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Cooper v. City of St. Louis

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 22, 2018

RODNEY COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ST. LOUIS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RODNEY W. SIPPEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Defendant the City of St. Louis (the “City”) moves for summary judgment on plaintiff Rodney Cooper's claim of unlawful employment discrimination. (No. 45). The City argues that Cooper has suffered no adverse employment action, that he has failed to exhaust his administrative remedies on his hostile work environment and retaliation claims, and that he cannot prove the required elements of his claims. Because Cooper has no evidence to prove that he suffered an adverse employment action, I will grant summary judgment on his discrimination claim. I will also grant summary judgment on his retaliation claim, because Cooper did not present it in his charge to the Equal Employment and Opportunity Council (EEOC). Cooper, however, presents enough evidence that a jury could find that he suffered from a hostile work environment, a claim that he presented to the EEOC. As a result, I will deny the City's motion for summary judgment on Cooper's hostile work environment claim alone.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Rodney Cooper works as a utility worker in the City's public parks system. (No. 47-2 at 2). From September 2011 through August 2015, Cooper performed this job in a crew dedicated to maintaining Forest Park. In this position he was directly supervised by non-party Ricky Hahn, who in turn was directly supervised by Roger Berry. Plaintiff Cooper testified that he experienced a religious conversion in 2013, (Cooper Depo., No. 61-2 at 12), and that, from that point forward, he frequently talked about religion with coworkers, predominantly in the lunchroom before work started. (Plaintiff's Statement of Facts, ¶ 47-49).

         Cooper and Berry clashed over Cooper's religious conversations in the workplace. Berry's office is adjacent to the lunchroom, where Cooper would have many of his conversations about religion. When Berry overheard these conversations, he often told Cooper to stop talking. Cooper said that Berry told him to shut up almost every day, (Cooper Depo., No. 61-2 at 21), which Berry denies. (Berry Depo., No. 61-1 at 28-29). Instead, Berry says he respectfully asked Cooper to “keep it down a little bit so we don't have everybody griping” about his religious speech. (Id. at 28-29). According to Berry, he was compelled to intervene on behalf of other employees who complained about Cooper. (Id.)

         In 2015, Cooper was transferred or relocated[1] to Fairgrounds Park in North St. Louis City. As of the filing of this suit, Cooper continued to work at Fairgrounds Park in the same role he had in the Forest Park location. Cooper argues that he was relocated to Fairgrounds Park because of his religious beliefs. Both parties agree that the Fairgrounds Park supervisor Fred Quinn raised the idea of exchanging workers. (Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, No. 47 at ¶ 12; Plaintiff's Statement of Facts, No. 61 at ¶ 12). One of Quinn's employees was having difficulty with a supervisor, and Quinn wanted to avoid conflict between those employees. When Berry heard Quinn's proposal, he suggested that Cooper be the Forest Park employee transferred to Fairgrounds Park.

         In the time period before he was relocated, Cooper claims that he was subject to harassment based on his religious beliefs. Berry or his subordinates allegedly threatened to fire Cooper “every day” if he didn't stop talking about God. (Cooper Depo., No. 61-2 at 103). Coworker Terrence Brown corroborated these claims, saying that “Berry literally told Rodney Cooper if he didn't stop praying he would get fired on the spot.” (Affidavit of Terrence Brown, No. 61-9). In addition to these threats, Berry admits that he called Cooper “Reverend Rodney” several times, (Berry Depo, No. 61-1 at 26-27), and he allegedly called Cooper bipolar more than once, (Cooper Depo, No. 61-2 at 29), and retarded a few times. (Id. at 30-31). Berry allegedly said some of these insults in the context of statements about religion such as “[w]hat are you doing, getting ready to pay your tithes out of your check?” (Id. at 29). Other non-supervisory employees allegedly called Cooper “preacher man” on a regular basis and in a way that Cooper found insulting. (Id. at 61-62). In defense of himself, Berry denies that he made any threat to fire Cooper, that he called Cooper retarded or bipolar, or that he told Cooper to shut up in the mornings before work started. (Berry Depo, No. 61-1 at 5).

         Cooper also claims that he was excluded from advancement opportunities because of his religious beliefs. He says that he stopped receiving discretionary overtime for smaller events in 2013 and that he still is not selected for overtime for those events. (Cooper Depo, No. 61-2 at 46, 104). If Cooper requested overtime for an event that would be held on a Sunday, Berry would allegedly tell him “No. You need to go to church.” (Id. at 49). In contrast, Cooper claims that Berry only gives discretionary overtime to a small group of people that he liked. (Id. at 48, 58-59). These same workers are informally designated as “crew leaders” a position that Cooper says he was excluded from. (Id. at 57-59). Cooper does receive overtime hours for larger events where all utility employees are expected to be on hand. Overall, the City's annual payroll records indicate that Cooper worked 70.5 overtime hours in 2012, 34.5 overtime hours in 2013, and 64.5 overtime hours in 2014. (Plaintiff's Statement of Facts, No. 61 at ¶ 49; Annual Payroll Records, No. 47-5). No. other overtime records were provided by either party.

         Cooper alleges that, as a result of these events, he suffered mental anguish, anxiety, depression, embarrassment, and lack of enjoyment of life. (Cooper Depo., No. 61-2 at 85-96). He says he is “jumpy, ” no longer feels comfortable taking walks in the park, and is generally depressed although feels as though he is slowly recovering from these events. He alleges that he was “humiliated” and embarrassed before his fellow employees. To treat his anxiety, he says he has taken prescribed medicines and began seeing a counselor.

         Based on these circumstances and events, Cooper filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights on December 24, 2015. (No. 47-3). The Department of Justice issued Cooper a right-to-sue letter on August 31, 2016. (No. 27-1). Cooper filed this complaint on September 26, 2016, and amended his complaint on March 24, 2017. (No. 1, 27). In his amended complaint, Cooper asserts claims for religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (No. 27 at 3-4).

         Defendant City moves for summary judgment, arguing a) that Cooper has shown no direct evidence of discrimination, b) that he suffered no adverse employment action, c) that in the alternative, he has not shown that his adverse action was the product of discriminatory intent, and d) that any claims of hostile work environment or retaliation should be dismissed for failure to exhaust available administrative remedies. (No. 46 at 3-6). In response, Cooper argues that his relocation to Fairground Park and alleged loss of overtime were adverse employment actions motivated by discriminatory intent, and that the hostile work environment claim was properly exhausted in his original EEOC complaint. (No. 62 at 4-6).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “Summary judgment is proper where the evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, indicates that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Davison v. City of Minneapolis, Minn., 490 F.3d 648, 654 (8th Cir. 2007); see also Fed R. Civ. P. 56(a). I “must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the opposing party” and draw “reasonable inferences” in favor of that party. Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866-68 (2014). “The basic inquiry is… whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Diesel Machinery, Inc. v. B.R. Lee Industries, Inc., 418 F.3d 820, 832 (8th Cir. 2005). At one time, Eighth Circuit jurisprudence held that “summary judgment should seldom be used in employment-discrimination cases … .” Crawford v. Runyon, 37 F.3d 1338 (8th Cir. 1994), abrogated by Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031 (8th Cir. 2011).[2] (“Because discrimination cases often depend on inferences rather than on direct evidence, ...


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