United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.
This case is before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 22), which has been fully briefed. (Docs. # 23, 28, 29, 32, and 33).
Plaintiff Charloris Isabel-Hawkins was hired by Defendant on or about August 15, 2011 as a Financial Analyst III in the Finance Technology (TeSS) group. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 26, 28-29). Denis Arauz, Director of Financial Analysis & Planning - TeSS, made the decision to hire Plaintiff and was Plaintiff's immediate supervisor throughout her employment. (Doc. # 22-1 at p. 33; Doc. # 22-5 at p. 42; Doc. # 22-10 at pp. 20-21). Arauz, in turn, reported to Joanna Burleson, Director of TeSS Finance and Control. (Doc. $22-1 at p. 34; Doc. # 22-10 at pp. 12, 20).
Defendant has a written Equal Employment Opportunity policy prohibiting any form of discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, color, age, religion, national origin, veteran's status, disability or any other reason prohibited by law. (Doc. # 22-2 at 16). Its policy also prohibits any form of unlawful retaliation. (Doc. # 22-2 at 28, 35). At the beginning of her employment, Plaintiff received copies of Defendant's Employee Handbook and the Workplace Harassment Policy containing these policies. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 37-40; Doc. # 22-2 at 37).
During Plaintiff's employment with Defendant, Arauz directly supervised three Financial Analysts in addition to Plaintiff: Tiara Love, whom he later promoted to Finance Manager; Remy Bukelis; and Michael Langan. (Doc. # 22-5 at pp. 33-34, 35-36, 39-40; Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 33-34, 35).
Arauz and his subordinates were responsible for variance analyses and forecasting for the TeSS (Technology Services & Solutions) Division. For example, they compared divisional budgets with actual expenses, explained the reasons for any variances between the two, and forecasted anticipated expenses for the coming months and years in light of actual expenses. (Doc. # 22-5 at pp. 29-30, 75-81). To accomplish these tasks, Arauz and his subordinates were required to coordinate their variance analyses and forecasts with executives and managers within the various subgroups of TeSS. (Doc. # 22-5 at p. 30). Generally, Plaintiff was responsible for variance analysis and budget forecasting for the design and development subgroup, including expenses for the group responsible for bank-specific software applications. (Doc. # 22-5 at pp. 82-83).
From early on in Plaintiff's employment with Defendant, both Arauz and Plaintiff's co-worker, Tiara Love, perceived that Plaintiff struggled with the accurate, efficient, and timely completion of her job assignments. (Doc. # 22-16 at ¶ 3; Doc. # 22-15 at ¶¶ 1-2). The Rule 56 file shows that there were other concerns.
On December 20, 2011, Arauz issued Plaintiff a Verbal Warning for accumulating four occurrences of absence within a 12-month period, as set forth in the Bank's attendance policy. (Doc, # 22-1 at pp. 41, 46-47; Doc. # 22-2 at 38). The following day, although Plaintiff had actually accumulated these four absences in the first four months of her employment, she challenged the Verbal Warning with Corie Arnold in Defendant's Human Resources department. Plaintiff claimed that she had advance approval for one of the absences and requested that the verbal warning be removed. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 50-51; Doc. # 22-2 at 39). During this meeting, Plaintiff also complained to Arnold that Arauz used inappropriate language and, by way of example, asserted that in a meeting he stated that he was not going to follow up with someone by saying, "hey, so and so, where's my shit?" (Doc. # 22-2 at 39). Plaintiff further complained that Arauz had discussions with her that she perceived as "belittling" or "degrading." She stated that although she asked questions because is new to the bank, Arauz did not provide her with the answers or assistance she was seeking. (Doc. # 22-2 at 39).
On or about January 13, 2012, Plaintiff again complained to Human Resources, this time to her primary Human Resources contact, HR Partner Crystal Berryhill. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 67-68; Doc. # 22-11at pp. 25-26). Plaintiff complained that Arauz was "harsh" and "disrespectful" in his communications; "she has asked for help and training, but that he does not communicate with her or acknowledge her requests until he reprimands her about something she has done wrong;" and he uses profanity. (Doc. # 22-2 at pp. 40-41; Doc. # 2-11 at p. 26).
Berryhill asked Plaintiff to provide the details of her complaint in writing, which Plaintiff did via e-mail. (Doc. # 22-2 at 41). Plaintiff complained that Arauz was harsh in his communications with her, used profanity in staff meetings and on the work floor, and she feared for her job. (Doc. # 22-2 at 41; Doc. # 22-1 at p. 90).
In late January 2012, Plaintiff, Burleson and Arauz met to discuss the issues about which Plaintiff had previously complained. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 98-99; Doc. # 22-2 at 41). Berryhill summarized this meeting by stating that the issues Plaintiff raised are resolved, and noted Plaintiff will reach out to HR again, if needed. (Doc. # 22-2 at 41).
Plaintiff testified that, after she complained to HR in January 2012, Arauz commented to her, "I'm tired of defending myself to Joanna [and] HR about whether or not I said something to you." (Doc. # 22-1 at p. 102; Doc. # 22-6 at 43).
