It is often recognized that an employee opposing summary judgment must do more than say “not so” and that successfully opposing such a motion requires more than just peripheral disputes as to the core decision. These tenets were recently applied by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Coe v. U.S. Steel, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 166230 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 2012).

Newly Elected Union President

William Coe, an African-American, is a long-term employee at U.S. Steel’s Fairless Hills, Pa., plant. He was elected president of the local steelworkers’ union in mid-2009. At the time, the relationship between the employees and the company was governed by a collective bargaining agreement that went into effect September 1, 2008. A different agreement preceded the 2008 contract.

Both contracts provided that the union president could appoint a safety representative who performed duties that did not require the type of manual labor inherent in the other bargaining unit positions. Under the pre-2008 contract, the safety representative was a 40-hour-per-week position. The 2008 contract, however, reduced the safety position to a part-time, 16-hour-per-week position. The position was not accompanied by a pay increase.

Enforcing New Definition of Safety Job

Prior to August 28, 2009, a Caucasian woman (Kathryn Bara) held the position and, although as of September 1, 2008, the position was only meant to be held 16 hours per week, she was permitted to hold the position full time. As of August 28, Coe appointed himself to the safety position by submitting a letter to the company. When he did so, he was told that the position was part time. The undisputed facts were that the plant’s new manager, Robert Ives, had made the decision to enforce the contract’s limitations on the safety position.

When Coe learned that he would not be able to hold the safety position full time, he quickly reappointed Bara to the post. She was permitted to hold the position only 16 hours per week. Coe grieved that he was not permitted to hold the position full time and, when that was unsuccessful, brought his claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, subsequently, to court. After discovery, U.S. Steel filed for summary judgment.

Objective Preference for White-Collar Job

The court initially addressed whether Coe had established a prima facie case and, more specifically, whether he had suffered an adverse employment action. While there was no dispute that Coe had appointed himself to the safety position, which paid the same amount as his manual labor job, the court found that Coe’s production job on the plant floor was “objectively inferior” to the safety representative position and that the denial of the latter could amount to an adverse employment action. The court noted that this was more than just Coe’s “idiosyncratic” preference for one position over another.

The court then moved to the question of whether Coe had established an “inference of discriminatory intent.” To this end, the court found that the “contradictory information” regarding the precise timing of Ives’ decision to enforce the part-time safety provision of the contract, as well as inconsistencies in Coe’s own testimony as to when he gave notice of his intention to take the safety position, could create a genuine issue of fact as to the third part of the prima facie case.

Next, the court found that the company had established that the collective bargaining agreement provided a legitimate reason for denying Coe the opportunity to work in the safety position full time — thereby advancing the analysis to the issue of pretext.

No Evidence of Pretext

Essentially, the plaintiff’s “evidence” of pretext amounted to assertions that Ives’ claim that he made the decision to enforce the changes of the agreement when he did (that is, just as Coe had appointed himself to the job) was simply “unbelievable and lacks corroboration.” This, however, was not enough.

Significantly, while the court recognized that summary judgment may be defeated by pointing to evidence “from which a fact-finder might reasonably disbelieve [the] articulated legitimate reason,” a plaintiff cannot defeat summary judgment “with bare allegations that [the defendant's] account should not be believed.” Rather, it is necessary to present “evidence contradicting the core facts” put forward as the legitimate reason.

The need for contradictory facts, rather than a simple “not so,” resulted in a finding that there was “nothing inherently unbelievable in Ives’ story” that he did not review the collective bargaining agreement with respect to the safety position until shortly before enforcing the agreement’s terms.

Finally, the court found that Coe’s “evidence” that the plant was permeated with racial animus was nothing more than “a raw tally of the number of minorities that have been terminated since he became president and his own subjective beliefs.” The court found that “personal beliefs, conjecture and speculation are insufficient to support an inference of discrimination.”

The case is most notable in two areas. First, the finding that Coe’s choice rejection of the safety position, as defined by the collective bargaining agreement, could rise to the level of an adverse employment action potentially opens a variety of issues in the workplace. Employers often redefine positions when the individual occupying the job leaves. That this redefinition could result in an adverse employment action potentially expands that area of the law.

Conversely, the court strictly applied the standard that “doubts [in combination with a prima facie case] are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” In doing so, the court found there not to be a jury question, even if the company could not dispel “every doubt” surrounding the decision to enforce the agreement. This, in turn, would make summary judgment harder to defeat. •

Sid Steinberg is a partner in Post & Schell’s business law and litigation department. He concentrates his national litigation and consulting practice in the field of employment and employee relations law. Steinberg has lectured extensively on all aspects of employment law, including Title VII, the FMLA and the ADA.