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King v. Southwest Aviation Specialties, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

May 5, 2017

WHALEN KING, Plaintiff,


          TERENCE KERN, United States District Judge

         Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 21) of Defendant Southwest Aviation Specialties, LLC (“Defendant” or “Southwest”).

         I. Factual Background

         Southwest is a Tulsa-based limited liability company that provides aviation services at the Richard Lloyd Jones, Jr. Airport in Jenks, Oklahoma. In July 2014, Plaintiff Whalen King (“Plaintiff” or “King”) was hired as an avionics technician and installer for Southwest. Plaintiff was well-liked, and Southwest considered him to be a knowledgeable and valued employee.

         In March 2015, as Plaintiff and others were gathering in a Southwest airplane hangar for a weekly meeting, some employees began discussing a widely publicized video recording of an incident involving the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (“SAE”) fraternity at the University of Oklahoma (“SAE Incident”). The SAE Incident involved several individuals reciting a racist chant that included the word “nigger” and referred to lynching. Plaintiff was the only African-American present during this discussion of the SAE Incident. Plaintiff testified that during the discussion, another employee repeatedly asked Plaintiff if Southwest should paint the University of Oklahoma's helicopter. Bill Copple (“Copple”), Plaintiff's supervisor and a manager at Southwest, then made a comment regarding the SAE Incident. The content and circumstances surrounding Copple's remark are disputed. Plaintiff testified that Copple turned to him and said, “pardon me, but a lot of my friends are niggers and some of them are not niggers.” (King Dep. 64:6-8.) Plaintiff testified that Copple delivered his remark in a “hateful” and “derogatory” way. (Id. 64:16-19; 68:15-16.) Plaintiff felt Copple was “trying to get a rise out of me.” (King Aff. ¶ 6.) Southwest disputes that Copple made this remark. According to Copple, he said instead, “I was raised on the north side of Tulsa and some of my best friends were black and I can tell you from experience that the word nigger has nothing to do with a person's skin color.” (Copple Dep. 49:11-16.) Copple testified that he made the remark to a group and not specifically to Plaintiff. (Id. 50:13-16.)

         Plaintiff claims that he complained about Copple's remark to multiple employees at Southwest. Sometime after Copple's remark about the SAE Incident, on a Wednesday or Thursday, Plaintiff went to the office of Branwen Erven (“Erven”), the Office Manager for Southwest. Plaintiff told Erven about Copple's remarks and expressed that he was offended and disappointed in Copple's comments and actions.[1] According to Erven, Plaintiff initially told her that he was thinking about quitting but, by the end of their conversation, he resigned and gave his two weeks' notice. Erven testified that she was “shocked [King] was going to quit over one statement.” (Erven Dep. 16:10-12.) Plaintiff admits he told Erven he was thinking about quitting but denies giving his two weeks' notice of resignation.

         According to Plaintiff, when he complained to Erven, two other Southwest employees were also present, including Roy Ledesma (“Ledesma”), Parts Manager for Southwest. Southwest denies that Erven is in management and argues that Plaintiff's conversation with Erven about Copple's remark did not constitute a complaint to Southwest management. Plaintiff admits he did not complain to Copple about Copple's remark about the SAE Incident. Copple testified that no one mentioned the discussion of the SAE Incident to him.

         On the day Plaintiff spoke to Erven, David Guzman (“Guzman”), the owner of Southwest, was out of town. After Plaintiff's conversation with Erven, Erven contacted Guzman by email or text and advised him that Plaintiff had given his two weeks' notice. Guzman testified that the next day, he returned to the office. Guzman contacted Copple and instructed him to confirm whether Plaintiff had given his notice and was quitting, and if so, to escort Plaintiff off the premises. Guzman testified that for aviation-related safety reasons, Southwest has a policy that once an employee who performs any type of work on aircraft resigns or expresses his or her intent to resign, he or she is not allowed to perform any additional work on any aircraft and must leave the premises as soon as practical. (First Guzman Aff. ¶ 6 (Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 1).)

         Plaintiff continued to report to work after his conversation with Erven until Friday of that week, March 20, 2015. According to Plaintiff, on that day, Copple called Plaintiff into his office; told Plaintiff that he was “disrupting the company with complaining”; stated that Plaintiff had resigned and given his two weeks' notice; and instructed Plaintiff to turn in his tool box and leave immediately. (King Dep. 81:1-8.) Plaintiff admits that he did not try to correct Copple or dispute that he had given his notice. Plaintiff “let [Copple] assume that [he] was going to quit” because it was clear that Copple was firing him. (Id. 81:9-25; King Aff. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff testified that Copple was not listening to him, and Plaintiff did not see any point in arguing with him. (King Aff. ¶ 6.)

         On May 25, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint in Tulsa County District Court against Southwest, alleging violations of the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act (“OADA”), O.S. 25 §§ 1101 et seq., and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The complaint alleges Southwest discriminated against Plaintiff by harassing him on the basis of race and retaliated against Plaintiff by terminating his employment based on his opposition to unlawful discrimination. On June 27, 2016, Southwest removed the action to this Court. On January 13, 2017, Southwest filed its Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 21).

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is proper only if “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists. See Zamora v. Elite Logistics, Inc., 449 F.3d 1106, 1112 (10th Cir. 2006). The Court resolves all factual disputes and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. However, the party seeking to overcome a motion for summary judgment may not “rest on mere allegations” in its complaint but must “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). The party seeking to overcome a motion for summary judgment must also make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of those elements essential to that party's case. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-33 (1986).

         III. Objections to Material

          As a preliminary matter, the Court will address objections to certain material submitted with and/or discussed in the briefing on the motion for summary judgment. The following determinations are for the purpose of summary judgment only and do not constitute a ruling on any pending or future motions regarding the admissibility of any material at a later stage of the proceeding.

         Southwest objects to two exhibits (Doc. 24-1 and Doc. 24-2) submitted with Plaintiff's response to Southwest's motion for summary judgment. The Court has not considered the two exhibits Southwest objects to for the purpose of its summary ...

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