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C. Morrow v. Guitar Center Stores, Inc.
Case Number: 4:21-CV-00721
Judge: Greg Kays
Court: United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri (Jackson County)
Defendant's Attorney: Sarah Holdmeyer, James Dale Lawrence
Description: Kansas City, Missouri civil rights lawyer represented Plaintiff, who sued defendant on a job discrimination theory.
Plaintiff has Asperger Syndrome, bipolar disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, and anxiety disorder. Plaintiff states his disabilities cause him to use the restroom more frequently than others and prevent him from completing tasks as quickly as others.
On May 1, 2018, Plaintiff was hired by Guitar Center as a Shipping Associate at its Kansas City, Missouri warehouse. As part of his orientation, he received the Guitar Center Associate Handbook (“Handbook”). Plaintiff worked in the Case Seal department. Occasionally, Case Seal associates were required to help in other departments. When this occurred, managers would first take volunteers to help. If not enough associates volunteered, a rotation system was used.
One day in the fall of 2019 while Plaintiff was helping in the Bulk department, Bulk Supervisor Kaitlin Brown questioned Plaintiff and coworker Jeffery McEntire about not being productive workers in Bulk.Brown's questioning angered Plaintiff, and so he reported Brown to his supervisor, Chris Thornhill, and Operations Manager James Rose. Plaintiff is unsure whether Brown was aware of his disabilities.
On October 21, 2019, Rose met with Plaintiff to discuss his productivity, specifically the large amount of time he spent off the floor during his shift. During this meeting, Rose asked Plaintiff if his lack of productivity had anything to do with him being sent to Bulk. Plaintiff indicated he did not like going to Bulk because of the “stunt” Brown pulled, but never mentioned that Brown's stunt had anything to do with his disability.
Plaintiff also cites issues with Supervisor Bryan Shank. On an unknown date, Shank apparently told him, “You're a man, take it like a man” and “No, I control this conversation.”
Shank never made a comment regarding Plaintiff's disabilities though. But McEntire claims he personally observed Shank single out and bully autistic employees, including Plaintiff, in a harsh and disrespectful manner, albeit his affidavit provides no examples. McEntire also claims he saw other questionable conduct. For instance, he witnessed Rose and Thornhill stop Plaintiff from walking to and from the restroom-Plaintiff later told McEntire they were harassing him about his productivity and frequent trips to the restroom-and witnessed management call Plaintiff out for minor indiscretions, such as stepping out of the line on the floor, while other associates were not called out for doing the same thing. Plaintiff was never disciplined for his productivity, or lack thereof.
Beginning in the fall of 2019, numerous anonymous calls were made to Guitar Center's Navex EthicsPoint Hotline (“Hotline”). Director of Operations David Russell, Human Resources Manager Bridgett Mitchell, and other Human Resources personnel spent a significant amount of time and resources investigating every Hotline complaint. During this time, it was not uncommon to get a minimum of one Hotline call per week, but often two to three a night, from B shift-the shift Plaintiff worked. In comparison, there was typically only one Hotline call every six months from A shift during this time. Although Hotline calls are anonymous, Plaintiff admits to making more than ten calls, none of which referenced disability discrimination.
In addition to the Hotline calls, Plaintiff made numerous complaints to management and HR about his coworkers. Again, none of these complaints referenced disability discrimination. On December 26, 2019, Mitchell met with Plaintiff to discuss how things were going with him, and Plaintiff responded “everything was fine,” “he didn't have any problems with anything,” and that he felt comfortable talking to Mitchell or Rose if any issues arose.
On January 14, 2020, Russell and Mitchell met with Plaintiff and issued him a final written warning for making frivolous complaints about coworkers. The warning was given pursuant to Guitar Center's General Rules of Conduct policy that provides “willfully making knowingly false or malicious statements about fellow associates or the company” is an unacceptable activity. According to Guitar Center's discipline policy, “[a] violation of rules of behavior and codes of conduct will be addressed on an individual basis according to the facts of each case, and will be subject to appropriate disciplinary action.” Df.'s Mot. at 9, ECF No. 24. Further, “[i]n some cases, an associate may be provided some form of warning so that he/she will have an opportunity to correct the problem. In other cases, disciplinary action, up to and including termination, may result for a first offense.” Id.
