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Ennis v. Del. Transit. Corp.

Superior Court of Delaware, Sussex

March 9, 2015

Ennis
v.
Del. Transit. Corp.

Dear Parties:

Before the Court is Delaware Transit Corporation’s (“Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment as to Brian Ennis’s (“Plaintiff”) sole complaint of racial discrimination in employment, a violation of the Delaware Discrimination in Employment Act (the “DDEA”). For the following reasons, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED. Defendant’s request to move the trial date from April 6, 2015 to April 7 is GRANTED.

FACTS

Plaintiff began working for Defendant’s predecessor in 1994 as a mechanic for transport vehicles. Eventually, he was promoted to a supervisory role as an Auto Technician and Maintenance Foreman in Defendant’s Georgetown, Delaware facility (“Georgetown facility”). Up until his forced resignation[1] in March of 2013, Plaintiff received positive work reviews, with no performance or disciplinary issues.

Each day Plaintiff would typically eat a banana during work. At first, Plaintiff disposed of the peels in a trash can located near the employee eating area, but upon noticing the peels attracted flies and gnats, Plaintiff began tossing the peels in a grassy area ten feet from an entrance to the building. A fellow employee, Aldrich Hines ("Hines"), [2] noticed the discarded banana peels in the grass next to the sidewalk leading into the building and inquired as to who was disposing of the peels. Upon discovering Plaintiff was the culprit, Hines approached Plaintiff and requested he cease the behavior because the peels were "an eye sore"; Plaintiff immediately obliged. Hines, who is African-American, never informed Plaintiff of his belief that the act of throwing a banana peel was racially charged, nor did he tell Plaintiff where to dispose of the banana peels.

After Plaintiff's conversation with Hines, Plaintiff adopted the practice of disposing of his banana peels on the roofs of vehicles he was performing maintenance work on. He continued with this disposal routine on a daily basis for at least a year without any confrontation or protest from any fellow employees. Plaintiff threw the banana peels on the roofs of buses knowing they would later blow off.

In the year leading up to Plaintiff's constructive discharge, tensions at the Georgetown facility were high due to an unrelated, racially charged incident.[3] After Plaintiff began his new disposal practice, a white[4] driver at the Georgetown facility gave a black driver a cookbook that caused offense to the black driver. As a result, the employees of the Georgetown facility were required to attend harassment training.[5] Defendant admits that the sensitivity training did not include education on what message banana peels might convey.

On March 15, 2013, Plaintiff ate some bananas and tossed their peels on top of the vehicle he was working on. Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, three black employees, Barr-ford, Hines, and Anthony Taylor (collectively the "offended employees") were holding a meeting in an office area above the bay where the vehicle was located. The meeting was meant as a "follow-up" to the racial harassment training. When leaving the office area, the offended employees saw the peels on a vehicle and immediately interpreted their presence as a racist gesture, [6] despite being unaware as to how the peels ended up on the vehicle. The offended employees confronted the other employees at the Georgetown facility, demanding to know who had discarded the banana peels.[7] Later that day, Barr-Ford sent an email to State Paratransit Manager, Kathy Wilson, describing the incident and urging her to take action.

Subsequent to the incident, Plaintiff admitted to his supervisor, John Syryla ("Syryla"), that he had placed the peels on the roof of the bus, explaining he had done so to avoid attracting flies and gnats to the trash can in the employee lunch area. Diana Williams ("Williams"), Defendant's Compliance Officer, conducted an investigation of the March 15 banana peel incident. Williams interviewed Plaintiff and others during her investigation. Syryla also participated in the interview, confessing he was unaware of the potential racist message of the banana peel, and indicating there was no evidence Plaintiff was aware of such message.[8] Management officials[9] eventually conferred and decided to terminate Plaintiff after Williams's investigation concluded.[10] Management did not accept Plaintiff's excuse and found that based on where the peels were located, the high racial tensions at the facility, Plaintiff's managerial role, and that Plaintiff had recently received race sensitivity training, Plaintiff had violated Defendant's Harassment Policy[11] and should be terminated.

Defendant gave Plaintiff the option of resigning or being terminated. Plaintiff opted to resign and drafted a resignation letter.

On September 24, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Complaint alleging Defendant had violated the DDEA. After Plaintiff served the Complaint, and Defendant answered, the parties engaged in discovery for several months. Defendant subsequently filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court may grant summary judgment when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[12] A motion for summary judgment should not be granted, however, when material issues of fact are in dispute or if the record lacks the information necessary to determine the application of the law to the facts.[13] A dispute about a material fact is genuine "when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party."[14] Therefore, the issue at the summary judgment stage is "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a [fact finder] or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law."[15]

Although the moving party for summary judgment initially bears the burden of demonstrating the undisputed facts support the claims, once the movant makes this showing, the burden "shifts" to the non-moving party to show there are material issues of fact for resolution by the ultimate fact-finder.[16] When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.[17]

"In an employment discrimination case, the burden of persuasion on summary judgment remains unalterably with the employer as movant."[18] The employer is required to demonstrate that ". . . even if all of the inferences which could reasonably be drawn from the evidentiary materials of record were viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, no reasonably jury could find . . ." for the plaintiff.[19] In employment discrimination cases, summary judgment is to be used sparingly, especially where the court is viewing the case at first glance (emphasis added).[20]

DISCUSSION

DDEA Procedural Framework

The DDEA was created by the Delaware General Assembly to prevent unlawful discrimination by employers based on a protected class.[21] The law specifically proscribes discrimination based on certain protected classes[22] and lays out a procedural framework for an adversely ...


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