Belew v. Seco Architectural Systems, Inc. (TWP2)
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION as set forth in following order. Signed by District Judge Thomas W Phillips on 7/5/17. (ABF)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
ROBBIE DALE BELEW,
SECO ARCHITECTURAL SYSTEMS, INC.
This matter is before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment
[doc. 14], Defendant’s Brief in Support of the Motion [doc. 15], Plaintiff’s Response
[doc. 18], Defendant’s Reply [doc. 20], Plaintiff’s Supplemental Response [doc. 26], and
Defendant’s Supplemental Reply [doc. 31]. For the reasons herein, the Court will deny
Born in 1953, Robbie Dale Belew (“Mr. Belew”) began his career with Defendant
SECO Architectural Systems, Inc. (“SECO”)—a company that fabricates and installs
wall panels primarily for large-scale construction projections—in 1991 as a sheeter, or an
installer of metal siding. [Belew Dep., doc. 15-1, 50:25; 51:1–11; Creighton Decl., doc.
15-2, ¶¶ 2, 13]. Mr. Belew later became a construction manager with SECO and was
responsible for the oversight of projects in states throughout the Southeast. [Belew Dep.
at 61:15–25; 62:1–5; Creighton Decl. ¶ 6]. By 2014, SECO employed three construction
managers, each of whom was based in a different state. [Creighton Dec. ¶ 6]. As one of
those three construction managers, Mr. Belew was based in Jacksboro, Tennessee, where
he maintained an office. [Belew Dep. at 101:24–25, 102:1; Creighton Decl. ¶ 6]. At some
time in 2014, SECO published a company-wide newsletter called “The SECO Outlook,”
[doc. 18-1], in which Joseph Creighton (“Mr. Creighton”), SECO’s president and coowner, [Creighton Decl. ¶ 1], wrote:
It has been said that the future belongs to the young. It has also been said
that those that don’t plan for the future, won’t have much of a future!
In the ever-changing business world, which moves faster with every
passing day, those companies that don’t plan and prepare for the near-term
future or the long term future, simply won’t have a future!
Of course, one of the pillars of SECO’s core philosophy has been to always
self-perform our field operations. As such, since day-one, back in 1989,
SECO’s field forces have been direct SECO employees. In fact, several of
the foremen who started out with SECO leading our field efforts are still
leading our field efforts nearly 25 years later!
This amazing longevity is the primary reason that SECO’s field personnel
are the most experienced professionals in the industry.
If there is any downside to all of this experience, it’s that some of our long
timers are, shall we say, not “spring chickens”! Looking forward, SECO
management has recognized the need to take advantage of our seasoned
personnel as teachers and mentors of the next generation of foreman and
crew leaders. This is an ongoing process, of course, but several of our nextgeneration field leaders have already come to the forefront.
These “young guns”, the future of SECO’s field leadership, have taken full
advantage of the vast knowledge and skills possessed by our experienced
leaders and have thereby accelerated their learning process.
We’d like to introduce you to some of our future stars and their primary
We are very fortunate to have all of these dedicated young professionals on
With this kind of talent within our field leadership supplemented by dozens
of top-notch technicians and craftsmen, it looks as if SECO’s customers of
the future will continue to have their needs met by the best field force in
America, just like our customers of today!
A big thank you goes out to our senior guys for helping to secure a bright
future for SECO by selflessly passing on their invaluable knowledge to the
[The SECO Outlook at 15–16; Creighton Dep., doc. 26-1, 66:10–25; 67:1–23].
In December 2014, Mr. Creighton maintains that he and SECO’s founder and coowner, Dick Waldron, “began discussing ways to streamline company operations and cut
costs” and decided that SECO did not require three construction managers. [Creighton
Decl. ¶¶ 3, 7–9]. As a result, they demoted Mr. Belew, who was about sixty years old at
the time, to a position that required him to perform safety audits and order equipment for
construction projects, [Belew Dep. at 75:14–25; 76:1–23]; terminated one of the other
construction managers, who was forty-five years old, [Creighton Decl. ¶ 10]; and
promoted the third construction manager, Troy Strickland (“Mr. Strickland”),1 who
assumed responsibilities for all of SECO’s construction projects, [id. ¶ 9]. Mr. Belew, in
his new position, “no longer had any management authority,” [id. ¶ 10], and he not only
had fewer responsibilities but also received less wages, [Belew Aff., doc. 18-1, ¶ 7].
