Cornelius v. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER - It is therefore ORDERED that Defendant Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 37 ) is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. As such, Plaintiff's discrimination claim is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. However, Plaintiff's retaliation claim shall proceed to trial. Signed by Judge Amos L. Mazzant, III on 10/17/2017. (baf, )
United States District Court
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
HEWLETT PACKARD ENTERPRISE
Civil Action No. 4:16-CV-887
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Pending before the Court is Defendant Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Dkt. #37). After reviewing the relevant pleadings and motions, the Court
finds Defendant’s motion should be granted in part and denied in part.
This case involves Plaintiff Michael Cornelius’s allegations that Defendant violated 42
U.S.C. § 1981 by engaging in race-based discrimination and retaliation. Plaintiff, an AfricanAmerican man, worked for Defendant for approximately twenty-four years as a software engineer.
On August 5, 2014, Defendant terminated Plaintiff. For the last ten years of his employment,
Plaintiff reported to Martha Ramsey (“Ramsey”). On an annual basis, Defendant assigned its
employees an annual performance rating based on a five-band scale. The scale included scores
ranging from (1) “SE” (Significantly Exceeds Expectations); (2) “EE” (Exceeds Expectations); (3)
“AE” (Achieves Expectations); (4) “PA” (Partially Achieves Expectations); (5) “DN” (Does Not
Achieve Expectations). In the ten years Plaintiff reported to Ramsey, Plaintiff’s 2013 PA rating
marked his first rating below AE. In 2014, Defendant implemented a workforce reduction program
reducing the number of employees employed by Defendant. In April 2014, in response to an email
from her supervisor requesting the names of the 2013 lowest ranked employees for inclusion in
the workforce reduction program, Ramsey submitted Plaintiff’s name. Subsequently, in August
2014 Defendant terminated Plaintiff.
On August 15, 2016, Plaintiff field this lawsuit alleging Defendant participated in
discrimination and retaliation against him (Dkt. #1). On June 30, 2017, Defendant filed its Motion
for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #37). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed his response (Dkt. #44) on August
8, 2017, and Defendant filed its reply (Dkt. #48) on August 22, 2017.
Summary judgment is proper when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as
to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a).
A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the
nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Substantive law
identifies which facts are material. Id. The moving party bears the initial burden of identifying
the basis for its motion and identifying “depositions, documents, electronically stored information,
affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only),
admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” that demonstrate the absence of a genuine
issue of material fact. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)(1)(A); Nola Spice Designs, L.L.C. v. Haydel Enters.,
Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015). If the moving party satisfies its burden, the nonmovant
must present affirmative evidence showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477
U.S. at 257; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). Mere denials of material facts,
unsworn allegations, or arguments and assertions in briefs will not suffice to carry this burden.
The Court must consider all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, with all
reasonable inferences from the evidence made in favor of the nonmovant. Nola Spice, 783 F.3d
at 536. However, the Court must “refrain from making any credibility determinations or weighing
the evidence.” Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007).
In Plaintiff’s Second Amended Complaint (Dkt. #31), Plaintiff asserts Defendant
discriminated against him. Defendant in its Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #37) asks the
Court to enter judgment as a matter of law against Plaintiff on his discrimination claim. In
Plaintiff’s response (Dkt. #44), Plaintiff requests the Court deny Defendant’s motion only as it
relates to Plaintiff’s retaliation claim. (Dkt. #44 at pp 4–5). In other words, Plaintiff abandoned
his discrimination claim against Defendant. As such, the Court grants Defendant’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Dkt. #37) as it relates to Plaintiff’s discrimination claim.
