Florida Record

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Judge backs Pilgrim's Pride in race, disability discrimination suit

Federal Court

By Marian Johns | Jul 30, 2019


JACKSONVILLE — A federal judge has struck down a lawsuit filed by a former Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing employee who alleges the company violated his Family Medical Leave Act rights and he suffered discrimination based on his race and disability. 

According to the July 16 U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida Jacksonville Division filing,  defendant Pilgrim's Pride Corporation filed a motion for summary judgment and memorandum of law regarding a suit filed by plaintiff Johnny Mack Mitchell. 

Mitchell worked at Pilgrim's Live Oak processing center as a "live hanger," which required him to lift live chickens, shackle them and hang them on the processing line. The position, according to the filing, included hanging 28 birds per minute and required hours of repetitive overhead lifting that resulted in Mitchell injuring his right shoulder.  Throughout the next several months, he received workers' compensation, was transferred to a "light duty" job of picking feathers off the chickens and other assignments, but still continued to injure his shoulder and have shoulder pain and eventually required surgery, the suit alleged. 

Throughout his treatment and recovery, the company nurse and his supervisors allegedly encouraged him to think about another position due to his risk for injuries. 

After Mitchell's surgery and his receiving medical clearance from his doctor, the lawsuit states, he reported to work and proceeded to his live hanger job in the shed department when a supervisor saw him lifting the chickens and told him to stop because he had not been cleared by the company's nurse. However, Mitchell says he rejected the request and was fired for insubordination but was eventually reinstated. 

When Mitchell returned, he was given lower-paying positions that did not require lifting, such as grinding bones and boxing up chickens, but still continued to experience shoulder issues, the suit alleged. He said he then requested family medical leave for treatment of his hypertension that he alleges resulted in his being "picked at" by other employees. 

Mitchell argues that other non-black employees who had been medically cleared were allowed to return to their exact same jobs with the same pay and treated "more favorably."

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales concluded Mitchell failed to show any "material fact" for race discrimination and that Pilgrim’s Pride "was consistently responsive to Mitchell’s statements regarding his shoulder pain and his doctor’s work restrictions"

The court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment and ruled in favor of Pilgrim's Pride.

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