Specifically, his work dealt with projects in Tennessee, limiting the reach he once had
over projects throughout the Southeast. [Creighton Decl. ¶ 10; Belew Aff. ¶ 7].
According to Mr. Creighton, SECO’s management “continued to consider ways to
decrease costs and improve efficiency” in 2015. [Creighton Decl. ¶ 11]. These
considerations took place, at least in part, between Mr. Creighton and Mr. Strickland,
The record contains no information regarding Mr. Strickland’s age.
who recommended that Mr. Belew should be terminated because he brought no value to
the management of projects in his new position, his workload was not heavy enough to
justify his employment, and other employees were already performing or were capable of
performing his duties. [Id. ¶ 11; Strickland Decl., doc. 15-3, ¶ 10]. Mr. Strickland also
recommended that the office in Jacksboro should be closed as an additional cost-saving
measure. [Creighton Decl. ¶ 11]. Based on Mr. Strickland’s advice, Mr. Creighton agreed
to shutter the Jacksboro office and confirmed Mr. Belew’s termination, [id.; Creighton
Dep. at 94:16–20].
In January 2016, Mr. Strickland met with Mr. Belew and informed him of his
dismissal. [Belew Dep. at 112:14–25; 113:1–6; Belew Aff. ¶ 8; Creighton Dep. at 92:14–
23; 93:20–23].2 Mr. Belew maintains that Mr. Strickland told him he was being released
because SECO did “[n]ot [have] enough work in Tennessee at that time.” [Belew Dep. at
113:2–6]. Mr. Belew, however, was aware that SECO was currently completing two or
three projects in Tennessee, [Id. at 114:6–22]—a larger number of projects than it
normally had in progress at any one time in Tennessee, [id. at 115:17–20]. He also knew
that SECO had three or four projects booked in Tennessee and had yet to begin work on
them. [Id. at 113:12–25; 114:1–3]. After his firing, Mr. Belew learned that SECO was
placing advertisements for several positions including construction manager, his former
position, and other field personnel. [Belew Aff. ¶ 20; SECO Job Advertisement, doc. 181, at 29; see Creighton Dep. at 90:9–20]. Mr. Belew also learned that SECO promoted a
member of his former construction crew, Dennie Neal (“Mr. Neal”), from “a foreman to
Mr. Belew held his new position for roughly a year. [See Strickland Decl. ¶¶ 6–11].
the position of overseeing construction in the Tennessee area.” [Belew Aff. ¶ 10]. In this
role, Mr. Neal, according to Mr. Belew, was “performing the duties which [he] had
performed.” [Id. ¶ 9]. Mr. Belew, who was sixty-two years old when SECO terminated
him, describes Mr. Neal as being “substantially younger than [him],” by a margin of at
least ten or fifteen years, and as less experienced than him. [Id. ¶¶ 9, 13, 19–20]. As a
result, he brings this action against SECO and claims that SECO wrongfully terminated
him because of his age, in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”),
section 4-21-401. SECO now moves for summary judgment on Mr. Belew’s claim.
Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party shows, or “point[s] out
to the district court,” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986), that the
record—the admissions, affidavits, answers to interrogatories, declarations, depositions,
or other materials—is without a genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party
is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a), (c). The moving party has
the initial burden of identifying the basis for summary judgment and the portions of the
record that lack genuine issues of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving
party discharges that burden by showing “an absence of evidence to support the
nonmoving party’s” claim or defense, id. at 325, at which point the nonmoving party, to
withstand summary judgment, must identify facts in the record that create a genuine issue
of material fact, id. at 324.
