Perkins v. Spectracorp of Tennessee et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER denying Defendants' 27 Motion in Limine. Signed by Judge Marvin E. Aspen on 12/1/2017. (DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(mg)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
SPECTRACORP OF TENNESSEE,
d/b/a FANN MECHANICAL CO.,
and RANDALL FANN,
3:16 C 220
Hon. Marvin E. Aspen
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MARVIN E. ASPEN, District Judge:
Presently before us is Defendants Spectracorp of Tennessee, d/b/a Fann Mechanical Co.
(“Spectracorp”), and Randall Fann’s motion in limine. (Mot (Dkt. No. 27).) Defendants request
that we prohibit any reference to Fann’s racial or derogatory speech directed at any individual
other than Perkins. (Id. at 1.) For the reasons stated below, we deny Defendants’ motion.
Perkins, who is African American, claims that he worked for twelve years as an
employee of Spectracorp, a business that provides plumbing, electrical, and HVAC services.
(Am. Compl. (Dkt. No. 19) ¶¶ 8–11.) Perkins alleges he regularly worked more than forty hours
a week but that Defendants failed to pay him legally required minimum wages and overtime pay.
(Id. ¶¶ 15–19.) During his work for Defendants, Perkins contends Fann used racially derogatory
terms in the workplace, and that Perkins was subjected to a racially hostile work environment.
(Id. ¶¶ 12, 24, 28–36.) Perkins states that his employment with Defendants ended in January
2016 and that Defendants terminated him on account of his race. (Id. ¶¶ 13–14; Pretrial Order
(Dkt. No. 38) at 1.)
In February 2016, Perkins initiated the present suit, alleging Spectracorp failed to pay
wages required by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) and Tennessee Wage
Regulation Act, or in the alternative, unjust enrichment. (Am. Compl. (Dkt. No. 19) ¶¶ 25–36;
Pretrial Order at 1–2.) Perkins also alleges Defendants racially discriminated against him in
violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”). (Id.)
We have broad discretion, based on our “inherent authority to manage the course of
trials,” when ruling on evidentiary questions presented in motions in limine.
Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n.4, 105 S. Ct. 460, 463 n.4 (1984); Jackson v. O’Reilly
Auto. Stores, Inc., 131 F. Supp. 3d 756, 757 (M.D. Tenn. 2015). “The Federal Rules of
Evidence, the Federal Rules of Criminal and Civil Procedure and interpretive rulings of the
Supreme Court and this court all encourage, and in some cases require, parties and the court to
utilize extensive pretrial procedures—including motions in limine—in order to narrow the issues
remaining for trial and to minimize disruptions at trial.” United States v. Brawner,
173 F.3d 966, 970 (6th Cir. 1999). Finally, a ruling on a motion in limine is “subject to change
as the case unfolds,” and we accordingly reserve the option of revisiting our preliminary
evidentiary determinations as appropriate at trial. Luce, 469 U.S. at 41–42, 105 S. Ct. at 463;
United States v. Yannott, 42 F.3d 999, 1007 (6th Cir. 1994).
Defendants filed a motion in limine requesting we prohibit any references to Fann’s “use
of racial or derogatory speech or language directed at any other individual other than Plaintiff,”
and only allow references of such language in “instances directly involving Plaintiff” limited to
the time period beginning six months before the “adverse action” against him. (Def. Mot. at 1.)
Defendants cite no case law in support of their motion, arguing instead that this evidence should
be excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 as “more prejudicial than probative.” (Id.)
Perkins objects to Defendants’ motion, arguing any of Fann’s derogatory language directed at
Perkins or others is both admissible and “highly probative.” (Pl. Resp. (Dkt. No. 31) at 1.)
Perkins argues such comments support his claim that Spectracorp maintained a hostile work
environment and demonstrate that his employer was on notice of Fann’s hostilities. (Id.)
Perkins brings his racial discrimination claim under the THRA, which states employers
illegally discriminate if they “[f]ail or refuse to hire or discharge any person or otherwise to
discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges
of employment . . . ; or Limit, segregate or classify an employee or applicants for employment in
any way that would deprive or tend to deprive an individual of employment opportunities or
otherwise adversely affect the status of an employee, because of race, creed, color, religion, sex,
age or national origin.” T.C.A. §§ 4-21-401(a)(1)–(2); Am. Compl. at 5–6. To succeed in a
hostile work environment claim based on race under THRA, Perkins must establish (1) he was
the member of a protected class, (2) he was subjected to harassment based on his protected
status, (3) the harassment unreasonably interfered with plaintiff’s work performance by creating
an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, and (4) the existence of employer
liability. Hafford v. Seidner, 183 F.3d 506, 512 (6th Cir. 1999); Fite v. Comtide Nashville, LLC,
686 F. Supp. 2d 735, 752 (M.D. Tenn. 2010). “In determining whether there is a hostile work
environment, the court must consider the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency
of the conduct, its severity, and the degree to which it interferes with work performance.” Fite,
686 F. Supp. 2d at 752 (citing Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 21–22, 114 S. Ct. 367, 370–71
(1993)). The work environment must be both objectively and subjectively hostile, meaning “the
conduct must be severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person
would find hostile or abusive and the victim must subjectively regard that environment as
abusive.” Bowman v. Shawnee State Univ., 220 F.3d 456, 463 (6th Cir. 2000).
