taylor retorted, “I'm not the one being hateful. You are.” (Doc. 33-1, p. 14). Crawford then “turned around, walked off, . . . [and] said Dude.” Id. After the meeting ended, Hollinger went to Ahrents office to assist him with a personnel issue. (Doc. 33-1, p. 50). Ahrents brought up the earlier incident to Hollinger. Ahrents said that if Crawford “w[as] any other person/manager we would have been written up for that behavior.” Id. Hollinger also stopped by Wood's office to see how she had perceived the interaction. Id. Wood felt that Taylor's demeanor during the incident was not rude but firm in direction when challenged. Id. Wood also interjected that “she was not going to be bullied anymore” by Charlene. Id. Hollinger later met with Taylor and brought up the earlier incident. Id. Hollinger recommended to Taylor that he address Crawford's inappropriate behavior during the meeting to prevent the behavior from continuing to occur. Id. Hollinger also discussed the concerns and issues that had arisen regarding Charlene's conflict-centric leadership style[2] and complaints that Charlene and others had raised about Taylor's lack of professionalism and seeming disinterest in his job responsibilities. Id. Taylor decided to discuss the issues with Crawford and Hollinger and Taylor discussed strategy and approach for coaching Crawford. Id. Taylor drafted a talking points memorandum for his meeting with Crawford. (Doc. 33-2, pp. 30-31).

         On April 13, 2016, Taylor and Hollinger met with Crawford to discuss her behavior at the previous day's meeting. (Doc. 36, p. 9, ¶ 31). Taylor read straight from his talking points. (Id., ¶ 32; Doc. 33-1, p. 16). The meeting was intended to be a coaching session, rather than a disciplinary action. (Doc. 33-1, pp. 150-51; Doc. 33-1, p. 108). Crawford was “shocked” by the feedback she received from Taylor and believed that it was “retaliation” for speaking up to Taylor the day before. (Doc. 33-1, p. 16; Doc. 33-1, p. 21). During the April 13 meeting, Crawford requested an investigation into the allegations that she was a “bully” and had “steamrolled” fellow employees. (Doc. 33-1, p. 17). Crawford specifically requested the identity of the individual making the allegations and examples of her conduct. Id. Crawford reiterated her request for the investigation in a follow-up email on April 13 at 4:49 p.m. (Doc. 33-1, p. 64). On May 2, 2016, Lauren Choate, Executive Vice President of Human Resources at Karcher, emailed Crawford and notified her that Hollinger had informed her of the April 12th incident, the April 13th meeting, and Crawford's request for an investigation. (Doc. 33-2, p. 32). Choate's email affirmed that Karcher was looking into Crawford's concerns and that Karcher would honor the confidentiality of the employees who raised those concerns. Id. In response, Crawford sent an email explaining that she believed her issues with Taylor should have been addressed before and that she felt like Taylor was retaliating against her for speaking up at the meeting. (Doc. 33-2, p. 32). Dan Spickard, Executive Vice President of Operations and Integrated Supply Chain and Taylor's boss, then responded to Crawford and told her that they would discuss the issues in their one-on-one meeting they would have the following week when he was at the Fayetteville facility. (Doc. 33-2, pp. 33-34). Spickard explained that Crawford's email came across as unprofessional and disrespectful to the people attempting to bring her issues to an acceptable resolution and that he would not tolerate personal attacks or a demanding tone in the upcoming meeting. Id. Spickard met with Crawford and Crawford explained her side of the story. (Doc. 33-1, p. 23). Crawford claims that Spickard threatened her not to pursue investigation into who made the allegations against her. (Doc. 33-1, p. 23).

         Early in 2017, Crawford was involved in two incidents that raised concerns from Karcher leadership. On February 1, 2017, Crawford was given a verbal warning for failing to inform Taylor about an incident in the warehouse that occurred on January 27, 2017. (Doc. 36, p. 14, ¶ 51). On that day, Taylor Stroud, one of Crawford's subordinates damaged a vendor's trailer at the Karcher Fayetteville facility. (Doc. 36, p. 13, ¶ 44). Crawford was at work on the day of the incident and was notified by Jose Avila, a team lead for Crawford, that an incident occurred at 10:13 a.m. (Doc. 33-2, p. 45). However, Crawford failed to notify Taylor, the vendor, or any other manager at Karcher Fayetteville about the incident. (Doc. 33-1, p. 93). Taylor was not informed about the incident until the vendor told him about the damage to the trailer. (Doc. 33-1, p. 92). Taylor, Kristin Conlon, Dan Spickard, and Lauren Choate collectively decided to give Crawford a verbal warning because as the manager on-site, she had the “ultimate responsibility for [Karcher] equipment and . . . the equipment of [Karcher's] vendors . . . [and] she did not do her role as the leader on-site.”[3] (Doc. 33-1, p. 127; Doc. 33-1, p. 70).

