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Saunders v. E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

February 21, 2017

VALERIE O. SAUNDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
E.I. DUPONT DE NEMOURS AND COMPANY, Defendant.

          Valerie O. Saunders, Smyrna, Delaware. Pro Se Plaintiff.

          Kathleen Furey McDonough, Esquire, and Lauren E.M. Russell, Esquire. Potter Anderson & Corroon, LLP, Wilmington, Delaware. Counsel for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANDREWS, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Valerie O. Saunders appears pro se and has been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. She commenced this employment discrimination action against Defendant E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company on March 13, 2014. (D.I. 2). The amended complaint alleges employment discrimination pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and raises a supplemental state law claim. (D.I. 18). The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 & 1367(a). Defendant moves for summary judgment. (D.I. 82). Plaintiff opposes.[1] Briefing has been completed. (D.I. 83, 84, 88, 91).

         I. LEGAL BACKGROUND

         Saunders alleges employment discrimination by reason of race in the forms of a hostile work environment, termination, and failure to hire. The original complaint raised claims under several theories, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 422000e, etseq., and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, and 1988. It was dismissed upon Defendant's motion and Saunders was given leave to amend.[2] The amended complaint is the operative pleading and consists of Count I, race discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981, [3] and Count V, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing pursuant to Delaware law.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Saunders was hired by Taryn Albert, manager of operations and facilities, to begin work in July 2011 as a senior laboratory technician at DuPont's formulations group located at the Stine-Haskell Laboratory in Newark, Delaware. (D.I. 84 at ¶ 25, A495-99). Her duties included assisting in the production of chemical formulations that were to be administered to test systems. (Id. at A500-01). The position requires "attention to detail and precision." (Id. at A502).

         Saunders worked in the formulation lab with Patti Bennett, a formulations chemist. (Id. at A175). Bennett's duties included training Saunders. (Id. at A177). When Saunders questioned Bennett during Bennett's deposition, Saunders acknowledged that Bennett was a "good trainer." (Id. at A339). Bennett testified that she trained Saunders exactly as she had trained other technicians who came to work in the lab. (Id. at A340). Accordingly to Bennett, specific tasks for the formulations lab should be mastered within three months at the outside, and some employees mastered the tasks in a much shorter time. (Id. at 342-43).

         Bennett did not supervise Saunders. (Id. at A332). Both Saunders and Bennett were supervised by, and reported to, Albert. (Id. at A174-76, A332). Albert explained that Bennett was generally responsible for creating the formulation sheet, which is the "recipe" for any particular formula, and that Saunders was tasked to follow the formulation sheet instructions and "assemble the recipe." (Id. at A223-24). Saunders' position was to support Bennett. (Id. at A177). During the relevant time, only Saunders and Bennett worked in the formulations lab. (Id. at A175).

         On September 21, 2011, DuPont's regulatory analytical group discovered that a formula of Saunders' was made with a dosage concentration lower than what should have been prepared. (Id. at A211-12). Saunders explained to Albert that she had made a simple math error and apologized for the mistake. (Id. at A213-14). When Bennett was on vacation, Saunders committed a second quality infraction on October 26, 2011. (Id. at A216, A309, A478-79). Bennett had left a list for Saunders for things she needed to do while Bennett was on vacation. (Id. at A308). Bennett does not recall if Saunders would have been specifically able to handle everything on the list, but she made sure that Saunders had help if she needed it. (Id. at A309). Animal resource group employees discovered that Saunders created a reduced-strength diet for the test rodents, instead of the full-strength diet called for by the formulation sheet. (Id. at A216-19, A478). Saunders met with Albert, told Albert that she had pulled the wrong formulation sheet for the study, and apologized. (Id. at A221-23).

         After the second incident, to ensure that Bennett was properly training Saunders, Albert would stop in the formulation lab, observe, and have conversations with Bennett and Saunders "as to the progress." (Id. at A227). Bennett testified that Albert did not come into the lab very often. (Id. at A420). Bennett told Albert that Saunders seemed to have difficulty absorbing some of the training. (Id.) Albert met with Saunders and asked if she had concerns or if there was anything she could do to help her, and Saunders replied that "everything was fine." (Id. at A230).

         Saunders committed a third error on December 1, 2011, when a third-party analytics laboratory discovered that a serial dilution she had prepared was 30% lower than the targeted concentration level. (Id. at A478-79, A231-35). During the quality investigation, Saunders was questioned and stated that she "felt that it was a pipette error on her part." (Id. at A233-34).

