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Fernandez v. Trees, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

May 1, 2018

TREES, INC., Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [1]


         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Trees, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 56) filed on March 5, 2018. Plaintiff Alexis Soto Fernandez filed a Response in Opposition to Trees' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 59) on March 19, 2018. After the Court granted leave to both parties, Trees filed a Reply to Fernandez's Response in Opposition (Doc. 68) on April 9, 2018, and Fernandez filed a Sur-Reply (Doc. 72) on April 16, 2018. This matter is now ripe for review.


         This is an employment discrimination and harassment suit based on Fernandez's Cuban national origin. (Doc. 1). Trees hired Fernandez as a crew foreperson at its tree trimming company from July 2015 to September 2016. (Docs. 56 at 3; 59 at 2). He was responsible for leading a small crew, clearing debris, and operating machinery. (Docs. 56 at 3; 59 at 2). Trees is partly managed by general foreperson, Joseph Soto, and his son, Adam Soto. (Docs. 56 at 4; 59 at 2). Adam Soto was Fernandez's direct supervisor. (Docs. 56 at 4; 59 at 2). Although disputed, Fernandez asserts that Joseph Soto and Adam Soto both decided his regular and overtime shifts. (Doc. 59 at 5). Fernandez maintains, but Trees denies, that he was guaranteed twenty hours of overtime each week. (Doc. 57-1 at 33:18-24).[2]

         The claims driving this suit occurred during a two-month period. (Docs. 56 at 4; 59 at 2; 57-1 at 64:10-25; 65:1-25; 66:1-7). Fernandez's work life at Trees was uneventful until a physical fight broke out between Adam Soto and another Cuban during his last month of employment. (Docs. 56 at 4; 59 at 2; 57-1 at 66:14-20). Fernandez alleges that after the fight, Adam Soto showed hostility towards Cuban employees like him and made derogatory comments such as “fucking Cubans, ” “shitty Cubans, ” and “new policy in the company[:] no more Cuban people[.]” (Docs. 56 at 5; 59 at 2-3; 57-1 at 65:8-16). Adam Soto also allegedly pressured Fernandez to complete unrealistic work goals with old tools and mocked him if he complained. (Doc. 59-1 at ¶ 17).

         Trees offers a different narrative. It denies that Adam Soto showed hostility toward Cuban employees. (Doc. 59 at 26-27). And it maintains that Fernandez had a history of poor work performance. (Docs. 56 at 23; 57-5 at 3-4). This poor performance included Fernandez crashing his work truck and sitting/sleeping on the job. (Docs. 56 at 23; 57-5 at 3-4). As a result, Trees maintains that Joseph Soto told Fernandez that he would no longer receive overtime. (Docs. 56 at 24-25; 57-5 at 4). Fernandez denies these accusations. (Doc. 57-1 at 96:16-22).

         Nonetheless, the parties agree on a pivotal incident in August 2016: Fernandez's suicide attempt. (Docs. 56 at 9; 59 at 6). While on work property and during work hours, Fernandez doused himself in gasoline and reached for his lighter. (Docs. 56 at 9; 59 at 6). A fellow co-worker thwarted Fernandez's suicide attempt by tackling him and removing the lighter from his hand before he ignited it. (Docs. 56 at 9; 59 at 6). Although it is disputed whether Fernandez returned to work after his suicide attempt (Docs. 56 at 10; 59 at 6), there is no dispute that Fernandez ultimately resigned from Trees to work for another tree trimming company. (Docs. 56 at 10-11; 59 at 6). Trees maintains it fired Fernandez because of his suicide attempt that endangered himself and his coworkers. (Doc. 56 at 19).

         Fernandez sues Trees for hostile work environment and national origin discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”). (Doc. 1). Trees now moves for summary judgment (Doc. 56) on both claims.[3] For the reasons set forth below, Trees' Motion is granted.


         Summary judgment is proper only if there are no disputed issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The Court must view the evidence and the inferences that may be reasonably drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Burton v. City of Belle Glade, 178 F.3d 1175, 1187 (11th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).

         The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See O'Ferrell v. United States, 253 F.3d 1257, 1265 (11th Cir. 2001). When opposing a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record that create a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest on mere allegations or denials and “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (citation omitted). Failure to show sufficient evidence of any essential element is fatal to the claim and the court should grant summary judgment. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23.


         A. Hostile Work Environment

         Fernandez claims he suffered harassment in a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII and the FCRA.[4] (Doc. 1 at 4, 6). A hostile work environment claim requires proof of a workplace “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993) (internal quotations and citations omitted). To establish such a claim, a plaintiff must show:

(1) that he belongs to a protected group; (2) that he has been subject to unwelcome harassment; (3) that the harassment must have been based on a protected characteristic of the employee, such as national origin; (4) that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment and create a discriminatorily abusive working environment; and (5) that the employer is responsible for such environment under either a theory of vicarious or of direct liability.

Miller v. Kenworth of Dothan, Inc., 277 F.3d 1269, 1275 (11th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Only the fourth element is at issue here because Trees argues that Adam Soto's conduct was neither ...

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