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Martin v. Champion Ford, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division

August 28, 2014

NATHAN A. MARTIN, Plaintiff,
v.
CHAMPION FORD, INC., Defendant

Page 748

For Nathan A Martin, Plaintiff: R Scott Rhinehart, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rhinehart Law, PC, Sioux City, IA USA.

For Champion Ford, Inc, Defendant: Jeff W Wright, LEAD ATTORNEY, Heidman Law Firm, LLC, Sioux City, IA USA; Rosalynd Jean Koob, Heidman Law Firm, L.L.P., Sioux City, IA USA; Sarah Kuehl Kleber, Heidman Redmond Fredregill Patterson Plaza Dykstra & Prahl, Sioux City, IA USA.

OPINION

Page 749

LEONARD T. STRAND, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

III. RELEVANT FACTS

IV. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

V. ANALYSIS

A. Hostile Work Environment

1. Did the harassment affect a term, condition privilege of Martin's

employment

2. Would Champion be liable for the harassment

B. Race Discrimination

VI. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

This case is before me on a motion (Doc. No. 22) for summary judgment filed by defendant Champion Ford, Inc. (Champion), and a motion (Doc. No. 26) for partial summary judgment filed by plaintiff Nathan A. Martin (Martin). Both motions are resisted. I heard oral arguments on July 23, 2014. R. Scott Rhinehart appeared and argued for Martin. Jeff W. Wright appeared and argued for Champion. The motions are fully submitted.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Martin filed his complaint and jury demand (Doc. No. 2) on August 16, 2013, and

Page 750

filed an amended complaint (Doc. No. 12) two months later. In his complaint, as amended, Martin contends that he was employed by Champion and that, during his employment, he was subjected to harassment and discrimination based on his race. He asserts the following causes of action:

Count I: Racial Discrimination (federal)
Count II: Hostile Work Environment (federal)
Count III: Racial Discrimination (state)
Count IV: Hostile Work Environment (state)

Doc. No. 12.

Champion denies Martin's operative factual allegations, denies liability and asserts various affirmative defenses. Doc. No. 15. This case was referred to me after the parties unanimously consented to trial, disposition and judgment by a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(3). Doc. No. 16. Trial is scheduled to begin October 1, 2014. Doc. No. 17.

III. RELEVANT FACTS

Except as otherwise noted, the following facts are not in dispute:

Background.

Champion is an Iowa corporation that operates a Ford dealership in Carroll, Iowa. Martin is an African-American male who was employed by Champion from March 2010 until June 6, 2012. During that time, Champion had approximately 20 employees, with Martin being the only minority.

Martin was initially hired as a detail technician but was promoted to detail manager approximately two weeks into his employment, when the previous detail manager died. His job duties included cleaning vehicles, taking out garbage, keeping his work area clean, picking up and dropping off customers' vehicles for oil changes and organizing Champion's lot.[1] Champion received no complaints about Martin during his employment and does not contend that his work performance was deficient.

Champion is owned by Ken Payer and has two departments -- sales and service. During Martin's employment, Roger Tapps was service manager and Jake Petzenhauser was sales manager. According to Payer, Martin's detail position was split equally between the sales and service departments.

Champion maintains an employee handbook that includes, among other things, a policy prohibiting harassment and discrimination based on race. Martin contends that he was never provided a copy of the handbook and was not made aware of Champion's anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy during his employment.[2] Champion disputes this and contends that its practice was to provide all employees with a copy of the handbook and to review it with each new employee. Martin notes it is undisputed that his personnel file, unlike two others produced by Champion, contains no signed acknowledgement evidencing receipt of an employee handbook.

Racial Slurs.

Martin contends that while he was employed at Champion, other

Page 751

employees used racial slurs in his presence. The only example he provides is that a tool normally called a " breaker bar" was sometimes called a " nigger bar." Martin testified that two different employees used that term " once or twice" each. He did not complain to anyone about the use of the term.

The Schultes Text Messages. Tony Schultes was a co-worker employed by Champion as a service technician. Schultes sometimes forwarded text messages to Martin that Schultes apparently considered to be humorous. By contrast, Martin contends he never sent text messages to Schultes.[3] On December 23, 2011, Martin received a text message from Schultes that included a photograph of three burning crosses and Santa Clause in a Ku Klux Klan hood with a caption stating " Have a white Christmas." Schultes admits that he sent this text message (hereafter, the " white Christmas message" ) to Martin.

It is undisputed that Schultes had previously sent at least one other racially-themed text message to Martin -- a message that depicted a black man running from the Ku Klux Klan with a caption stating " wrong party" and playing a parody to a song called " You Should Have Seen It in Color." Martin also claims that Schultes sent two additional racially-themed messages prior to December 23, 2011. One depicted a young black male crying with a KFC sign in the background that said " Closed." Martin assumed this was a reference to " the whole fried chicken/watermelon thing." The other text showed a black male child climbing over a fence with a caption stating " In training for the penitentiary." Martin does not claim that he reported either of these texts to Champion and Champion states that it had no knowledge of them.

While Martin did not complain to Champion about any messages sent by Schultes before December 23, 2011, he contends that he did tell Schultes on a prior occasion that he did not consider the race-themed text messages to be funny. Champion states that it has no knowledge of this alleged conversation.

On December 24, 2011, Martin complained to Payer about the white Christmas message and showed him the message. Payer conducted a meeting that day with Martin, Schultes and Tapps (the service manager). Schultes was given a written reprimand, suspended for half a day without pay, ordered to apologize to Martin and warned that he would be discharged if anything similar happened again. It is undisputed that after this meeting, Tapps directed Martin to delete all text messages and other information in his phone relating to Schultes.

Champion claims it further responded to the incident by conducting an employee meeting to discuss the importance of avoiding discrimination in the workplace and to make it clear that Martin was to be treated with respect. Martin denies having knowledge of the meeting and notes that two employees have testified, by deposition, that they have no recollection of the meeting.

The Aftermath.

Martin contends that he was treated differently at Champion after he complained to Payer about the white Christmas message. He claims he ...


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