Not just any factual dispute will defeat a motion for summary judgment—the
requirement is “that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty
Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if it may affect the outcome of
the case under the applicable substantive law, id., and an issue is “genuine” if the
evidence is “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”
Id. In short, the inquiry is whether the record contains evidence that “presents a sufficient
disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party
must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251–52. When ruling on a motion for summary
judgment, a court must view the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most
favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). “[T]he
judge’s function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the
matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at
The THRA is a “comprehensive anti-discrimination law.” Wilson v. Rubin, 104
S.W.3d 39, 48 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002) (citation omitted). One of the THRA’s purposes is
to “[s]afeguard all individuals within the state from discrimination because
of . . . age . . . in connection with employment,” Tenn. Code. Ann. § 4-21-101(a)(3), by
“[p]roviding for execution within Tennessee of the policies embodied in the
federal . . . Age Discrimination in Employment Act,” id. § 4-21-101(a)(1). Because the
THRA is coextensive with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29
U.S.C. § 621, the same analysis applies to age discrimination claims under the THRA and
the ADEA. Bender v. Hecht’s Dep’t Stores, 455 F.3d 612, 620 (6th Cir. 2006). Like the
THRA, the ADEA bars an employer from discharging an employee “because of such
individual’s age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). To prevail on an age discrimination claim under
the ADEA, an employee must do more than show that his age was “a motivating factor”
in the employer’s decision to discharge him; rather, the ADEA’s “‘because of’ language”
requires an employee to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that his age was the
but-for cause for the employer’s decision. Scheick v. Tecumseh Public Schs., 766 F.3d
523, 529 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 177–78
(2009)). In other words, the employee’s age must be “the ‘reason’ that the employer
decided to act.” Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S. Ct. 2517, 2527 (2013)
(emphasis added) (quotation omitted).
To establish an age discrimination claim, an employee can rely on either direct or
circumstantial evidence. Martin v. Toledo Cardiology Consultants, Inc., 548 F.3d 405,
410 (6th Cir. 2008). Although these two “evidence paths are mutually exclusive,”
Scheick, 766 F.3d at 529 (quotation omitted), “[t]he ultimate question” for a court when
considering either of these types of evidence “is whether the plaintiff was the victim of
intentional discrimination,” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133,
146–47 (2000) (citation omitted). In this case, Mr. Belew concedes that his claim for age
discrimination consists of circumstantial evidence, not direct evidence. [Pl.’s Resp. at 7–
8]. Circumstantial evidence is “proof that does not on its face establish discriminatory
animus, but does allow a factfinder to draw a reasonable inference that discrimination
occurred.” Geiger v. Tower Auto., 579 F.3d 614, 620 (6th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted).
To state a prima facie case of age discrimination when relying on circumstantial
evidence, an employee must satisfy the four elements in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v.
Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).3 Schoonmaker v. Spartan Graphics Leasing, LLC, 595 F.3d
261, 264 (6th Cir. 2010).
[A] plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by showing that (1) he was at
least 40 years old at the time of the alleged discrimination, (2) he was
subjected to an adverse employment action, (3) he was otherwise qualified
for the position, and (4) the successful applicant was substantially younger
than the plaintiff.
Bush v. Dictaphone Corp., 161 F.3d 363, 368 (6th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted); see
generally McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 793.
If the employee succeeds in constructing a prima facie case under these elements,
“an inference of discrimination arises.” Laderach v. U-Haul of Nw. Ohio, 207 F.3d 825,
828 (6th Cir. 2000); see Barnes v. GenCorp Inc., 896 F.2d 1457, 1464 n.7 (6th Cir.
1990). The burden of production then shifts to the employer, who, to escape this
inference of discrimination, must “articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the
adverse employment action.” Schoonmaker, 595 F.3d at 264 (citation omitted). If the
employer meets this burden, the burden of production shifts back to the employee to
demonstrate that the employer’s reason is “a mere pretext for intentional age
discrimination.” Id. (citation omitted). This burden-shifting framework applies “at all
stages of the proceedings, including motions for summary judgment.” Tenn. Code Ann.
“McDonnell Douglas and subsequent decisions have ‘established an allocation of the
burden of production and an order for the presentation of proof in . . . discriminatory-treatment
cases.’” Reeves, 530 U.S. at 142 (quotation omitted).
§ 4-21-311(e).4 “Although intermediate evidentiary burdens shift back and forth under
this framework, ‘[t]he ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant
intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff.’”
