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Grant v. City of Blytheville

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

November 14, 2016

Tina Grant, Administrator of the Estate of Johnny Lee Grant Plaintiff- Appellant
City of Blytheville, Arkansas Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: June 15, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Jonesboro

          Before WOLLMAN, MELLOY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

          WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.

         Johnny Lee Grant, a black male, was fifty-nine years old and had been an at-will employee of the City of Blytheville, Arkansas, (the City), for twenty-seven years when he was fired on September 26, 2012, by Public Works Director Marvin Crawford. Grant filed this action against the City, alleging that he was fired on account of his race and age, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court[1] granted the City's motion for summary judgment, concluding that Grant had established a prima facie case of race and age discrimination but that he had not shown that the City's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing him-insubordination-was pretextual. Grant[2] appeals. We affirm, although on the ground that Grant failed to establish a prima facie case of race or age discrimination.

         We review a grant of summary judgment de novo and will affirm when "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Id. But the nonmoving party "may not rely on allegations or denials." Mann v. Yarnell, 497 F.3d 822, 825 (8th Cir. 2007). Instead, he must substantiate his allegations with "sufficient probative evidence [that] would permit a finding in [his] favor on more than mere speculation, conjecture, or fantasy." Id. (quoting Gregory v. City of Rogers, 974 F.2d 1006, 1010 (8th Cir. 1992)). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial." Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1042. We may affirm a grant of summary judgment on any basis supported by the record. Noreen v. PharMerica Corp., 833 F.3d 988, 992 (8th Cir. 2016). We relate the facts in light of these standards.

         Johnny Lee Grant was employed by the Street Department, one of several departments that fell under the purview of the City's Public Works Division. Before he was fired, Grant had been driving a Street Department truck that normally transported a three-person work crew along a route through the City to cut weeds and pick up trash. But one member of the crew had recently died and the other had retired, leaving Grant the sole remaining member of the crew assigned to the truck. On the morning of September 26, 2012, Grant's immediate supervisor in the Street Department, Roy Simmons, went to the garage where crews were preparing their trucks for the day. Simmons informed Grant that Steven Walker, a forty-five-year-old black male who had recently transferred from another department, would be driving the truck from that point forward and that Grant would continue working on a crew but not as a driver. It is undisputed that the reassignment had no effect on Grant's title, work hours, or pay, although Grant asserted that the reassignment deprived him of some level of the prestige in the Street Department that he previously held as a driver. After hearing of the reassignment Grant and Simmons then left the garage and went to Crawford's office, where, according to Grant:

[Crawford] told me that I wouldn't be driving the truck no more. I said, "Well, that ain't no problem. I mean, you're the boss, that ain't no problem." And he said, "Well, what you gonna do?" And he said, "What you gonna do, quit?" I told him, "No, no, I'm not gonna quit." And he said, "You ain't gonna quit? Well, you're fired, then." And I said, "Well, okay."

         Crawford stated in his deposition, however, that after Simmons told Grant that Walker would be driving the truck, Simmons and Grant arrived at Crawford's office and Simmons told Crawford that Grant "wasn't going to . . . [l]et the new man drive the vehicle." After that, according to Crawford:

I asked Johnny, I said, "Johnny, " I said, "what do you mean, you're not going to do it?" He says, "I ain't gonna do it." I said, "Well, Johnny, " I said, "what do you want to do? Are you gonna retire?" He said, "Nope, not going to retire." I said, "Well, Johnny, " I said, "if you don't do what I ask, then I've got no use for you." He said, "Well." I said, "The only thing I know to do is just go up and see Ms. Andrews."

         Crawford testified that he believed Grant was refusing to work in any capacity if he was not permitted to drive the truck and that Grant was fired for this insubordination. Simmons, Walker, and Sylvia Campbell (Crawford's secretary) were also present for some part of these events. Each of them was deposed, and their testimony corresponded in all relevant respects to Crawford's version of events, i.e., that Grant refused to work at all unless he was assigned to drive the truck. Grant, however, flatly denied that he had refused to work.

         After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Grant filed his complaint against the City in October 2013, asserting claims of age and race discrimination. Grant sent a copy of his complaint by certified mail to the Mayor of Blytheville, and a receptionist signed for the package on December 16. The Mayor briefly reviewed the complaint that day and, believing that it involved a personnel matter, delivered the complaint to the Human Resources (HR) director. The HR director reviewed the complaint, informed the Mayor that it was related to Grant's EEOC charge, obtained the Mayor's signature on the acknowledgment of service, and returned the acknowledgment on December 17. Neither the Mayor nor the HR director realized that the complaint was separate from Grant's EEOC charge and that the City was required to take action by filing an answer in the district court.

         Because the City had not filed an answer to his complaint, Grant eventually filed a motion for entry of default with the Clerk of Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on April 17, 2014. The Clerk made an entry of default against the City the next day under Rule 55(a), and Grant's counsel sent a copy of the Clerk's Default to the Mayor on April 22. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a) (permitting the clerk to enter default when a defendant "has failed to plead or otherwise defend"). When the Mayor received a copy of the Default, he realized that Grant had filed a separate lawsuit in federal court. The Mayor delivered the documents to the City Attorney, who promptly filed a response to set aside the entry of default and an answer to the complaint on behalf of the City.

         The district court entered an order setting aside the Clerk's entry of default after concluding that the misunderstanding about the nature of Grant's complaint was good cause for the City's failure to file a timely answer. The court found that the City's delay was excusable, that there was no indication of intentional delay or bad faith by the City, that the City acted promptly to file its answer once it became aware of ...

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