In determining whether a plaintiff has pleaded a viable retaliation claim, the Court applies
a modified McDonnel Douglas approach.1 Yancy v. U.S. Airways, Inc., 469 F. App’x 339, 343
(5th Cir. 2012). First, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case showing that: (1) he participated
in a protected activity; (2) his employer took an adverse employment action against him; and (3)
a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. Id.;
accord Baker v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 430 F.3d 750, 755 (5th Cir. 2005). “If the plaintiff makes a
prima facie showing, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate,
non[-]retaliatory reason for its employment decisions.” Id.; accord Long v. Eastfield Coll., 88 F.3d
Claims brought under § 1981 are analyzed under the same analysis as Title VII claims since both
require the same proof of liability. See Byers v. Dallas Morning News, Inc., 209 F.3d 419, 422 n.1
(5th Cir. 2000); Mills v. City of Port Arthur, Tex., No. 1:05-CV-298, 2006 WL 3531460, at *23
(E.D. Tex. Dec. 4, 2006) (citing Mayberry v. Mundy Contract Maint. Inc., 197 F. App’x 314, 317
(5th Cir. 2006).
300, 304–05. If the employer satisfies its burden, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff who “must
show that the adverse employment action would not have occurred ‘but for’ the protected
activity . . . .” Long, 88 F.3d at 308; accord Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517,
A. Plaintiff’s Prima Facie Case
First, Plaintiff must establish he engaged in a protected activity. An employee engages in
a protected activity when he (1) opposed any unlawful employment practice within 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000e, or (2) has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an
investigation, proceeding, or hearing involving 42 U.S.C. § 2000e.” Baker, 430 F.3d at 755.
“Complaining to supervisors about racial harassment is a protected activity.”
Commercial Coating Servs. Int’l, Ltd., 422 F. App’x 334, 339 (5th Cir. 2011).
Here, Defendant argues Plaintiff’s complaints could not and did not put Defendant on
notice that Plaintiff’s concerns correlated with race, and therefore cannot be characterized as
legally protected activities. Conversely, Plaintiff asserts his complaints made clear his concerns
related to race. Specifically, Plaintiff claims Defendant did not offer him the same opportunities
or compensation as his white counterparts. See Dkt. #31 at ¶¶ 14–17; Dkt. #44, Exhibit 2 at pp.
10–12, 15. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds Plaintiff
provided sufficient evidence to create a fact issue as to whether Plaintiff engaged in a protected
activity by complaining to his supervisors about racial harassment. See Long, 88 F.3d at 305;
Carrera, 422 F. App’x 339.
Second, Plaintiff must establish his employer, Defendant, took an adverse employment
action against him, the employee. Here, Defendant fired Plaintiff in August of 2014. As such, the
Court finds Defendant took adverse employment action against Plaintiff. See Ramirez v. Gonzales,
225 F. App’x 203, 209 (5th Cir. 2007).
Third, Plaintiff must demonstrate that a causal connection exists between the protected
activity and the adverse employment action. Defendant argues Plaintiff did not engage in protected
activities because Plaintiff never put Defendant on notice that his complaints related to racial
discrimination. Further, Defendant contends it based its decision to terminate Plaintiff solely on
Plaintiff’s 2013 performance evaluation results, making any complaints after the evaluation
irrelevant to Plaintiff’s retaliation claim.
Conversely, Plaintiff asserts his complaints dealt
specifically with racial discrimination and that claims made after the 2013 performance evaluation
are relevant because they contributed to Defendant’s choice to terminate him.
In establishing a causal link for a prima facie case, “a plaintiff need not prove that his
protected activity was the sole factor in motivating the employer’s challenged decision.” Mills,
2006 WL 3531460, at *24 (citing Mauder v. Metro. Transit Auth., 446 F.3d 574, 583 (5th Cir.
2006)). “Rather, a causal link is established when the evidence demonstrates that the employer’s
decision to take adverse action was based in part on knowledge of the employee’s protected
activity.” Id. (citing Ackel v. Nat’l Commc’n, Inc., 339 F.3d 376, 385–86 (5th Cir. 2003)). Stated
differently, a causal link is established “when the plaintiff shows that the employment decision
and his protected activity were not wholly unrelated.” Id. (citing Medina v. Ramsey Steel Co., Inc.,
238 F.3d 674, 684 (5th Cir. 2001)).
Here, Plaintiff states he made numerous complaints to Ramsey based on racial
discrimination prior to his 2013 performance evaluation. See Dkt. #44, Exhibit 2 at pp. 5, 8–12,
15–16; Dkt. #44, Exhibit 11. Plaintiff’s 2013 performance evaluation, which Ramsey conducted,
resulted in a score of PA, Plaintiff’s lowest rating in ten years. See Dkt. #44, Exhibit 6 at p. 3;
Dkt. #44, Exhibit 7 at ¶ 4. After the 2013 evaluation, Plaintiff continued making complaints
regarding racial discrimination. See Dkt. #31 at ¶¶ 15–17; Dkt. #44, Exhibit 2 at pp. 14–15.
