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Hill v. Memorial Drive United Methodist Church

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

February 20, 2018

LADON E. HILL, Plaintiff,
v.
MEMORIAL DRIVE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CLAIRE V. EAGAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court is Defendant Memorial Drive United Methodist Church's Motion for Summary Judgment and Brief in Support (Dkt. # 37). Defendant Memorial Drive United Methodist Church (MDUMC) argues that plaintiff's employment as a youth minister was terminated after plaintiff engaged in numerous incidents of hostile and insubordinate behavior, and MDUMC seeks summary judgment on plaintiff's claims of racial discrimination and retaliation. Dkt. # 37. Plaintiff responds that MDUMC's stated reason for terminating his employment was pretextual, and he claims that MDUMC retaliated against him for filing a charge of discrimination even after his employment was terminated. Dkt. # 40.

         I.

         In 2004, MDUMC hired Ladon Hill as a part-time youth minister. Hill is an African-American male. Dkt. # 37-1, at 2. Shawna Genshaw, MDUMC's director of children and youth services, was taking a leave of absence in 2012, and Hill was specifically instructed to state that Genshaw “is taking time off to deal with personal issues” if asked about Genshaw's absence. Dkt. # 37-2, at 1. However, Hill told members of MDUMC that Genshaw was on “study leave” and he admits that he departed from MDUMC's instructions. Dkt. # 37-1, at 20-21. On October 9, 2012, MDUMC terminated Genshaw's employment and Hill became upset. Dkt. # 37-3, at 2. Hill threw a five-pound ankle weight against the wall and “almost tore a door off the hinge, ” and he said that he felt “like I want to rip somebody's head off.” Dkt. # 37-1, at 12-14. On October 28, 2012, Hill grabbed a microphone during a church service, and he told the congregation that Genshaw “was fired from [MDUMC] for no reason.” Id. at 18. Hill submitted an article in the church bulletin, proposing a meeting in which parents and youth could voice their concerns, and the article stated that it “is time to RISE!” Dkt. # 37-4, at 1. MDUMC's pastor, Sharon Fletcher-Taylor, reviewed Hill's submission and found that it could not appear in the church bulletin as submitted, because the article did not promote reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness. Id. In a separate e-mail, Hill explained that he was upset at the treatment of Genshaw, and he stated that was speaking to MDUMC members about the perceived mistreatment of Genshaw. Id. at 2. On November 11, 2012, Hill failed to properly supervise approximately eight to ten youths in violation of MDUMC's safe sanctuary policy, and the youths interrupted a church service. Dkt. # 37-5.

         On November 12, 2012, the Staff Parish Relations Committee learned that Hill had sent a text message to a large group of church members in which he advised people that he was meeting with the pastor the next day, and he believed that his employment with MDUMC would be terminated. Dkt. # 37-11. Hill claimed that he had been bullied by Fletcher-Taylor and he referred to her as “Bane, ” a villain from the Batman comic books. Id. The notes from the committee meeting show that they did not want to terminate Hill's employment, but there was concern that Hill's conduct was harming MDUMC. Id. Members of the committee expressed a desire to retain Hill as an employee if he could move on from his feelings over Genshaw's termination. Id. In his deposition, Hill testified that Fletcher-Taylor bullied all MDUMC employees, and that many other employees had resigned because of Fletcher-Taylor's conduct. Dkt. # 37-1, at 7-8. Hill did not testify that Fletcher-Taylor singled out African-American employees for alleged bullying, and he testified that “everyone had been fed up with the bullying . . . .” Id. at 8. On November 13, 2012, Hill met with Fletcher-Taylor and was handed five employee warning notifications, which concerned the events that occurred in October and November of 2012. Dkt. # 37-5; Dkt. # 37-6; Dkt. # 37-7; Dkt. # 37-8; Dkt. # 37-9. Hill did make written remarks on some of the notifications, but he did not deny that the conduct occurred. Hill's employment was not terminated on November 13, 2012, even though he claims that he was not willing to move on until “justice is done.” Dkt. # 37-1, at 32.

         On December 9, 2012, Hill had an argument with a parent whose son was in Hill's youth group at the church. The argument concerned MDUMC's treatment of Genshaw. Id. at 37-38. Hill admits that he used “some language” and the parent attempted to obtain a restraining order against Hill. Id. at 38. MDUMC placed Hill on 30 days of unpaid administrative leave after the incident, and Hill was instructed that he could not communicate with any church member about his employment or participate in youth activities during the suspension. Dkt. # 37-12. Hill was warned that violating this condition of his suspension could result in the termination of his employment. Id. Hill admits that he violated the MDUMC's instructions and that he communicated with church members about his suspension. Dkt. # 37-1, at 42; Dkt. # 37-3. Hill returned from his suspension and, on January 27, 2013, he informed the new director of children and youth services that he would be taking over youth lessons for several weeks. Parents expressed concern that Hill was trying to push the new director out of the way, and plaintiff told the new director that “if anybody thought that, they could take those thoughts and stick it.” Dkt. # 37-1, at 46; Dkt. # 37-3, at 5.