Reeves, 530 U.S. at 143 (quotation omitted); see Schoonmaker, 595 F.3d at 264 (stating
that the burden of persuasion at all times remains on the employee to show that “age was
the ‘but-for’ cause of the employer’s adverse action” (internal quotation marks and
A. Prima Facie Case
SECO argues that Mr. Belew falls short of establishing a prima facie case of age
discrimination because he fails to satisfy McDonnell Douglas’s fourth element, which,
again, requires the employer to replace the employee with a substantially younger
applicant. [Def.’s Br. at 8–9]. Although Mr. Belew filed an affidavit showing that SECO
replaced him with a substantially younger person in Mr. Neal, [Belew Aff. ¶¶ 9, 10–11,
13, 19–20], SECO urges the Court to ignore this evidence because Mr. Belew originally
Although the Tennessee Supreme Court, in Gossett v. Tractor Supply Co., 320 S.W.3d
777, 785 (Tenn. 2010), held that “the McDonnell Douglas framework is inapplicable at the
summary judgment stage because it is incompatible with Tennessee summary judgment
jurisprudence,” federal district courts in Tennessee have concluded that Gossett does not
govern federal diversity actions. See Boges v. Gen. Motors Co., 808 F. Supp. 2d 1043,
1051 (M.D. Tenn. 2011) (“McDonnell Douglas [i]s still the appropriate standard for
federal district courts in Tennessee to apply because Gossett announced a state procedural
rule, not a substantive rule that would be applied by a federal court sitting in diversity.”
(citations omitted)); Reed v. Inland Intermodal Logistics Servs., LLC, No. 09-2607, 2011
WL 4565450, at *5 (W.D. Tenn. Sept. 29, 2011) (“Despite Gossett, both parties assume
that McDonnell Douglas applies. They are correct because Gossett stated a procedural
rule inapplicable in federal courts[.]”); see also Shady Grove Orthopedic Assocs., P.A. v.
Allstate Ins. Co., 559 U.S. 393, 437 (2010) (“‘Under the Erie doctrine,’ it is long settled,
‘federal courts sitting in diversity apply state substantive law and federal procedural
law.’” (quoting Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 427 (1996))).
testified that no one replaced him after his termination, [Def.’s Reply at 2–3; see Belew
Dep. at 120:3–17]. SECO argues that Mr. Belew, to shore up his case and fend off the
motion for summary judgment, contradicted this testimony in his affidavit, in which he
introduced information about Mr. Neal for the first time. [Def.’s Reply at 2–3; see Belew
Aff. ¶¶ 9, 10–11, 13, 19–20]. SECO contends that Mr. Belew’s actions are improper and
supports its position by citing Balding-Margolis v. Cleveland Arcade, 352 F. App’x 35
(6th Cir. 2009), in which the Sixth Circuit stated that “[a] party may not create a factual
issue by filing an affidavit, after a motion for summary judgment has been made, which
contradicts her earlier deposition testimony,” id. at 40 (quotation omitted)).
SECO’s argument, however, does not necessarily entitle it to summary judgment
because an employee can also satisfy McDonnell Douglas’s fourth element by showing
that the employer, after firing the employee, sought applications to fill the employee’s
To make a prima facie case of age discrimination, a plaintiff must
ordinarily show  that he is a member of a protected class,  that he
suffered an adverse employment action,  that he was qualified for the
job, and  that the employer sought applications to fill the position.
Abney v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., No. 98-3079, 1999 WL 357797, at *2 (6th Cir. 1999)
(emphasis added) (citation omitted); see Barnes, 896 F.2d at 1464 n.6 (stating that, in the
context of an age discrimination case, McDonnell Douglas’s fourth element requires the
employee to show “that the employer continued to seek job applicants after the plaintiff
was rejected”); see also Deleon v. Kalamazoo Cty. Rd. Comm’n, 739 F.3d 914, 918 (6th
Cir. 2014) (recognizing that, under the ADEA, McDonnell Douglas’s fourth element
requires an employee to show that “he was replaced by a substantially younger employee,
or additional evidence . . . [that] the employer was motivated by age” (emphasis added)
Although SECO concedes that “the fourth prong of the prima facie case can be
established by other evidence” of age discrimination, [Def.’s Br. at 7], it ignores record
evidence showing it was actively inviting applications for construction managers as well
as other field personnel in 2016,5 the very same year of Mr. Belew’s termination, [SECO
Job Advertisement at 29; Creighton Dep. at 90:9–25].6 Together with the other prima
facie elements, which SECO does not challenge, this evidence “raises an inference of
discrimination because the plaintiff has demonstrated that the adverse employment action
did not result from a lack of qualifications or the absence of a vacancy.” Abney, 1999 WL
357797 at *2. But in light of SECO’s declaration that Mr. Belew’s discharge was due to
business considerations—namely the absence of a sufficient workload for Mr. Belew,
leading to his inability to “add anything of value” to the company, [Strickland Decl.