Further, in an email from Ramsey to her supervisor, Ramsey referenced Plaintiff’s “recent
complaint” and asked whether she needed to consult Human Resources. (Dkt. #44, Exhibit I). In
August 2014, Defendant terminated Plaintiff. Based on this evidence, the Court finds Plaintiff
illustrated Defendant’s decision and Plaintiff’s protected activity are not wholly unrelated, i.e. a
causal link exists. Stated differently, Plaintiff created a fact issue as to whether Defendant’s
decision to terminate him was based in part on knowledge of Plaintiff’s protected activity.
As such, the Court finds Plaintiff met his burden in presenting a prima facie case for
B. Defendant’s Reasoning for its Employment Decisions
Because Plaintiff presented a prima facie case on his retaliation claim, the burden shifts to
Defendant to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its employment decisions.
Here, Defendant contends its sole reasoning for terminating Plaintiff resulted from the
implementation of its workforce reduction program. According to the workforce reduction
program, Defendant based its decision on which employees to terminate by choosing employees
with the lowest rankings from the 2013 performance evaluation. Defendant claims Plaintiff
received the lowest ranking on the 2013 performance evaluation in the Plano, Texas office. As
such, Defendant argues application of the workforce reduction program’s objective criteria in
conjunction with Plaintiff’s 2013 performance resulted in Defendant’s choice to terminate
Plaintiff. Accordingly, Defendant claims its reasoning is legitimate and non-retaliatory. The Court
agrees. See Baker, 430 F.3d at 755 (holding Defendant’s reduction in force constituted a legitimate
non-retaliatory reason for its employment action). As such, Defendant satisfied its burden, thus
shifting the burden back to Plaintiff.
C. Plaintiff’s Ultimate Burden
Because Defendant produced a non-retaliatory reason for its decision to terminate Plaintiff,
the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to establish the adverse employment action would not have
occurred “but for” the protected activity. Long, 88 F.3d at 308. As such, the Court must determine
whether reasonable and fair-minded persons could conclude that Defendant would not have
terminated Plaintiff but for his protected activities. Id. In making this determination, evidence
that raises only a weak inference of pretext is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.
Mills, 2006 WL 3531460, at *27 (citing Rios v. Rossotti, 252 F.3d 375, 381 (5th Cir. 2001)).
Here, Plaintiff provides undisputed evidence that his past performance evaluations never
fell below AE until 2013, after he began making racial discrimination complaints to Ramsey. See
Dkt. #44, Exhibit 6 at p. 3; Dkt. #44, Exhibit 7 at ¶ 4. Further, after making such complaints,
Plaintiff contends Defendant acted negatively towards Plaintiff claiming his complaints were “just
[his] imagination” and that Plaintiff “couldn’t be relied on to complete task[s]” and “was basically
incompetent.” (Dkt. #44, Exhibit 2 at p. 11).
Viewing such evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds reasonable
and fair-minded persons could conclude Defendant’s proffered reasons constituted pretexts for
unlawful retaliation, and thus that Plaintiff would not have been terminated “but for” his previous
and ongoing complaints to Defendant. See Long, 88 F.3d at 308; Shirley v. Chrysler First, Inc.,
970 F.2d 39, 42–43 (5th Cir. 1992).
It is therefore ORDERED that Defendant Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company’s Motion
for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #37) is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.
As such, Plaintiff’s discrimination claim is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. However,
Plaintiff’s retaliation claim shall proceed to trial.
SIGNED this 17th day of October, 2017.
AMOS L. MAZZANT
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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