On January 22, 2020, eight days after receiving the final written warning, Plaintiff contacted Human Resources Manager Ebony McKnight at Guitar Center's corporate offices in California. Plaintiff stated he is on the Autism spectrum and has anxiety problems and Asperger's Syndrome and is being discriminated against and subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of those disabilities. This was the first time Plaintiff complained of such. It was also the first time he told anyone at Guitar Center that he needed an accommodation. McKnight relayed the information to Human Resources Director Kristin Jaramillo.
On January 27, 2020, Mitchell and Rose met with Plaintiff to discuss his need for accommodations. Mitchell provided Plaintiff with a Disability Accommodation Letter (“Accommodation Letter”), with instructions to complete and return it by February 11, 2020.
On January 28, 2020, Nurse Practitioner Sarah Broughton completed and signed the Accommodation Letter indicating Plaintiff's disabilities and necessary accommodations, which Plaintiff then provided to Mitchell. Broughton indicated Plaintiff needed the following accommodations: (1) close proximity to a restroom at all times; and (2) more time to finish tasks . . . and understanding that Plaintiff's production might fluctuate from day-to-day.
On January 31, 2020, Mitchell, Rose, and former HR Benefits Managers Asha Marshall and Claire Medina discussed the accommodations Broughton indicated were necessary. During the meeting, it was determined that additional information was needed from Plaintiff's medical provider regarding the accommodation that Plaintiff “needs more time to finish tasks.” However, it was also determined that, despite the need for additional information, Guitar Center was “able to accommodate” Plaintiff.
Around the same time, a separate investigation ensued into an anonymous Hotline call made in February 2020. During that investigation, Mitchell and Rose received statements from multiple Guitar Center associates regarding Plaintiff's disturbing and threatening demeanor toward other associates. On February 4, 2020, Associate Erica Batton informed Mitchell that Plaintiff emailed Guitar Center Associate Amber Pilcher things she “might want to ask [Pilcher] about” (referring to the Avenging Angel stories as described below). Batton also provided a written statement claiming she was scared to “wand”Plaintiff out as he left the warehouse one night, that Plaintiff makes her “very uncomfortable,” and that she is “a little afraid of him.”
The “Avenging Angel” stories are a series of extremely violent and sexual short stories Plaintiff authored. Plaintiff wrote them as a means of expressing his dark side because if he acted out the conduct he writes about, he would “end up in prison and  ruin [his] life.” Df.'s Mot. at 11, Ex. A, Morrow Depo. at 145:15-25. According to Plaintiff, “it's just [his] way of venting out the anger that [he] [has] towards those that prey on the week [sic] and innocent.” Pl.'s Resp. at 14, Ex. A, Morrow Depo. at 146:3-5. In one story the character “Amber Winston” is raped by a
serial rapist after leaving work, and Plaintiff's main character saves her from being further tortured. “Amber” has red hair and lip piercings in the story. Guitar Center claims this character is based on Pilcher-who has red hair, lip piercings, and the same first name-although Plaintiff claims this is coincidental. Plaintiff sent the Avenging Angel stories to Pilcher and several other Guitar Center employees, albeit he shared them outside the workplace and only after warning them about their graphic nature.
On February 5, 2020, Pilcher also provided a written statement regarding Plaintiff's behavior. She claimed Plaintiff “has been staring and glaring at me for a while now,” elaborating that “[i]f [Plaintiff] is packing lanes or doing paperless, he will stare/glare at me as I walk to and from the bathroom. I look at the ground recently because I don't feel like I can look at anyone anymore because of this.” Notably, while Plaintiff was initially friends with Pilcher, Plaintiff's demeanor toward her and other coworkers changed in the spring of 2019.