         MDUMC implemented a new van policy on February 1, 2013. MDUMC personnel were no longer permitted to transport children for activities outside of a two mile radius of the church. Dkt. # 37-13. Hill strongly disagreed with the new policy, and sent several e-mails expressing his disagreement. Dkt. # 37-14. Hill stated that “90 percent of our youth live more than 2 miles from this church, ” and he believed that many children would no longer be able to attend the church. Id. at 2-3. Hill did not advise anyone at MDUMC that the van policy would disproportionately or unfairly harm minority children. Fletcher-Taylor responded to Hill and encouraged him to help the children locate churches closer to home if they could no longer attend the church. Id. at 2. MDUMC terminated Hill's employment on February 10, 2013, and he was advised to return his keys and collect his final check on February 12, 2013. Dkt. # 40-1, at 28.

         Even though Hill's employment was terminated, he remained a member of MDUMC and he continued to attend church services and activities. Hill received an e-mail from the district youth leader to attend a meeting on March 3, 2013, and he attended the meeting without advising anyone that he had been fired by MDUMC. Dkt. # 40-2, at 7. Hill retained an attorney and, on March 27, 2013, his attorney sent a letter to representatives of the Methodist Church in Oklahoma threatening to file suit alleging racial discrimination if Hill was not reinstated by April 10, 2013. Dkt. # 40-6. Hill's attorney did not send the letter directly to MDUMC, but the letter was sent to the regional office for the United Methodist Church. Dkt. # 40-7. Counsel for MDUMC did not receive a copy of the letter until April 8, 2013, and he investigated Hill's allegations of racial discrimination. Dkt. # 40-8. MDUMC's attorney sent a letter to Hill's attorney stating that Hill was terminated for “insubordination, wanton destruction of church property, willful disturbance and interruption of worship services, dereliction of duty and violations of the denomination's safe sanctuary policies.” Id. MDUMC had also learned that Hill attended a district youth council meeting on March 3, 2013 and held himself out as a representative of MDUMC. Id.

         On April 24, 2013, MDUMC sent a letter to its members after learning that Hill was holding himself out as an MDUMC employee stating that:

Donny Hill is no longer an employee nor is he a sponsor of [MDUMC]'s youth ministry. Parents or guardians who allow their child to go with him are hereby notified it is not a church sanctioned event and MDUMC will not be responsible for any circumstance that happens.

Dkt. # 40-9, at 1. The April 26, 2013 church bulletin further advised MDUMC members that Hill had formed a new youth group known as the “Dark Knights, ” and had attended a district youth council meeting where he led people to believe that he represented MDUMC. Dkt. # 40-13, at 2. The bulletin also repeated the same notice from the April 24, 2013 letter that Hill was no longer an MDUMC employee. Id. Hill was not permitted to attend a district youth council meeting in April 2013 “due to lawsuits” and, in response, Hill acknowledged that he had been fired by MDUMC. Dkt. # 40-11. Plaintiff was informed by Audra Ogle of the district youth counsel that he could not attend the April 2013 meeting, and the decision to prohibit Hill from attending the meeting was not made by anyone at MDUMC. Id. On June 27, 2013, MDUMC received notice that Hill had filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which alleged that Hill's employment was terminated “for standing up for a coworker and because of [his] race.” Dkt. # 40-1, at 21, 23. On July 12, 2013, Fletcher-Taylor notified the staff parish relations committee that Hill had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Dkt. # 40-1, at 26. Hill and his sister had volunteered to be ushers for services on July 7, 2013, but an amended bulletin was published removing their names from the list of ushers. Dkt. # 40-14. There is no evidence as to who made the decision to remove Hill and his sister from the list of ushers for the July 7, 2013 service or that the person or persons making the decision knew of Hill's EEOC charge.

         On October 23, 2013, Hill filed a civil action against MDUMC in Tulsa County District Court, alleging claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (Title VII) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The case was removed to federal court. Ladon E. Hill v. Memorial Drive United Methodist Church, 13-CV-745-JHP-TLW (N.D. Okla.). The parties filed a joint stipulation of dismissal and Hill's claims were dismissed without prejudice to refiling. On February 9, 2017, Hill refiled the case in Tulsa County District Court, and MDUMC removed the case to this Court. Hill alleges claims of racial discrimination and retaliation under § 1981. Dkt. # 2-2.

         II.

         Summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 is appropriate where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Kendall v. Watkins, 998 F.2d 848, 850 (10th Cir. 1993). The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 317. ‚ÄúSummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored ...


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