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Knighten v. Marubeni America Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

January 30, 2017



          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the court on Defendant Marubeni America's Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. #17]. Plaintiff Charles Knighten is a long time Marubeni employee. He claims that in 2006 he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by a past military sexual trauma. Knighten currently works as a locomotive switchman at Marubeni's Kalama Export facility. In 2008, Knighten filed an employment discrimination suit against the facility's previous owners, which was settled and dismissed with prejudice by this Court in 2009. Knighten voluntarily moved from the maintenance department to the production department in 2011. In 2012, Knighten claims that, for discriminatory and retaliatory reasons, Kalama denied him two overtime opportunities.

         Knighten sued, asserting claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination, for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate a disability, hostile work environment, and retaliation. Kalama seeks summary judgment, claiming Knighten cannot establish any of the required elements of his claims. Kalama argues that even if Knighten could establish a prima facie case, Knighten's claims nonetheless fail because Kalama established legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its actions and there is no evidence that these reasons are pretextual.

         I. FACTS

         Knighten began working for Kalama's maintenance department in 1983. [Dkt #18 Exhibit B at 8]. He has periodically requested and received medical leave for PTSD treatment. [Dkt #1 Exhibit A at 3]. Knighten has a long, documented history of conflict with his maintenance supervisors and coworkers; he has received two suspensions and five warnings or complaints. In 1987, Knighten received a written warning for incomplete work and a confrontation with his lead. [Dkt #20 Exhibit 2]. In 2007, a coworker complained that Knighten was sleeping during work hours. [Dkt #18 Exhibit B, at 92-93].

         Due to personal disagreements with his maintenance supervisor, Gary Carlson, and his coworker Mark Lydic, Knighten chose to avoid both individuals and admittedly continues to turn his back to them while in the same room. [Id. at 40-41]. Knighten once yelled an obscenity at Lydic in response to Lydic placing his hand on Knighten's shoulder in apology. [Id. at 23]. At some point Knighten witnessed Lydic placing his head on Carlson's shoulder and saying, “oh, Gary” in a joking manner while recounting a recent fishing expedition. [Dkt #18 Exhibit B at 62-64]. Knighten claims the sight of two male friends displaying affection in the workplace likely aggravated his PTSD. [Id. at 69-71].

         In May, 2011 Knighten requested a promotion to lead in the maintenance department. Kalama denied his request because due to Knighten's poor relationships with management and coworkers in the department. [Dkt #20 at 3]. Kalama instead promoted Lydic to lead. Knighten argues that because he had seniority over Lydic at that time, he was entitled to the promotion. He also claims Lydic's promotion violated Kalama's policy prohibiting family members from supervising each other because Lydic's son-in-law became his supervisor. [Dkt #18 at 66].

         That same month, Knighten voluntarily transferred from the maintenance department to a less physically demanding position in the production department, where he continues to work today. [Dkt #20 at 3]. Lydic asked him to remove his belongings from his former maintenance locker because the maintenance employees needed the space. [Dkt #17 at 18]. Knighten contends there was ample space because Kalama recently expanded the maintenance storage. [Dkt #20 at 4].

         Knighten was a senior employee in the maintenance department but he lost his seniority status when he transferred to the production department. Under the 2009 union agreement, an employee who transfers between maintenance and production restarts seniority in the new department on his or her transfer date. [Dkt #18 Exhibit H].

         In 2012 Kalama denied Knighten's overtime bid for the production department and instead gave the overtime to a more senior employee. [Dkt #18 Exhibit D]. In response, Knighten filed a union grievance claiming that he was the most senior in the department. [Id.]. Two days later, plant supervisor Steve Oakes responded to Knighten's complaint in writing, explaining that Knighten was no longer a senior employee after his transfer to the production department. [Dkt #18 Exhibit E]. Oakes apologized for the delay in posting the updated seniority list and the grievance was dismissed. [Id.].

         In 2012, Kalama denied Knighten's overtime bid for a job back in the maintenance department. [Dkt #18 Exhibit F]. Knighten again filed a union grievance, alleging he was a senior qualified employee improperly denied overtime. [Id.]. Oakes responded in writing within a week, explaining Knighten was no longer eligible to work in maintenance, due to his poor relationships in the department. [Dkt #18 Exhibit G]. Nonetheless, Kalama paid Knighten for the overtime he did not work and the grievance was dismissed. [Dkt #18 Exhibit B at 50]. Knighten challenges not only his overtime rejection but also Oakes' resulting determination that he is no longer eligible to work in maintenance.

         In 2013, Lydic complained to management about Knighten calling him a “squirrel” behind his back. [Id. at 21]. Knighten did not deny the accusation but rather explained that “if [Lydic]'s not there, then no harm, no foul towards him personally.” [Id. at 43:7-8]. During the same year, Knighten claims Lydic asked him if he was ‘hitting on him'. [Id. at 67]. Knighten contends he has since felt uncomfortable alone with Lydic and will leave the room whenever Lydic comes in. [Id. at 37].

         Knighten sued in 2014. Knighten asserted four causes of action against Kalama under the ADA and WALD: (1) Kalama discriminated against him by denying his overtime and promotion requests because of his PTSD, (2) Kalama failed to accommodate his PTSD by denying his request to work in the maintenance department, (3) Kalama created a hostile work environment by asking Knighten to remove his personal property, subjecting him to harassment and a public display of affection, and allowing relatives to supervise each other, and (4) Kalama retaliated against Knighten for his previous lawsuit by denying his overtime and promotion requests. [Dkt #1 Exhibit A at 10-12]. Knighten seeks compensatory damages and special damages relating to lost wages and benefits, lost future earnings, emotional distress, humiliation, and loss of enjoyment of life. [Id. at 12].

         Kalama seeks summary judgment on Knighten's ADA and WLAD claims for three reasons: (1) Knighten failed to prove he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA or WLAD, (2) Knighten's claims are unrelated to his purported disability, and (3) Kalama denied Knighten's promotion and overtime requests because Knighten is unqualified due to his lower seniority status and his inability to work with maintenance supervisors and coworkers. Kalama also argues Knighten received every accommodation he requested and he failed to prove that Kalama's reasons for its adverse actions are a pretext for discrimination.

         II. ...

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