On February 10, 2020, Pilcher told Mitchell and Rose she received the Avenging Angel stories from Plaintiff (from July 14, 2019, to September 1, 2019) but never read them. A coworker, Brendan Mitchell, had informed her about her resemblance to “Amber” in the stories.
On February 13, 2020, Russell and Mitchell met with Pilcher again and inquired if there were additional Avenging Angel stories she had not previously provided. She was able to locate 23 additional stories. Russell became concerned for Pilcher's safety after reading the stories.
Between February 13 and February 21, 2020, Guitar Center managers and supervisors exchanged three emails discussing Plaintiff's lack of productivity, an incident with another coworker, and his restroom usage.Guitar Center states it is common for managers and supervisors to send emails concerning store associates.
While Russell and Mitchell were investigating the Avenging Angel stories, Marshall and Medina continued processing Plaintiff's accommodation request. The two matters were handled independently of one another.
On February 17, 2020, Plaintiff's healthcare provider provided the additional information needed regarding his accommodations: an expectation that he attains 85% of production.
On February 24, 2020, Rose met with Plaintiff to review his requested accommodations.
Plaintiff understood and agreed with the accommodations provided by Guitar Center and signed the Interactive Process Associate/Manager Meeting Summary indicating his agreement. Guitar Center provided Plaintiff with every accommodation his healthcare provider indicated he needed.
On February 25, 2020, Mitchell provided Jaramillo an update regarding her investigation into the Avenging Angel stories. She also provided information regarding additional concerns with Plaintiff's productivity and inappropriateness toward coworkers. For example, on February 19, 2020, Plaintiff's supervisor reported that he made a gesture toward a coworker as if he was choking the coworker.On February 26, 2020, Mitchell sent the Avenging Angel stories to Jaramillo for review. After reviewing the stories, Jaramillo instructed Mitchell to terminate Plaintiff.
On February 26, 2020, Plaintiff was officially terminated for violating Guitar Center's Sexual Harassment policy. Guitar Center's Handbook prohibits discrimination in any form, including sexual harassment, “consider[ing] any form of discriminatory practices in the workplace to be unlawful, improper and unacceptable.” According to the Handbook, sexual harassment includes, among other things, “sexually degrading or vulgar words or written descriptions of a person.” The Handbook also provides that “[w]here harassment is found to have occurred, [Guitar Center] will take appropriate actions to remedy the situation.”
On June 10, 2021, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights issued Plaintiff a Right-To-Sue letter. On August 17, 2021, Plaintiff filed suit against Guitar Center alleging disability discrimination/hostile work environment (Count I), and retaliation (Count II)-both in violation of the MHRA-and the case was subsequently removed.
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To establish a prima facie disability-discrimination claim under the MHRA, Plaintiff must show that (1) he has a disability; (2) Guitar Center took adverse action against him; and (3) his disability was a “motivating factor” in the adverse action. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 213.010(2); Heuton, 930 F.3d at 1019. “An adverse employment action is a tangible change in working conditions that produces a material employment disadvantage. This might include termination, cuts in pay or benefits, and changes that affect an employee's future career prospects.” Charleston v. McCarthy, 926 F.3d 982, 989 (8th Cir. 2019) (quotation omitted). “[M]inor changes in working conditions and no reduction in pay or benefits will not constitute an adverse employment action.” Id. (quotation omitted); see Wedow v. City of Kansas City, Mo., 442 F.3d 661, 671 (8th Cir. 2006) (“Mere inconvenience without any decrease in title, salary, or benefits” does not constitute an adverse action.). In certain circumstances, however, “lesser actions than demotion, suspension, and termination can be adverse employment actions if their cumulative effect causes an employee to suffer ‘serious employment consequences' that adversely affect or undermine his position.” Charleston, 926 F.3d at 989 (quotation omitted). “An employer is also liable for committing an adverse employment action if the employee in need of assistance actually requested but was denied a reasonable accommodation.” Dick v. Dickinson State Univ., 826 F.3d 1054, 1060 (8th Cir. 2016).
Outcome: Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate he was discriminated against based on his disability, subjected to a hostile work environment, and retaliated against. Guitar Center's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.