¶ 10]—this case typifies a work force reduction case. See Barnes, 896 F.2d at 1465
(defining broadly the term “work force reduction” as any “business consideration [that]
causes an employer to eliminate one or more positions within the company”). In this type
The vacancies for field personnel included positions for foremen. [SECO Job
Advertisement at 29]. According to Mr. Creighton, foremen are responsible for “making site
visits and providing Mr. Strickland with updates” on projects. [Creighton Decl. ¶ 12]. These
responsibilities appear to be the same as or similar to those that Mr. Belew had in his most recent
position as a safety auditor. [See Belew Dep. at 75:14–25; 76:1–23].
A court’s “analysis of temporal proximity in the circumstantial evidence context is even
more flexible” than in the direct-evidence context. Reed v. Am. Cellular, Inc., 39 F. Supp. 3d
951, 969 (M.D. Tenn. 2014) (citation omitted); see Ercegovich v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.,
154 F.3d 344, 357 (6th Cir. 1998) (determining that conduct that occurred fourteen months
before an employee’s termination was relevant circumstantial evidence of discrimination).
of case, an inference of discrimination is not enough to shuttle an ADEA claim past the
prima facie stage:
To make a prima facie case of age discrimination, a plaintiff must
ordinarily show that he is a member of a protected class, that he suffered an
adverse employment action, that he was qualified for the job, and that the
employer sought applications to fill the position. [S]uch a showing raises an
inference of discrimination . . . . When a termination results from a
reduction in force, however, the most common reason for the termination is
the workforce reduction and, thus, a plaintiff, in order to establish a prima
facie case, must provide “additional direct, circumstantial or statistical
evidence tending to indicate that the employer singled out the plaintiff for
discharge for impermissible reasons.”
Abney, 1999 WL 357797 at *2 (emphasis added) (citations and quotation omitted); see
Schoonmaker, 595 F.3d at 265 (“[W]hen a termination arises as part of a work force
reduction, the fourth element of the McDon[n]ell Douglas test is modified to require the
plaintiff to provide ‘additional direct, circumstantial, or statistical evidence tending to
indicate that the employer singled out the plaintiff for discharge for impermissible
reasons.’” (quotation omitted)).
In sum, evidence of a work force reduction requires an employee to bolster the
inference of discrimination that accompanies an employer’s attempt to fill his former
position. To do so, the employee must summon evidence “indicating that the work force
reduction [is] not the reason for the discharge.” Barnes, 896 F.2d at 1465 (citation
omitted).7 Before reviewing Mr. Belew’s evidence for this showing, the Court recognizes
that it “may not consider the employer’s alleged nondiscriminatory reason for taking an
adverse employment action when analyzing the prima facie case” because the burdenThe Sixth Circuit has referred to this showing as a “heightened standard to establish a
prima facie case.” Geiger, 579 F.3d at 623–24 (citation omitted).
shifting analysis would fall out of effect. Wexler v. White’s Fine Furniture, Inc., 317 F.3d
564, 573 (6th Cir. 2003); see Cline v. Catholic Diocese of Toledo, 206 F.3d 651, 660–61
(6th Cir. 2000). (“[W]hen assessing whether a plaintiff has met her [burden] at the prima
facie stage of a termination case, a court must examine plaintiff’s evidence independent
of the nondiscriminatory reason ‘produced’ by the defense as its reason for terminating
plaintiff.”). In other words, the Court cannot rely on an employer’s nondiscriminatory
reason “as a predicate for finding [that the employee] . . . failed to make a prima facie
case.” Cline, 206 F.3d at 660. This “principle applies equally in a work force reduction
setting,” Schoonmaker, 595 F.3d at 266 (citation omitted), but the Sixth Circuit appears
to treat a work force reduction as a de facto nondiscriminatory reason for an adverse
action. In many cases, it moves straight from a prima facie analysis to an analysis of
pretext, omitting an analysis of whether the employer has articulated a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action. See Pierson v. Quad/Graphics Printing
Corp., 749 F.3d 530, 536–41 (6th Cir. 2014); Schoonmaker, 595 F.3d at 265–70; Barnes,