As a preliminary matter, both state and federal law guide our interpretation of admissible
evidence with respect to Perkins’ hostile work environment claim under the THRA. The THRA
explicitly states that it aims to “Provide for execution within Tennessee of the policies embodied
in the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1968 and 1972 . . . .” T.C.A. § 4-21-101(a)(1).
Considering this directive, courts have repeatedly held that federal law applies to THRA claims.
Fite, 686 F. Supp. 2d at 52 (clarifying that hostile work environment claims under the THRA
follow the standards for similar claims under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981); Carr v. United
Parcel Serv., 955 S.W.2d 832, 835 (Tenn. 1997) (“We, therefore, may look to federal
interpretation of Title VII for guidance in enforcing our own anti-discrimination statute.”);
Dennis v. White Way Cleaners, L.P., 119 S.W.3d 688, 693 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (“Because of
the commonality of purpose between the Tennessee Human Rights Act and the federal statutes,
we may look to federal law for guidance in enforcing our own anti-discrimination laws.”)
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
We next consider whether Fann’s racially derogative statements not “directly involving”
Perkins are admissible because they are relevant to prove Perkins’ hostile work environment
claim. Courts in the Sixth Circuit have repeatedly explained that derogatory statements of coworkers directed at other people, even those made outside of plaintiff’s presence, should be
considered in hostile work environment suits. Hawkins v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc.,
517 F.3d 321, 335–36 (6th Cir. 2008) (“[W]e may consider evidence of other acts of harassment
of which a plaintiff becomes aware during the period his or her employment, even if the other
acts were directed at others and occurred outside of the plaintiff's presence.”); Johnson v. United
Parcel Serv., Inc., 117 F. App'x 444, 453–55 (6th Cir. 2004) (considering incident where
plaintiff overheard a manager use a racial slur as relevant to a hostile work environment claim);
Jackson v. Quanex Corp., 191 F.3d 647, 660–61 (6th Cir. 1999) (“[A]n employer may create a
hostile environment for an employee even where it directs its discriminatory acts or practices at
the protected group of which the plaintiff is a member, and not just at the plaintiff herself. . . .
[R]acial epithets need not be hurled at the plaintiff in order to contribute to a work environment
that was hostile to her.”); Atkins v. LQ Mgmt., LLC, 138 F. Supp. 3d 961, 977–78
(M.D. Tenn. 2015) (considering racially derogatory statements made by a supervisor not directed
at plaintiffs including comments plaintiffs learned about from their co-workers). Indeed, because
a fact finder must consider the totality of circumstances in determining whether a plaintiff
established workplace hostility, “considering only offensive acts directed at the plaintiff would
‘defeat the entire purpose of allowing claims based upon a “hostile work environment” theory, as
the very meaning of “environment” is “[t]he surrounding conditions, influences, or forces which
influence or modify.”’” Hawkins, 517 F.3d at 336 (citing Jackson, 191 F.3d at 661) (internal
Furthermore, we agree with Perkins that offensive statements made by Fann to others
establish whether or not Perkins’ employer knew about alleged harassment, a key element in
establishing employer liability. Hafford v. Seidner, 183 F.3d 506, 513 (6th Cir. 1999) (“An
employer is liable if it ‘knew or should have known of the charged sexual harassment and failed
to implement prompt and appropriate corrective action.’”) (quoting Pierce v. Commonwealth
Life Ins. Co., 40 F.3d 796, 804 n.11 (6th Cir. 1994)); Peake v. Brownlee,
339 F. Supp. 2d 1008, 1020 (M.D. Tenn. 2003) (finding actions taken by employer in response to
“incidents involving workers other than plaintiff” are relevant to the analysis of the sufficiency
of the employers’ corrective action). We accordingly find any racially derogatory statements
Fann made in the workplace, even incidents not “directly involving” Perkins, to be both
admissible and probative of Perkins’ THRA claim.
Defendants further request that we limit any testimony regarding Fann’s allegedly
offensive language to incidents within the six months “preceding the adverse action allegedly
taken by Defendants against Plaintiff.” (Def. Mot. at 1.) In evaluating hostile workplace claims,
evidence of prior discriminatory acts may be admissible as “relevant background evidence for
demonstrating a racially hostile work environment,” including acts occurring before the hostile
environment period or before a plaintiff’s employment. Austion v. City of Clarksville,
244 F. App’x 639, 650 (6th Cir. 2007) (considering evidence of racist events occurring during
the decade before plaintiff’s employment by defendant); see also Hawkins, 517 F.3d at 337–38
(considering occurrences before plaintiff’s employment commenced as relevant and probative in
establishing a hostile work environment). We accordingly deny Defendants’ motion to limit the
admission of any racially hostile statements made by Fann to a specific time period.
For the aforementioned reasons, we hereby deny Defendants’ motion in limine. It is so
Marvin E. Aspen
United States District Judge
Dated: December 1, 2017
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