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Robinson v. Tyson Foods, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southern Division

July 2, 2015

SCOTT ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
TYSON FOODS, INC., JAMES SHREVE, and KATHY HOOD, Defendants.

ORDER

DOUGLAS HARPOOL, District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 33). The Court has carefully considered the motion and related legal suggestions, and has also heard oral argument from the parties. As set forth herein, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 33) is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Scott Robinson, previously worked for Defendant Tyson Foods, Inc., in its facility located in Noel, Missouri. The Noel, Missouri facility has three departments, however only two departments are involved in this case - the truck shop and live haul departments. Tyson contends each department at this facility is responsible for its own labor and costs, in essence operating independent of each other. However, it is undisputed there was some cross over at times between employees from the live haul and truck shop departments when employees from the other department would assist or perform duties for the other department, regardless of their job description. For example, from time to time, mechanics may assist in cage repair (a live haul department job) and cage repairers may assist with duties in the truck shop. Despite the occasional crossover of help between the departments, truck shop employees are classified as mechanics, while the live haul employees are classified as cage repairers. Mechanics are skilled laborers who repair and maintain Tyson's trucks and related equipment for Tyson's hauling operations. Cage repairers are non-skilled laborers who provide routine maintenance to the cages used to transport birds to other facilities.[1]

Plaintiff, Scott Robinson, was employed by defendant Tyson in the truck shop department beginning in May 2008.[2] Plaintiff was hired as a Class C Mechanic and reported to Bill McKee, the supervisor of the truck shop department. At the time Plaintiff began his employment he had no work restrictions or liver health issues. However, soon after his 2008 employment began, Plaintiff developed liver problems. In November 2008, Plaintiff's liver problems made him unable to work and he went on non-FMLA medical leave. In January 2009, Plaintiff received a liver transplant.

In April 2009, Plaintiff returned from his leave of absence to his same mechanic position. Upon his return, Plaintiff was subject to certain work restrictions, including a 50-pound weight restriction and a climbing restriction. It does not appear there were any issues with Plaintiff's restrictions in 2009. Approximately one year later, in May, 2010, Plaintiff developed stage 1 liver failure and underwent triple therapy medication. Plaintiff testified in his deposition that he was on a leave of absence for approximately one year during the time of his treatment - May 2010 through May 2011. However, the record before the Court is unclear based on a review of Tyson's team member attendance report - which does not reflect this leave. In addition, despite Plaintiff's deposition testimony, Plaintiff now disputes this fact in his opposition to summary judgment. Nonetheless, the Court does not find the issue regarding whether Plaintiff was or was not on leave during this time to be a material fact with regard to Plaintiff's claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

Regardless of whether Plaintiff did or did not take leave in 2010, it is undisputed that in May 2011, Plaintiff was working in his same position as a mechanic and it appears he remained subject to the same restrictions imposed in April 2009, which included a 50-pound weight restriction, a climbing restriction and a turning restriction.

In February 2012, Plaintiff was working the night shift where he primarily worked alone.[3] During this time, Plaintiff informed his supervisor that during one of his shifts he had lifted a brake drum, weighing in excess of 50 pounds, without assistance and in violation of his work restrictions. Plaintiff alleges he refused to perform a brake job on a vehicle after he had injured himself lifting beyond his restriction the night before. After Plaintiff reported this to his supervisor, Plaintiff's supervisors referred him to Kathy Hood, the complex's human resources manager. Plaintiff provided human resources with his doctor's note and was then put on a "short leave of absence." Plaintiff claims Defendant Hood put him on the leave of absence in order to research possible accommodations.

While on this leave, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination. The Charge of Discrimination was filed on or about March 7, 2012 and alleged Tyson had failed to accommodate him. The parties conciliated Plaintiff's Charge of Discrimination and as a result, Plaintiff returned to work and was paid for his short leave of absence. Plaintiff also withdrew his Charge of Discrimination. In addition, upon Plaintiff's return to work he no longer had a lifting restriction.[4] The record reflects that Plaintiff's doctor lifted his weight restriction shortly after Plaintiff filed his first charge of discrimination.

After his return from the short leave, and resolution of his Charge of Discrimination, Plaintiff claims he was then moved to the night shift.[5] However, in Plaintiff's deposition he testified that it was during his night shift that he was forced to lift in excess of his weight restriction, the basis of his first complaint February 2012. Further, Plaintiff also argues he was forced to lift in excess of fifty pounds after he returned from his short leave in March 2012. However, Plaintiff has testified, and also confirmed in his affidavit, that his lifting restriction was removed when he returned to work in March 2012. Plaintiff further alleges in November 2012 he was involuntarily transferred to the weekend shift and that he had to perform maintenance and repairs that required lifting in excess of fifty pounds. Plaintiff makes numerous complaints about broken equipment and tools used for assisting in lifting, but again, all these complaints are with regard to his shifts after he returned in March 2012, after his lifting restriction had been removed by his doctor.