896 F.2d at 1463–76.
In this case, Mr. Belew directs the Court to additional circumstantial evidence that,
in tandem with SECO’s efforts to fill his position after his termination, is sufficient to
indicate he was “singled out . . . for discharge for impermissible reasons.” Barnes, 896
F.2d at 1465. First, Mr. Belew identifies Mr. Creighton’s ageist remarks in SECO’s
newsletter, in which he describes SECO’s veteran employees as “long timers” who are
not “spring chickens,” while touting his “young guns” as “the next generation of foreman
and crew leaders” who will “come to the forefront.” [The SECO Outlook at 15]. These
remarks are particularly relevant because they came from an upper-level official—the
company’s president,8 in fact—who not only discussed Mr. Belew’s termination with
management but also confirmed it. See Ercegovich, 154 F.3d at 354–57 (underscoring the
importance of discriminatory remarks that come from a managerial figure); Geiger, 579
F.3d at 624 (indicating that an ageist remark is pertinent when it comes from a person
involved in the decision to discharge the employee). Mr. Creighton’s remarks are also
relevant because of their substance—they are not ambiguous or abstract, despite the fact
that Mr. Creighton did not make them as an affront to Mr. Belew specifically. See La
Pointe v. United Autoworkers Local 600, 8 F.3d 376, 380 (6th Cir. 1993) (determining
that a supervisor’s remarks about “oldtimers” were evidence of age discrimination even
though the supervisor did not direct them at the employee personally). Finally, Mr.
Creighton’s remarks are relevant because of their temporal proximity to Mr. Belew’s
termination, the two of which appear to have occurred about fourteen months apart from
each other.9 See Ercegovich, 154 F.3d at 357 (concluding that a senior official’s ageist
comments were not too distant to support a finding of age discrimination when they
happened fourteen months before the employee’s termination).
The Court does not “mean to imply that any ageist comment by a corporate executive is
relevant as evidence of discriminatory corporate culture.” Ercegovich, 154 F.3d at 357 (citation
omitted). But when an ageist comment comes from a company’s president, the person who is
likely to set the tone for the company as a whole, it carries more weight. See id. (instructing
courts to evaluate “the declarant’s position in the corporate hierarchy” when evaluating an ageist
remark’s probative value (quotation omitted)).
Mr. Belew states that the edition of the SECO Outlook containing these remarks was
published in 2014, but he does not specify the month of its publication, and the copy of the
SECO Outlook in the record is undated. [Belew Aff. ¶ 14]. Even so, it appears to have been
published late in 2014 because it has a separate section of upcoming employee anniversary dates
occurring between mid November and mid February. [SECO Outlook at 13].
Second, during this fourteen-month timeframe, SECO subjected Mr. Belew to as
many as two adverse employment actions—demotion and termination. Although SECO
maintains that, after eliminating Mr. Belew’s position as a construction manager, it “went
out of its way to create a new position for him,” [Def.’s Br. at 1], the fact is that its
relegation of Mr. Belew to a safety auditor had every appearance of an adverse action
because it stripped his managerial duties and reduced his wages, [Creighton Decl. ¶ 10;
Belew Aff. ¶ 7]. See Deleon, 739 F.3d at 918 (recognizing that an employee’s demotion
is “evidenced by . . . significantly diminished material responsibilities,” among other
things like a change in wages or benefits (quotation omitted)); see also Kira v. Arab
Cmty. Ctr. for Econ. & Soc. Servs., 681 F. Supp. 2d 856, 863 (E.D. Mich. 2010) (stating
that the “classic example” of adverse employment action is an employee’s discharge and
noting that “[o]ther examples” of adverse employment action include demotion
(quotations omitted)). SECO then terminated Mr. Belew, despite acknowledgments from
its management—including Mr. Creighton—that he did good work and was dedicated to
his profession. [Creighton Dep. at 73:19–25; 74:1–4; Waldron Dep., doc. 31-2, at 20:23–
25, 21:1–2; 73:17–22].
Third, although SECO claims it lacked work for Mr. Belew in Tennessee, Mr.
Belew’s termination occurred at time when SECO was engaged in multiple ongoing
projects in Tennessee—a greater number than usual—and had other projects on the books
there. [Belew Dep. at 113:12–25; 114:1–22; 115:17–20; Waldron Dep. at 39:8–16].