         On March 11, 2017, Annette VonAch, Crawford's subordinate, fell in the bathroom at the Fayetteville facility and hit her head on a metal beam. (Doc. 33-1, p. 78). VonAch was unable to get the door open to exit the stall and Jose Avila had to climb into the stall to help her out. (Doc. 36, p. 14, ¶ 53). VonAch was slurring her words and her eyes were shaky. (Doc. 33-1, p. 78; Doc. 33-1, p. 32). Michelle Hernandez, another employee in the warehouse, called Crawford, who was not on-site on that day, to notify her of the incident. (Doc. 33-1, p. 78). Crawford asked to speak with Avila because he was the trained first responder on duty. (Doc. 33-1, p. 32). Avila explained the situation to Crawford and then allowed Crawford to speak with VonAch. Id. Crawford asked VonAch if she needed to go to the doctor, and VonAch said no. Id. VonAch said that she was fine and that she just had a headache. Id. Crawford directed Hernandez and Avila to move VonAch to her office and when Annette suggested taking a fellow employee's aspirin, Crawford directed VonAch to go ahead and take it. Id. After waiting for a period of time, Hernandez and Avila drove VonAch home. Id. Crawford did not notify human resources of the injury until March 14, 2017, three days later. (Doc. 33-1, p. 76). Karcher's worker's compensation policy required that an on the job injury report, including the “Supervisor's Accident Investigation Report” be forwarded to human resources within twenty-four hours of the time the injury occurred. (Doc. 33-1, p. 74). Karcher Executive Vice President of Human Resources Lauren Choate felt that Crawford had mishandled the situation by failing to inform human resources or Taylor of the incident in a timely manner. (Doc. 33-2, p. 54). Choate also believed that Crawford incorrectly failed to consider the incident as a Worker's Compensation incident. Id.

         On March 14, 2017, Choate emailed Dan Spickard recommending that Crawford's position be terminated and the Fayetteville facility move forward with the reorganization because of Karcher's CEO's directive to shrink the company's workforce, “this recent incident, and the plethora of other issues . . . .” (Doc. 36, p. 17, ¶ 60). Taylor notified Crawford of her termination on March 28, 2017. (Doc. 33-2, p. 60). Crawford's separation notice informed her that her separation was due to “organizational changes within the department.” (Doc. 36, p. 25, ¶ 76).

         From 2016 moving forward, Karcher had begun looking for ways to increase organizational efficiency. (Doc. 36, p. 19, ¶ 61). Plant managers “were being forced to look for ways to be more cost efficient.” (Doc. 33-1, p. 90). Restructure of the Fayetteville warehouse had been in the plans for two years. (Doc. 33-1, p. 26). Karcher was struggling financially, leading Dan Spickard to begin evaluating the company's organizational structure. Id. In December of 2016, Taylor proposed to Spickard the elimination of the warehouse manager position and promotion of the current team leads to supervisors.[4] (Doc. 36, p. 20, ¶ 71). Taylor believed that respected former employee John Schafer would not have left if Crawford's position would have been eliminated. (Doc. 33-2, p. 56). The reorganization plan reduced headcount at the facility by one. (Doc. 36, p. 21, ¶ 72). Karcher considered the warehouse manager position in the Fayetteville facility as unnecessary. (Doc. 33-1, p. 133). On March 9, 2017, Dan Spickard, Lauren Choate, Kristin Conlon, a Karcher human resources generalist, and Ed Taylor all agreed on the elimination of the warehouse manager position. (Doc. 36, p. 22, ¶ 74; Doc. 33-2, p. 9). Terminating the warehouse manager position allowed Karcher to meet their “financial goals, ” and remove Charlene from the Fayetteville facility. (Doc. 33-1, p. 132). Karcher is closing its Fayetteville facility in 2019 due to financial considerations. (Doc. 36, p. 12, ¶ 78).

         II. Analysis

         When a party moves for summary judgment, it must establish both the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Nat'l Bank of Commerce of El Dorado, Ark. v. Dow Chem. Co., 165 F.3d 602 (8th Cir. 1999). In order for there to be a genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party must produce evidence “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66-67 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). Only facts “that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law” need be considered. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “[T]he non-movant must make a sufficient showing on every essential element of its claim on which it bears the burden of proof.” P.H. v. Sch. Dist. of Kan. City, Mo., 265 F.3d 653, 658 (8th Cir. 2001) (quotation omitted). Facts asserted by the nonmoving party “must be properly supported by the record, ” in which case those “facts and the inferences to be drawn from them [are viewed] in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Id. at 656-57.

         A. Gender Discrimination Claim

         Crawford's complaint alleges that Karcher discriminated against her on the basis of her gender and retaliated against her for reporting instances of gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act (“ACRA”), Ark. Code Ann. § 16-123-107.[5] These laws prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of protected class characteristics-and relevant to this case, on the basis of gender. In a gender discrimination action, a plaintiff's case survives summary judgment if the plaintiff presents direct evidence of discrimination showing a specific link between discriminatory animus and the adverse action, and if that evidence could support a reasonable finding that the discriminatory animus motivated the adverse action. McGinnis v. Union Pac. R.R., 496 F.3d 868, 873 (8th Cir. 2007) (citing Russell v. City of Kan. City, Mo., 414 F.3d 863, 866 (8th Cir. 2005)). Direct evidence is “evidence of conduct or statements by persons involved in the decision-making process that may be viewed as directly reflecting the alleged discriminatory attitude . . . sufficient to permit the factfinder to infer that the attitude was more likely than not a motivating factor in the employer's decision.” Radabaugh v. Zip Feed Mills, Inc., 997 F.2d 444, 449 (8th ...

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