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Rinchuso v. Brookshire Grocery Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

December 9, 2019

Albert Rinchuso Plaintiff- Appellant
Brookshire Grocery Company, doing business as Brookshire Pharmacy #102 Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: September 26, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Pine Bluff

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.


         Albert Rinchuso sued his former employer, Brookshire Grocery Company, alleging gender-based discrimination. The district court[1] granted Brookshire's motion for summary judgment. Rinchuso appeals, arguing the district court erred in refusing to consider his direct evidence argument and granting summary judgment for Brookshire. We have jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 1291. Because summary judgment was appropriate and any error in declining to consider Rinchuso's direct evidence argument was harmless, we affirm.

         I. Background

         In May 2014, Brookshire Grocery Company ("Brookshire") hired Albert Rinchuso as a pharmacist. At the time of his employment, Rinchuso signed an acknowledgment of Brookshire's internet and conduct policies in which he acknowledged that using the company computer for personal purposes or acting inappropriately at work could result in termination. Shortly after he began working at Brookshire, female coworkers reported Rinchuso was engaging in inappropriate behavior and he was verbally warned.

         In January 2017, Brookshire's human resources department opened an investigation in response to a coworker complaint that Rinchuso was viewing pornography on his work computer. Brookshire interviewed four of Rinchuso's female coworkers, who alleged Rinchuso viewed naked women on his work computer, gambled, and touched them inappropriately at work. Notwithstanding the interviews, Brookshire's information technology department was unable to conclusively determine if Rinchuso viewed pornography on his work computer. Brookshire also interviewed Rinchuso, who admitted to visiting sports and dating websites at his work computer but denied viewing pornography, gambling at work, or touching his coworkers. Brookshire did not interview Rinchuso's two male coworkers.

         Brookshire terminated Rinchuso on January 20, 2017. On February 28, 2017, Rinchuso filed a complaint in state court claiming he was fired in violation of the Arkansas Civil Rights Act's prohibition on gender-based discrimination. Specifically, Rinchuso alleged that he was subjected to disparate treatment when he was terminated after accusations of inappropriate touching. Rinchuso claimed a prior female employee, Laura Cole, was not terminated after coworkers accused her of inappropriate touching in 2014.

         Brookshire removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment. In response, Rinchuso argued discovery had elicited direct evidence of Brookshire's discriminatory motive in firing him. The district court found Rinchuso's direct evidence argument to be an untimely attempt to amend his complaint and declined to consider it. The district court found Rinchuso failed to present a prima facie case of discrimination and granted summary judgment in favor of Brookshire. Rinchuso moved the district court to amend or alter its judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) asserting that his direct evidence argument was a method of proof for his underlying disparate treatment claim, not a new theory of recovery. The district court denied the motion. Rinchuso timely appealed the district court's orders granting summary judgment for Brookshire and denying his Rule 59(e) motion.

         II. Discussion

         A. Summary Judgment

         We review the grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo. Higgins v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 931 F.3d 664, 669 (8th Cir. 2019). Summary judgment is appropriate if, viewing all evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, there is no genuine issue of material fact. Id.

         The Arkansas Civil Rights Act prohibits gender discrimination by employers. Ark. Code Ann. § 16-123-107(a)(1) (2016). Violations of the Arkansas Civil Rights Act are evaluated under the Title VII gender-discrimination framework and relevant federal case law prohibiting disparate treatment. Greenlee v. J.B. Hunt Transp. Servs., 342 S.W.3d 274, 277-79 (Ark. 2009). A plaintiff alleging disparate treatment may survive summary judgment by either: (1) showing direct evidence of discrimination or (2) presenting an inference of discrimination under the McDonnell Douglas framework. Griffith v. City of Des Moines, 387 F.3d 733, 736 (8th Cir. 2004). Direct evidence shows a "specific link" between discriminatory animus and an employment decision. Id. (quoting Thomas v. First Nat'l Bank of Wynne, 111 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1997)). Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of disparate treatment by showing they: (1) belong to a protected class; (2) were meeting the employer's legitimate job expectations; (3) suffered an ...

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