While SECO highlights the fact that it closed its Jacksboro office around this time,
presumably as evidence of a paucity of projects in Tennessee, this evidence hardly
operates as metric for SECO’s business in Tennessee. According to testimony from
SECO’s management, the Jacksboro office was primarily if not exclusively a storage
facility and had no sales to begin with. [Creighton Dep. at 112:6–13; Waldron Dep. at
38:1–2]. Any sales from that region were handled remotely in SECO’s offices in Georgia
and North Carolina, [Waldron Dep. at 38:1–2], and those sales continued to occur even
after Mr. Belew’s termination, [Belew Aff. ¶ 9]. In short, the Jacksboro office’s closure
would appear to be a dubious justification for Mr. Belew’s discharge, especially in light
of the ongoing projects in Tennessee at the time. But the question of how this office’s
closure factors into this case is ultimately one for the jury and not the Court, whose task
is not to weigh the evidence on summary judgment. Rather, the Court’s task is to
determine whether the record evidence—when coupled with SECO’s efforts to fill Mr.
Belew’s position after his termination—is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to
conclude that SECO terminated Mr. Belew for impermissible reasons. Barnes, 896 F.2d
at 1465. The Court has no reservations that the record evidence is sufficient to this end,
and Mr. Belew has therefore satisfied his burden of constructing a prima facie case of age
To establish pretext, the employee must produce sufficient evidence showing that
the nondiscriminatory reason the employer offers for the adverse employment action (1)
has no basis in fact, (2) was not the employer’s actual motivation, or (3) did not warrant
the adverse employment action. Wexler, 317 F.3d at 576. The ultimate inquiry under
these three factors is whether the employer discharged the employee “for the stated
reasons or not.” Tingle v. Arbors at Hilliard, 692 F.3d 523, 530 (6th Cir. 2012) (quotation
omitted). On summary judgment, specifically, the question under these factors is
“whether the plaintiff has produced evidence from which a jury could reasonably doubt
the employer’s explanation.” Chen v. Dow Chem. Co., 580 F.3d 394, 400 n.4 (6th Cir.
2009). The employee “need only produce enough evidence . . . to rebut, but not to
disprove, the defendant’s proferred rationale.” Griffin v. Finkbeiner, 689 F.3d 584, 593
(6th Cir. 2012) (quotation omitted).
The evidence that Mr. Belew presents to the Court is sufficient to allow a
reasonable jury to doubt SECO’s reason for discharging him, in part because it shows
that SECO relied on “shifting justifications” for his discharge. Pierson, 749 F.3d at 540;
Cicero v. Borg-Warner Auto., Inc., 280 F.3d 579, 592 (6th Cir. 2002). In the evidence
that SECO submits to the Court, both Mr. Creighton and Mr. Strickland declare that they
terminated Mr. Belew because his diminished workload as a safety auditor translated into
his failure to bring any value to SECO. [Creighton Decl. ¶ 11; Strickland Decl. ¶ 10]. Yet
in their respective depositions, which Mr. Belew provides to the Court, they testified that
they terminated Mr. Belew because SECO was rebranding its business model from
industrial products to architectural products, an area in which, they believed, Mr. Belew
had no expertise or interest. [Creighton Dep. at 74:17–20; 104:17–25; Strickland Dep. at
7:20–25; 8:1–2]. These conflicting rationales for Mr. Belew’s termination are evidence of
Shifting justifications over time call the credibility of those justifications
into question. By showing that the defendants’ justification for firing him
changed over time, [the employee] shows a genuine issue of fact that the
defendants’ proffered reason was not only false, but that the falsity was a
pretext for discrimination.
Cicero, 280 F.3d at 592; see Thurman v. Yellow Freight Sys. Inc., 90 F.3d 1160, 1167
(6th Cir. 1996) (“An employer’s changing rationale for making an adverse employment
decision can be evidence of pretext.” (citations omitted)). The dueling reasons that SECO
provides for Mr. Belew’s discharge, in addition to the evidence underlying Mr. Belew’s
prima facie case, are more than enough to allow a reasonable jury to infer that SECO’s
motivation for Mr. Belew’s termination was discriminatory. See Reeves, 530 U.S. at 148
(“[A] plaintiff’s prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find that the
employer’s asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the
employer unlawfully discriminated.”). As a result, Mr. Belew is entitled to move forward
to trial with his claim.
Failing to establish that the record is without a genuine question of material fact as
to Mr. Belew’s claim under the THRA, SECO falls short of meeting its burden as the
movant for summary judgment. SECO’s Motion for Summary Judgment [doc. 14] is
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/ Thomas W. Phillips
United States District Judge
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