         Albert became concerned after learning of the third infraction because there appeared to be a pattern of a number of mistakes occurring in a short period of time. (Id. at A235). Albert consulted human resources generalist Judy Hrivnak and, rather than "a verbal, " together they drafted a document for written corrective action to hand to Saunders. (Id. at A235-41.) The written corrective action was approved by human resources but, before Albert could give it to her, Saunders informed Albert that a fourth quality incident had occurred on December 8, 2011 when she incorrectly prepared a formulation. (Id. at A242, A246-47, A478-79). During her deposition, Bennett testified that the "quality infractions" made by Saunders "demonstrated a lack of basic understanding of the processes in the lab, " they were "frequent, " and they "should not have happened to anyone with a Bachelor's degree in chemistry and some background in laboratory work." (Id. at A422). Bennett further testified that, had "Saunders paid attention to the training, she would have known where" materials were located. (Id. at A423).

         After December 1, but before December 8, 2011, Albert spoke to Bennett about Saunders' training. (Id. at A245). Bennett stated that she had made several offers to Saunders about additional training, that Saunders insisted she was comfortable, and that she understood the tasks that were presented to her. (Id. at A246). Albert testified that after the fourth infraction, the lab had lost confidence in Saunders' performance and formulations, and a decision was made among Hrivnak, director Mark Thompson, and Albert to turn the written corrective action into a notice of special action. (Id. at A249-50). The group felt that the "lack of attention to detail was a predominant theme and that the lab had lost confidence in [Saunders], " so Saunders needed to be pulled out of the formulations lab. (Id. at A250). Bennett had no input in the notice of special action. (Id. at A297-98).

         Saunders was given the notice of special action on December 15, 2011. (Id. at A478-479). The notice of special action served as a termination. (Id. at A258). It gave Saunders two months to find another job, within DuPont or outside of DuPont, and during that time she was allowed to prepare labels, do paperwork and other things in the lab, but she was not allowed to assemble a formulation. (Id. at A40, A258-59). Saunders' termination date was February 29, 2012. (Id. at A41).

         Saunders applied for a number of jobs between December 15, 2011 and February 29, 2012, including positions as a senior lab technician for engineering coatings and an associate analytical chemist, but she was not selected for any of them.[4] (Id. at A40, A111-12, A122). Saunders testified that she was not hired for the positions based upon her race. (Id. at A20-24, A114, A122, A129-31). Saunders explained that one position was filled by a white male and that the majority of the group was composed of white men. (Id. at A115). Saunders did not know the qualifications of the persons hired. (Id.). She became aware that she was not hired for the analytical position by November 2011 and the senior lab technician position by early January 2012. (Id. at A114, A125). She testified that with these two positions, her performance and how she worked were known; 'with that knowledge, race definitely entered into their perspective." (Id. atA131).

         Saunders testified that she believed that DuPont used the "quality incidents to overinflate the detriment to the business or the problem of these incidents to terminate [her] because of race." (Id. at A57). She testified that her team was also to blame for the infractions. (Id. at A61). Saunders was unaware of any other DuPont employee who had committed four or more quality infractions. (Id. at A81). She testified that white employees Melissa Fullers, Bennett, "someone in Andy Logue's group, " her replacement, and anonymous employees on a PowerPoint slide also committed quality incidents, but were not terminated, or were given less severe punishments. (Id. at A64-75, A484; see also D.I. 88 at 22-41).

         Saunders asserts that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and that DuPont discriminated against her between 2011 and 2012 in her role as a senior laboratory technician in the formulations group. (Id. at A17, A42). Saunders testified that Bennett "has some negative energy around black people." (Id. at A27). Saunders clarified that she did not "want to say black people. Maybe it's just black me." (Id.). She testified that Bennett did not communicate well with her, chose not to put together training documents for her, and gave her menial tasks. (Id. at A27-28). Bennett told Saunders that she did not want to give her more than Saunders could handle, but Saunders believed that Bennett thought her incapable of handling the information because Saunders is African-American. (Id. at A32). Saunders acknowledged that the jobs Bennett asked her to do were not outside the expected job duties for a lab technician, but Saunders felt it was racist for Bennett to give her menial jobs that she could do and not "the meat of what she needed to learn." (Id. at A32-33). Saunders testified that Bennett had a hostile attitude towards her that "may have manifested its way in lack of training." (Id. at A36). Saunders testified that Bennett was hostile towards other individuals, both of whom were white. (Id. at A37).

         Saunders testified that her evidence of alleged mistreatment by Bennett on the basis of race consisted of a black voodoo doll that Bennett kept on her desk. (Id. at A27-29). Saunders never told Albert about the doll. (Id. atA31). Saunders was not sure, or did not know, what a voodoo doll was, but found it racially offensive because the doll was black and not white, yellow, or orange. (Id. at A47-49).

         Saunders testified that Bennett never made any remarks about Saunders' race, never used offensive racial language towards Saunders, and never used offensive language towards others. (Id. at A42-43). Saunders referred to an incident prior to the time that she was employed as a senior lab technician when a co-worker made racially offensive comments during the 2008 presidential election. (Id. at A43-46). Saunders reported ...


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