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Moat v. Aaron's Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

November 12, 2014

PAULA JANET MOAT, Plaintiff,
v.
AARON'S INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff Paula Janet Moat ("Moat") initiated this action by filing a complaint on January 25, 2013, against defendant Aaron's, Inc. ("Aaron's) alleging a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 200e, et seq. ("Title VII"). (Doc. 1). Moat amended her complaint on July 23, 2013, to add a claim against Aaron's for retaliation in response to her complaints to the EEOC. (Doc. 15). The lawsuit stems from alleged sexual comments and gestures made by a male co-worker (an employee of the defendant) towards Moat, the management's failure to respond to Moat's complaints, and a variety of actions by the sales manager after Moat's complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). (Doc. 1 at ¶¶9-10).

Moat filed her first charge of sex discrimination against Aaron's with the EEOC on or around June 25, 2012. (Doc. 7 ¶1). The EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Rights on October 31, 2012, thereby giving Moat the right to sue. ( Id. ). On December 3, 2012, Moat filed a second charge with the EEOC against Aaron's alleging retaliation in response to her first charge. ( Id. at ¶2). After Moat's complaint with this court was timely filed on January 25, 2013, the parties, on February 21, 2013, filed a joint motion to stay the proceedings until the EEOC decided the second charge. (Doc. 7). This court granted the requested stay. (Doc. 8). On June 4, 2013, the EEOC issued a dismissal notice of right to sue on the second charge. (Doc. 13 at 2). The stay was then lifted by the court on July 9, 2013. (Doc. 14).

Now pending before the court is Aaron's motion for summary judgment filed on April 14, 2014. (Doc. 32). The parties have briefed and filed evidence relating to the Motion (Docs. 31-32, 34, 38), and it is now under submission. For the reasons explained below, the Motion is due to be GRANTED.

II. STANDARDS

A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is proper only when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the nonmovant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine "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). "Once the moving party has properly supported its motion for summary judgment, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" International Stamp Art, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, 456 F.3d 1270, 1274 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)).

B. Hostile Work Environment

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating "against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). "When the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment, Title VII is violated." Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). To establish a hostile work environment claim, an employee must show: (1) that she belongs to a protected group; (2) that she has been subject to unwelcome harassment; (3) that the harassment must have been based on a protected characteristic of the employee, such as gender; (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 a theory of vicarious or of direct liability. Miller v. Kenworth of Dothan, Inc., 277 F.3d 1269, 1275 (11th Cir. 2002).

C. Retaliation

"Retaliation against an employee who engages in statutorily protected activity is barred under both Title VII and § 1981." Chapter 7 Trustee v. Gate Gourmet, Inc. 683 F.3d 1249, 1257-58 (11th Cir. 2012). Further, in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), the Supreme Court abrogated prior circuit law, including that of the Eleventh Circuit, limiting anti-retaliation claims under Title VII to claims involving actions that are related to employment or that occur at the workplace. Id. at 2409. Following Burlington Northern, the recognized elements of a claim of retaliation under Title VII are that the plaintiff: (1) engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) suffered a materially adverse action; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.

The Eleventh Circuit has explained the standard for establishing the second prima facie element to a Title VII retaliation claim:

[T]he Supreme Court has defined an adverse employment action in the context of a retaliation claim as an action by an employer that is ["]harmful to the point that it could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination."

Wallace v. Georgia Dept. of Transp., 212 Fed.App'x 799, 802 (11th Cir. 2006) (quoting Burlington Northern, 548 U.S. at 57).

Once the prima facie case is made, the employer then has the burden of showing a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment actions. Wallace v. Georgia Dept. Of Transp., 212 Fed.App'x. 799, 800 (11th Cir. 2006). At that point, the plaintiff then has the burden of proving that the alleged reason for the action was only a pretext. Id.

III. STATEMENT OF FACTS

A. Material Undisputed Facts

1. Aaron's Sexual Harassment Policies

Aaron's maintains a Non-Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Policy (the "Policy") expressly stating that the Company "is firmly committed to prohibiting and preventing discrimination against any associate on the basis of race, color, sex, age religion, national origin, disability, veteran or other protected status" and that "all associates have the right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment." The Policy also states,

If you feel you have been discriminated against, sexually harassed, or denied advancement for which you are qualified, you need to call the Employee Relations Hotline in the Atlanta Home Office toll free at 866-453-5144 to report any such situation. Your concerns will be investigated promptly and appropriate remedial action will be taken if violations of our policy are discovered. Be assured that your call will be treated in the strictest confidence possible and you will incur no retaliation for reporting good faith claims.

(Doc. 31-1 at 84). Aaron's Non-Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Policy is published to employees in Aaron's Policy Manual and is also posted on the Company's intranet. Employees receive copies of this policy at the outset of their employment and sign acknowledgments that they understand Aaron's policies, including the Company's policies against harassment. In addition, when they clock-in and clock-out of Aaron's timekeeping system on a daily basis, employees must acknowledge a message stating that "To report discrimination/sexual harassment call 1-866-453-5144." Employees' pay stubs include the same message.

Managers of Aaron's stores have a duty to report sexual harassment if they see it or if someone complains to them about it. The manager is then required to report it to associate resources, the company's non-discrimination and sexual harassment hotline, or his immediate supervisor. If the manager failed to do so, depending on the situation and the severity, the associate resources department is supposed to make a report, put something in the manager's personnel file, and make the manager retake the sexual harassment training.

2. Moat's Employment at Aaron's

Aaron's hired Moat as a Customer Service Representative at its Gadsden store on October 10, 2011. In this role, she was responsible for making and processing in-store sales and for organizing customer files. Like all sales representatives at the store, she was also responsible for maintaining the appearance and upkeep of the store, including cleaning the store's showroom and restroom as needed. When she began her employment with Aaron's, she received a copy of Aaron's Policy ...


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