At some point in the fall of 2012, Tyson began negotiations with J.B. Hunt, Inc. to have J.B. Hunt assume the Noel, Missouri plant's long haul trucking operations. As a result of this negotiation, Tyson decided to outsource the trucking operations and the Noel location no longer needed most of its trucks and trailers. This in turn affected the truck shop department's employment needs. Ultimately, based on the J.B. Hunt agreement, Tyson decided to eliminate four driver positions, a supervisor position (which oversaw truck and trailer dispatch), and two mechanics. The live haul department was not affected by J.B. Hunt's assumption of the long haul trucking operations because Tyson kept ownership of the bird cages and retained responsibility for the cage maintenance and repair. Tyson contends employee positions were eliminated based on seniority, and in accordance with their "Hourly Layoff Policy." Tyson eliminated Plaintiff and another mechanic, Tony Weeden's, positions. Plaintiff's hire date was 2008 and Weeden's was 2012. Tyson contends they were the two least senior mechanics.

Plaintiff, on the other hand, argues another employee, David Brown, was less senior than Plaintiff and should have had his position eliminated if seniority was the determining factor in who was laid off. Tyson agrees that Mr. Brown was less senior than Plaintiff, but argues Mr. Brown was not a mechanic. Tyson contends Mr. Brown is a cage repairer. Tyson admits Mr. Brown was hired in 2010 and on paper originally, Mr. Brown was identified as a mechanic. However, Tyson argues the designation was an administrative error because Mr. Brown was not hired as a mechanic. Tyson states when the error was realized in July 2011 it corrected the mistake, long before the J.B. Hunt agreement was entered into, and Mr. Brown was reclassified as a cage repairer. Mr. Brown is currently a cage repairer at Tyson.

In response, Plaintiff has submitted Mr. Brown's affidavit that states he was hired as a mechanic in October 2010 and then was moved to a cage repairer in July 2011. Mr. Brown's affidavit states he applied for a mechanic position in 2010, but was then transferred to a cage repairer (in essence that Tyson did not make a mistake in the original paperwork but transferred him from mechanic to cage repairer in July 2011). Mr. Brown further states he is currently classified as a cage repairer, although he does occasionally perform tasks at times for the truck shop, including fueling, preparing equipment for the start of the day, and other tasks that are sometimes requested. Mr. Brown also states in his affidavit that prior to the J.B. Hunt restructure, "James Shreve offered me the opportunity to move back to the mechanic position, which I declined." There is no indication that offer was reextended or available to Mr. Brown at anytime contemporary with the J.B. Hunt agreement. Mr. Brown confirms that at the time Plaintiff's position was eliminated he was less senior than Plaintiff, but Mr. Brown also confirms that at the time of the J.B. Hunt restructure he was, and currently still is, classified as a cage repairer. He was therefore not subject to the layoff.

After learning of the J.B. Hunt agreement and elimination of his position, but before the effective date of the elimination of Plaintiff's position, Plaintiff applied for a leave of absence pursuant to the FMLA. Plaintiff states he applied for leave because he did not have another available position to apply for within Tyson's facilities. As part of the employment changes associated with the J.B. Hunt agreement, Plaintiff was offered the opportunity to transfer to a "non mechanic" position with Tyson. In February 2014, Plaintiff returned to work after the FMLA leave as a USDA helper. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff requested a transfer, which was granted, and he was moved to a floor washer position. Over the next six months, Plaintiff took several leaves of absences. In May or June 2014, Plaintiff went on permanent total disability. Plaintiff took personal leave from September 2014 through October 2014. Plaintiff's employment officially ended on October 18, 2014. Plaintiff is currently no longer able to work due to his permanent, total disability.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper if, viewing the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp., v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (1986). The moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law if they can establish there is "no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, (1986). Once the moving party has established a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party cannot rest on allegations or denials but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 248.

A question of material fact is not required to be resolved conclusively in favor of the party asserting its existence. Rather, all that is required is sufficient evidence supporting the factual dispute that would require a jury to resolve the differing versions of truth at trial. Id. at 248-249. In addition, "while employment discrimination cases are often fact intensive and dependent on nuance in the workplace, they are not immune from summary judgment." Shirrell v. Saint Francis Med. Ctr., 24 F.Supp. 3d 851, 855-56 (E.D. Mo. 2014); citing Fercello v. County of Ramsey, 612 F.3d 1069, 1077 (8th Cir. 2010); citing Berg v. Norand Corp., 169 F.3d 1140, 1144 (8th Cir. 1999). In fact, there is no separate summary ...


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