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Calame v. Aaron's, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

July 29, 2014

RALPH CALAME, JR., Plaintiff,
AARON'S, INC., Defendant.



This case is currently before the Court on Defendant's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 35). Pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Ralph Calame, Jr., ("Plaintiff") alleges that Aaron's, Inc. ("Defendant") discriminated against him based on his religion when he was terminated from his employment in March 2012. The Court has duly considered Defendant's motion and Plaintiff's response brief, and a hearing on the motion was held on July 7, 2014. For the following reasons, the motion for summary judgment is denied.


Plaintiff, Ralph Calame, Jr., began working for Aaron's, Inc., as a management trainee in August of 2011 (Doc. 42, p. 1). Defendant's business serves customers through the sale and lease ownership of residential furniture, consumer electronics, and home appliances (Doc. 36, p. 3). Defendant has stores nationwide, including several in the St. Louis and southern Illinois regions ( Id. ). Each store is managed by a General Manager ("GM"), and each GM reports to a Regional Manager ("RM") ( Id. ).

Before his employment with Defendant, Plaintiff was a store manager and also a lead store manager for Rent-a-Center, a competitor of Aaron's. (Doc. 42, Ex. 1, ¶ 4-5). For some time, RM Brad Martins and RM Fred Baker of Aaron's attempted to recruit Plaintiff to leave Rent-a-Center and join them as a GM for Aaron's ( Id. at ¶ 7). Plaintiff eventually accepted a position with Defendant as a customer account manager/management trainee at the Hazelwood, Missouri location on August 15, 2011 (Doc. 36, P. 4, ¶6). Hired on the "fast track", the expectation was for Plaintiff to become a GM, and if successful in that capacity, to become an Assistant Regional Manager ( Id. at ¶ 7).

Plaintiff only briefly trained at the Hazelwood location before transferring to the Mayfair location in Florissant, Missouri (Doc. 36, p. 5-6, ¶8-9). Training at the Mayfair location only lasted two to three weeks before Plaintiff was again moved to the O'Fallon, Missouri, location to train with RM Brad Martins on a store audit ( Id. at ¶9-10). RM Martins initially offered Plaintiff a GM position at the O'Fallon location, but Plaintiff turned it down due to the commute ( Id. at ¶11). Plaintiff subsequently accepted a GM position at the Hazelwood location in October 24, 2011 ( Id. ). Plaintiff was the GM over the Hazelwood location until December 22, 2011, when he was again transferred, this time to the East Alton, Illinois, location due to a non-compete agreement with his previous employer, Rent-a-Center ( Id. at ¶15).

Initially, the East Alton location was regionally managed by RM Fred Baker, though his resignation was announced at the same time as Plaintiff's arrival ( Id. at ¶16). RM Baker was replaced by RM Todd Gotshall ( Id. ). Management styles between RM Martin and RM Gotshall differed ( Id. at ¶17). For instance, RM Gotshall required GM's to call whenever they were going to be late, leave early, or leave their store for any other reason but lunch ( Id. at¶19). RM Martin had no such requirement (Doc. 36, Tab B, Martin Dep. at 56-57).

In January 2012, just a few weeks after taking over as RM, Gotshall called upon Plaintiff during off hours (Doc. 42, P. 9, ¶25). Plaintiff was in a church meeting at the time and relayed to RM Gotshall that he was a Pastor at the Assemblies of God church ( Id. ). Following this phone call, according to Plaintiff, RM Gotshall began to introduce Calame as "Pastor, " and he would tell off colored jokes and religious stories in the workplace ( Id. at ¶29-30). RM Gotshall also told Plaintiff that he is of the same religion, the Assemblies of God, but that he has had a bad experience with organized religion ( Id. at ¶32). It is also at this time that written reprimands against Plaintiff began.

Specifically, on February 2, 2012, RM Gotshall first reprimanded Plaintiff for tardiness and failing to call him for the same, using the Aaron's employee counseling form (Doc. 36, p. 7 ¶18). Plaintiff acknowledged this written reprimand with his signature ( Id. ). RM Gotshall again issued a written reprimand on February 14, 2012, because Plaintiff left the store and did not notify him (Id. at ¶20). Plaintiff did not sign or acknowledge this counseling form ( Id. ). On February 22, 2012, Plaintiff was written up a third time due to the negative productivity of his store (Doc. 37, Ex 3). The counseling form stated that when Plaintiff took over as GM his store had 746 customers, and the number had shrunk to 676 customers on February 22, 2012 ( Id. ). Again, this counseling form was not acknowledged by Plaintiff ( Id. ). Plaintiff's fourth and final write up came on March 5, 2012, where he was terminated from his employment for violating Aaron's bank deposit policy and failing to report a petty cash shortage at his store (Doc. 36, p. 9, ¶27). The termination meeting was short, and allegedly RM Gotshall told Plaintiff that his heart was in the church, not in Aaron's, and that he showed no commitment because he refused to work on Wednesdays (Doc. 42, p. 12, ¶44).


Standard of Review

Summary Judgment is only appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Spurling v. C & M Fine Pack, Inc., 739 F.3d 1055, 1060 (7th Cir. 2014) ( quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The movant must establish that no genuine dispute exists as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A "court may not assess the credibility of witnesses, choose between competing inferences or balance the relative weight of conflicting evidence; it must view all the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all factual disputes in favor of the non-moving party." Reid v. Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, 749 F.3d 581, 586 (7th Cir. 2014) ( quoting Abdullahi v. City of Madison, 423 F.3d 763, 769 (7th Cir. 2005)).


Defendant contends that it is entitled to summary judgment because no genuine issue of material fact exists to support Plaintiff's allegation of religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to, inter alia, "discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment" on the basis of religion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000 e-2 (a)(1). In a disparate treatment case, ...

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