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Paul White v. Ray Mabus

November 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jeffrey T. Miller United States District Judge


Defendant Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, moves for summary judgment, or, alternatively, partial summary judgment, on all claims alleged in Plaintiff Paul White's Title VII Complaint. Plaintiff opposes the motion. Pursuant to L.R. 7.1(d)(1), the court finds this matter appropriate for decision without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grant grants summary judgment in favor of Defendant and against Plaintiff on all claims alleged in the Complaint. The Clerk of Court is instructed to enter judgment in favor of Defendant and against Plaintiff and to close the file.


On June 15, 2011, Plaintiff filed the unverified operative complaint alleging a single claim for employment discrimination based on race in violation of Title VII. (Ct. Dkt. 1). Plaintiff, an African-American, has served over 30 years as a Federal civil service employee. (Compl. ¶12). At all relevant times, Plaintiff served as a Freight & Cargo Supervisor at the Air Operations Department at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, California. (Compl. ¶8).

As clarified in Plaintiff's opposition to the motion for summary judgment, his claims related to (1) an alleged attempt by supervisors Starboard and Mobley to remove Plaintiff as supervisor of the air cargo crew and (2) his two-week suspension in 2008.*fn1 Commencing in February/March 2007, Plaintiff alleges that a work-related overtime issue arose between Plaintiff and Air Terminal Manager Louis Mobley, a Caucasian male. (Compl. ¶¶9-10). Plaintiff sought to secure overtime wages for his subordinate workers and Mobley refused to pay the requested overtime. Supervisors Mobley and CDR Starboard met with Plaintiff and advised him that the subordinates would be paid overtime. At that meeting, CDR Starboard told "Plaintiff that he had instructed Mobley to remove Plaintiff from his supervisory position and replace him with someone else. When Plaintiff asked why this action was being taken against [him], Starboard replied that he had 'heard something.'" (Compl. ¶13).

On March 3, 2007, CDR Starboard allegedly removed Plaintiff from his supervisory position. On the same date, Plaintiff "went off work and onto sick leave due to the stress created by his increasingly hostile work environment." (Compl. ¶16). Plaintiff met with Captains Gianni and Heinen. Upon return from "stress leave," "Plaintiff was returned to his supervisory position on the Captains' orders." (Compl. ¶17).

On December 11, 2007, Plaintiff was involved in a forklift accident resulting in serious injury to one of Plaintiff's subordinates. Following an official investigation, Director Shubert, the Air Operations Program Director responsible for disciplinary actions regarding covered personnel, found that Plaintiff's "unsafe operation of forklift caus[ed] personal injury to another employee" and warranted a 14-day suspension. In broad brush, Plaintiff alleges:

Plaintiff is informed and believes, and thereon alleges, that Defendant's suspension of his employment was excessive and abusive, and not in keeping with the level of reprimand given by Defendant to other employees who were responsible for accidents of the same or greater degree than the December 11th incident for which Defendant suspended Plaintiff. (Compl. ¶30). Such suspension, Plaintiff alleges, was on account of his race as an African-American. (Compl. ¶¶31-33).

The parties have completed discovery. Before addressing the legal issues, the court reviewsthe evidentiary record.

The 2007 Incidents

During 2007, Defendant was involved in three work-related incidents. In February 2007, Plaintiff and his crew were using a K-loader, a mechanized self-propelled loading dock, to unload metal pallets from a Navy C-9 cargo aircraft. (White Depo. 86:1-25). Plaintiff secured one of the pallets to a K-Loader with a cargo strap. He then turned his back to the K-Loader in order to talk to someone inside the aircraft. While he was talking, he heard the pallet crash to the tarmac. The strap securing the pallet was in good condition but Plaintiff had fastened it in such a way that the pallet cut through the strap, causing it to fail. Id., 95:5-96:10. The accident caused $36,000 in damages. (Starboard Decl. ¶2).

The second accident, on June 18, 2007, occurred when Plaintiff operated a truck-mounted boarding ramp. (White Depo. 105:5-11; 111:3-8). When an aircraft was ready to depart, Plaintiff climbed into the stair truck and tried to back it away. Because the aircraft took on cargo or fuel, the aircraft rested lower than it did when the stair truck was originally parked. Plaintiff testified that his crew did not know that the stair truck was stuck until he tried to bring the stair down. (White Depo. at p.115: 1-22). They used a pry bar to free the stair truck, damaging the C-4 in the process. That day's flight was cancelled and the damaged door was repaired the next day. (Id. at p. 116:19-117:2).

The third incident, on December 11, 2007, occurred when Plaintiff and his crew were attempting to unload a diving bell, Navy Deep Submersible Unit ("DSU"), from a Boeing 747. (White Depo. 61:2-10). Items such as diving bells are heavy, bulky, sensitive and expensive, and require special packaging and handling. On the date of the incident, Plaintiff was the only cargo handler involved in the incident who had ever unloaded DSU equipment. (Id. 68:1-5, 70:12-18). Further, his new subordinates had never received any formal training to unload DSU equipment. Plaintiff testified that some of his crew did understand enough to safely unload the diving bell while others did not. (Id. 77:6-14).

Initially, Plaintiff planned to supervise the offload, but not personally operate any equipment. Plaintiff selected a 25,000 pound K-Loader and a second mobile loader, known as a "tact loader," for the operation. As the DSU equipment was being off-loaded, the pallets of the three-pallet train got stuck, resting partially on the K-Loader and partially on the tact loader. To free the diving bell, Plaintiff took the controls of a 20,000 pound forklift and maneuvered it in position to push the stuck pallet from the K-Loader to the tact loader. The procedure, known as the "pit maneuver," involves using the 20K forklift to push the pallet at an angle to free it from the roller of the tact loader. (Id. 161:2-162:7). No one on Plaintiff's crew had been trained in the pit maneuver. (Id. 162:8-11).

One worker, Bernard Garcia, stepped into a gap between the forklift's left rear wheel and the K-Loader's steel frame. (Id. 164:17-165:4). Even though Plaintiff generally told the riggers and spotters to watch out for him, no worker was stationed in such a position to observe Mr. Garcia. When Plaintiff moved the forklift, it ran over Mr. Garcia's leg, seriously injuring him. (Id. 180:2-23).

The Attempt to Remove Plaintiff From his Supervisory Position

In early March 2007, CDR Starboard learned about the February 2007 incident wherein a cargo plane being unloaded by Plaintiff and his crew suffered damages in the amount of $36,000. (Starboard Decl. ¶2). CDR Starboard explains, that as of March 2007, he "was unsatisfied with Mr. White's overall performance as a supervisor." (Starboard Decl. ¶3). By this time, CDR Starboard had additionally learned that Plaintiff was still in his first-year probationary period and that there were some "irregularities regarding timekeeping and scheduling in Mr. White's unit." (Id. at 4).

In February 2007, Mr. Mobley and Plaintiff had a disagreement whether Plaintiff had properly recorded the time cards of his crew. (White Depo. 267:1-16).

On March 3, 2007, CDR Starboard and Mr. Mobley met with Plaintiff to discuss his job performance. Plaintiff testified that they spoke about the overtime issue to his crew and the applicability of the so-called 59 minute rule. CDR Starboard then stated that there is a report in Plaintiff's personnel file indicating that he was involved in a January 2007 accident and that he had in his possession a letter indicating that Plaintiff was negligent in carrying out his duties on the date of the accident. (White Depo. 363:13-22). CDR Starboard told Plaintiff that ...

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