On April 27, 2012, Arauz issued Plaintiff her annual performance evaluation for 2011 and his performance expectations for her for 2012. (Doc. # 22-3 at pp. 47-53). Because Plaintiff had only been employed for a few months by the end of 2011, Arauz rated her overall performance as "Meeting Expectations, " rather than rating her lower based on performance issues he had observed to that point. (Doc. # 22-5 at p. 112; Doc. # 22-16 at ¶ 4). However, in the evaluation and expectations sections of Plaintiff's evaluation, Arauz addressed Plaintiff's performance to date ( i.e., as of April 2012):
2011 PERFORMANCE EVALUATION
Performance Effectiveness: Charloris, when focused, the task is clear, and there is enough time, she will get the task at hand accomplished. When the inverse occurs - time constraints, ambiguous details, and potential problems or conflicts, she is less effective. Given that we are under a lot of time constraints and we need to manage both an expense view and capital view, there will be many times where ambiguity and lack of time will create uncomfortable situations. It is during this time that Charloris needs to determine what is lacking to ensure the task gets done. While management can help with various road blocks, Charloris needs to understand her business area and ensure that financials are accurately represented.
Commitment: Charloris is committed to doing a good job. I have seen the potential, however, it is not consistent. Commitment and performance effectiveness go hand in hand, hopefully as she improves her business acumen and understanding of all of her financials. I have no doubt that this will be improved in 2012.
Teamwork: Charloris has effective teamwork within the TyO Finance Group, however while some effort is placed for teamwork outside of TyO Finance, there is a communication breakdown that occurs. Have been involved in multiple occasions where things were to a point of no return and communication was stalled. While this is the role of a manager to get involved, I do not have this level of intervention or severity within TyO Finance nor have I heard of instances in any of the other groups. Charloris should continue to work on this as it is critical to achieving overall success.
(Doc. # 22-3 at p. 49; Doc. # 22-5 at pp. 107-08; Doc. # 22-1 at p. 107). In the evaluation, Arauz also listed in detail his expectations of Plaintiff's performance for 2012 and provided her with a list of "next steps" that she needed to take in the following months to improve her performance. (Doc. # 22-3 at pp. 50-51).
During 2012, Arauz perceived Plaintiff to have continuing performance issues. (Doc. # 22-16 at ¶ 5; Doc. # 22-10 at pp. 45-49, 53-54, 55). On May 10, 2012, Naccari and Arauz decided to issue a written warning to Hawkins due to her performance. However, the written warning was not delivered to Hawkins until approximately 43 days later, on June 22, 2012. (Doc. # 22-5 at pp. 118; Doc. # 29-10). After it had been determined that the warning would be issued, but before it was completed, Plaintiff bid on two accounting positions. (Doc. # 29-13). Plaintiff was told she could continue to bid on these positions, and that Arauz would not block the bids but, if asked, he would explain she had received a written warning. (Doc. # 29-19).
Plaintiff left work sick on June 22, 2012, the date she received the written warning. She reported suffering a pseudo seizure, and was off work until June 27, 2012. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 115-16, 205-06). Plaintiff claims that, thereafter, Arauz's treatment was "more hostile than before." (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 116, 205-06). But she also characterizes it as the same type of treatment which she claims she was subjected to throughout her employment. (Doc. # 22-1 at 205-6).
Plaintiff responded to the June 22, 2012 warning by blaming Arauz for her performance issues. She asserted that he had not provided her with what she considered to be adequate guidance and assistance, and claimed that he was a poor communicator. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 111-12, 121-23; Doc. # 22-2 at 41;Doc. # 22-3 at 60-61; Doc. 22-4 at pp. 2-7). Plaintiff further stated that she believed Arauz was retaliating against her because she had complained about him to the HR department. (Doc. # 22-11 at pp. 48-49).
In a June 27, 2012 memorandum to Arauz, Plaintiff complained that she was "treated differently from other employees." (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 125, 126; Doc. # 22-3 at 59-61). However, importantly, the memo does not identify or make specific reference to the gender of the "other employees" from whom she believed were being treated differently. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 128-29; Doc. # 22-3 at 60-61).
On July 2, 2012, Arauz, Berryhill, Naccari, and Plaintiff met to discuss the various issues between Plaintiff and Arauz. (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 143-44; Doc. # 22-2 at 43; Doc. # 22-11 at pp. 49-51; Doc. # 22-10 at p. 29). Three days later, these same individuals met again, along with Tameka Eubanks, a Senior HR Partner who was assigned to temporarily serve as Plaintiff's primary HR partner due to Berryhill's impending maternity leave. (Doc. # 22-11 at pp. 71-73; Doc. # 22-13 at p. 25). During that meeting, Arauz issued Plaintiff a detailed memo setting forth her job responsibilities, reiterating her self-professed job qualifications (as set forth on her resume), and established a task-specific and time-specific plan of action, in order to eliminate confusion as to what was expected of Plaintiff going forward. (Doc. # 22-16 at ¶ 5; Doc. # 22-4 at 8-13).
In addition, during the July 5 meeting, it was agreed that Arauz and Plaintiff would meet in person - on at least a weekly basis - to discuss whatever issues needed to be addressed, and to avoid any miscommunication via e-mail. (Doc. # 22-1 at p. 162). Although Plaintiff claims that the majority of these one-on-one meetings were canceled by Arauz (Doc. # 22-1 at pp. 162-63), in the memorandum subsequently issued to her at the time of her probation, Arauz set forth in detail the dates, times, and topics of seventeen such meetings, some of which lasted as long as two hours at a time. These seventeen meetings occurred during the approximately four week period between the July 2 meeting and Plaintiff's subsequent August 6 probation. (Doc. # 22-4 at 18-22).
On July 11, 2012, a month prior to her one-year anniversary with Defendant, Plaintiff first inquired with Berryhill about taking FMLA leave. (Doc. # 22-11 at p. 43-44). Berryhill referred Plaintiff to Defendant's leave department and did not mention Plaintiff's inquiry to anyone else. (Doc. # 22-11 at p. 44). Arauz did not become aware that Plaintiff had applied for FMLA leave until August 30, 2012, three ...