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Senter v. Stericycle, Inc.

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

October 22, 2013

Lennie R. Senter, Plaintiff,
Stericycle, Inc., Defendant.

Lennie Senter, Urbandale, Iowa, Plaintiff pro se.

Cara J. Ottenweller, Katherine A. Christy, Steven L. Hamann, Vedder Price PC, Chicago, Illinois, Jonathon P. Norrie, Bassford Remele, PA, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for ෧�횧.


RICHARD H. KYLE, District Judge.


In this action, Plaintiff Lennie Senter asserts claims against his former employer, Defendant Stericycle, Inc. ("Stericycle"), for racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Stericycle moves for summary judgment on Senter's claims and, for the reasons set forth below, its Motion will be granted.


Stericycle collects, processes, and disposes of medical waste and provides product-recall services for pharmaceutical, medical-device, and other companies. Senter, an African American, began working for Stericycle as a permanent employee in 2006 at its medical-waste-processing facility in St. Paul, Minnesota. Throughout his employment, Senter was employed as a Plant Worker and reported to Plant Supervisor Brad Vander Pal, who in turn reported to Plant Manager Jason Ritt. As a plant worker, Senter was responsible for unloading waste from vehicles, decontaminating vehicles, and staging waste for scanning and processing. (Senter Dep. Ex. 18.)

In the spring of 2009, Stericycle asked its employees to complete surveys after viewing a presentation on unions. Senter alleges that Caucasian employees were allowed to take their surveys home to complete them, but African-American employees were required to complete them on site. (Id. at 256-57.) But Senter acknowledges that he bases this allegation of differential treatment on the fact that the Drivers, most (but not all) of whom were Caucasian, were allowed to take them home while Ritt required him (and ostensibly all the Plant Workers) to complete the surveys at work. (Id. at 260.) Senter acknowledges that the African-American Drivers would be treated the same as the Caucasian Drivers (id. at 259), although he has no personal knowledge of whether the African-American Drivers were allowed to take the surveys home as he saw only Caucasian Drivers taking them home (id. at 299-300).

In March 2010, Senter utilized the Stericycle hotline to complain about his supervisor, Vander Pal. He alleges Vander Pal regularly used profanities, often directed toward him. For example, Senter alleges Vander Pal would tell him, "Get your ass to work, " that he would threaten him, saying, "Keep that shit up in here and you will be out of here, " and that he chastised him, "Don't you ever f-ing do that again, " after Senter spilled a bin of waste. (Id. at 66.) As a result, he reported Vander Pal to Human Resources. But when Christine Sura, the Human Resources Manager, contacted Senter to follow up on the complaint, he informed her he had resolved the issue and he never contacted her or Human Resources again. (Id. at 64-65, 72.)

In October 2010, Stericycle's St. Paul plant was temporarily shut down and the plant's employees were assigned to work at the Fridley, Minnesota, facility in the interim. Senter was initially assigned to work as Shift Lead on a weekend shift (Shift C) at the Fridley plant. (Id. at 57.) He avers this assignment was inappropriate given his seniority (id. at 58) and all his Caucasian coworkers from St. Paul were kept on their regular weekday shift, including Nathan Bruce and Dennis O'Brian (Senter Mem. at 2). Senter complained to Ritt and Vander Pal about his schedule and threatened to contact the District Manager so they transferred him back to a weekday shift. Their stated reason for changing him to the weekend was that they had selected the best performers to be the four Shift Leads. (Compl. Ex. 1 (Doc. No. 1-1) at 25.) In his place, they installed Joel Hill-a Caucasian employee with only three months' experience-as the Shift Lead for Shift C instead of Alfred Austin-an African-American employee with four years' experience. (Senter Mem. at 3.) So, after transferring Senter back to the weekday shift, the two weekend Shift Leads were Hill (Caucasian) and Martin (African American). In total, Senter worked two weekend shifts and suffered no loss of pay. (Senter Dep. 59, 61.) As a result of his initial shift assignment and the union-survey incident, Senter filed a charge of racial discrimination and harassment against Stericycle with the City of St. Paul in November 2010. (Id. at 141 & Ex. 12.)

As part of his job, Senter loaded waste into and operated an "autoclave"-a large vessel that uses high pressure and steam to kill bacteria contained in the medical waste. On January 26, 2011, an autoclave exploded and Ritt determined that Senter was responsible for the incident; Ritt decided Senter had neglected the critical step of checking the seal of the door on the autoclave. (Ritt Aff. ¶ 25.) Senter maintains he had no part in the incident and the autoclave exploded because it had not been properly maintained. (Senter Dep. 118, 262.) Ritt confronted Senter about the incident but did not discipline him. (Id. at 117-18.) Two days later, on January 28, Senter amended his charge with the City of St. Paul to allege he "was disciplined for an act [he] did not commit." (Id. Ex. 13.)

On February 9, 2011, during Senter's shift, Vander Pal instructed him to perform a task that he believed was a safety violation. He refused to perform the task, Vander Pal started "hollering" at him, and Senter pointed his finger in Vander Pal's face, which he acknowledges was grounds for discipline. (Id. at 113, 115.) Stericycle suspended him for three days. Senter acknowledges the suspension was unrelated to his race. (Id. at 128.) He returned to work on February 14.

Two days later, on February 16, Shift Lead Nathan Bruce observed Senter picking up medical waste by hand, without using the proper safety tools. (Bruce Aff. ¶¶ 8-9.) Picking up medical waste by hand, even with gloved hands, was considered a safety risk to employees and they had been instructed not to do so. (Senter Dep. 105-06 & Ex. 9.) Senter and others had attended a safety training that addressed the topic the previous month. (Id. at 100, 138 & Ex. 8.) Bruce reported his observation to Vander Pal (Bruce Aff. ¶ 10), who reported it to Ritt (Ritt Aff. ¶ 28). Ritt reviewed the video surveillance and determined Senter had violated Stericycle's safety policies. (Id. ¶ 29.) Given his recent suspension and this violation, he and Vander Pal decided to terminate Senter's employment. (Id. ¶ 30.) The next morning, they informed Senter he was being terminated for his failure to use proper safety precautions when handling medical waste. (Senter Dep. 181-83.) Although Senter denies picking up medical waste with his hands (id. at 137), he acknowledges that it was the reason Stericycle terminated him and that it had nothing to do with his race (id. at 138-39.) He also acknowledges that another employee, who is Caucasian, had been terminated for mishandling medical waste. (Id. at 212.)

In December 2011, Senter commenced the instant action. He asserts claims under Title VII for racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Stericycle now moves for summary judgment on all of Senter's claims. The ...

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