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Wilson v. Big Lots Stores, Inc.

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

December 19, 2014

LISA WILSON, Plaintiff,


LYNWOOD SMITH, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Lisa Wilson, asserts claims against her employer, Big Lots Stores, Inc. ("Big Lots"), for sexual harassment, hostile work environment, and retaliation, pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000 et seq. [1] The case currently is before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment.[2] Upon consideration of the briefs and evidentiary submissions, the court concludes that the motion is due to be granted in part and denied in part.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a court "shall grant summary judgment 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In other words, summary judgment is proper "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "In making this determination, the court must review all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment." Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023 (11th Cir. 2000) ( en banc ) (quoting Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995)). Inferences in favor of the non-moving party are not unqualified, however. "[A]n inference is not reasonable if it is only a guess or a possibility, for such an inference is not based on the evidence, but is pure conjecture and speculation." Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 1983) (alteration supplied). Moreover,

[t]he mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment unless that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case. The relevant rules of substantive law dictate the materiality of a disputed fact. A genuine issue of material fact does not exist unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict in its favor.

Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023 (quoting Haves, 52 F.3d at 921) (emphasis and alteration supplied). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986) (asking "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law").


A. Plaintiff's Employment History

Plaintiff, Lisa Wilson, began working for Big Lots in 1991. She transferred to the Florence, Alabama store, where she continues to work, in 1996.[4] She was promoted to Assistant Manger of the Florence store in 2006. As Assistant Manager, plaintiff was primarily responsible for merchandising, including overseeing the unloading of trucks, and the stocking and presentation of merchandise. Plaintiff reported directly to the Store Manager, Gary Pagan.[5]

B. Defendant's Harassment-Free Environment Policy

The Big Lots Associate Handbook contains the company's Harassment-Free Environment Policy. That policy states:

We intend to maintain an environment in which all associates can perform their duties free of harassment and discrimination. If you believe you have been the subject of harassment, you should report the alleged act to your Manager or to your Regional Human Resources manager (RHRM) immediately so the problem can be corrected. Some states have different requirements for anti-harassment policies. This policy does not apply where state law requires otherwise.
The Big Lots Harassment-Free Environment Policy complies with all local, state, and federal laws dealing with unlawful discrimination and/or harassment.
Each manager is responsible for maintaining a work environment that is free of harassment, both sexual and otherwise. This includes communicating this Policy to all associates and making sure that no one is subjected to insulting, degrading, or exploitative behavior.
Likewise, it's the responsibility of every associate to comply with this Policy and report any violations. Please be assured that you will not be penalized in any way for reporting inappropriate behavior. As per our Open Door Policy, honest two-way communication is essential to the successful operation of our business.
All reports of inappropriate conduct or discrimination will be promptly investigated under the direction of the Human Resources Department. All investigations will be conducted with the utmost concern for the confidential and personal nature of the allegation and with a high degree of sensitivity to the individuals involved. If you are found to have engaged in discriminatory or harassing behavior, you will receive Disciplinary Counseling up to and including termination of employment. Retaliation against anyone reporting acts of harassment will not be tolerated.[6]

The Policy also states that Big Lots has "zero tolerance" for any type of harassment, including sex-based harassment. The Policy defines harassment as including

unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct creating an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment that interferes with work performance. Harassment [also] can be verbal (including slurs, jokes, insults, epithets, gestures, or teasing), graphic (including offensive posters, symbols, cartoons, drawings, computer displays, or e-mails), or physical conduct (including physically threatening another, blocking someone's way, etc.) that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of any protected characteristic. Such conduct violates this policy, even if it is not unlawful. Because it is difficult to define unlawful harassment, associates are expected to behave at all times in a professional and respectful manner.[7]
An employee who believes she has observed any violation of the Harassment-Free Environment Policy is instructed to inform her Manager or the Regional Human Resources Manager. If the employee is not satisfied with the response at that level, immediately or call the GET REAL HOTLINE at 1.866.834.REAL (7325)."[8] Employee also are advised that they can make a report to an appropriate government agency, including the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).[9]

Plaintiff received a copy of the Associate Handbook when she was hired, and additional copies over time, as the policies were updated. She also had access to the Handbook online and, after becoming an Assistant Manager, she received computer-based training for managers every two years.[10] As part of that training, plaintiff viewed an anti-harassment video in May of 2012. It was not until then that she began to suspect that she had been subjected to unlawful sexual harassment.[11]

C. The Alleged Harassment

The entire time plaintiff worked in the Florence store, a man named W.C. Collingsworth also was an Assistant Manager in charge of Operations. His duties included hiring, paperwork, and maintenance of the Florence facilities.[12] After plaintiff became an Assistant Manager in 2006, she and Collingsworth were equals: in other words, neither was in a supervisory position over the other.[13]

Plaintiff felt that Collingsworth was unproductive at work, and spent too much time talking on the telephone and to others.[14] One topic he talked about at least once a week was his sex life and past sexual conquests.[15] For example, Collingsworth alleged that he: had sex with a woman under an oak tree by the highway; had sex with a woman in a pineapple field in Hawaii; had sex in a car with a woman who bumped into the gear shift, causing the car to roll near the edge of a cliff; met a nymphomaniac in New Orleans who had an orgasm when he nibbled on her ear; previously owned a dress shop and traded dresses to customers for sexual favors; was caught by a manager at a different job having sex on the roof; was pushed into a closet by a woman at a Christmas party who wanted to have sex with him; visited a "whorehouse" in Vietnam where the prostitutes would offer him "suckie suckie" for two dollars; was in bed with a woman in Vietnam when the building was bombed; let an older girl "rub on him" at a bus stop when he was thirteen; and got a "hard-on" when a girl "rubbed on him" during a movie. Collingsworth also said that he caught a customer in his dress shop masturbating to a mannequin, that he (Collingsworth) was uncircumcised, and that he knew he would be okay after having a stroke in 2002 because he woke up with an erect penis.[16] The words used by Collingsworth that plaintiff found offensive included "hard-on, " "titties, " "suckie suckie, " "whorehouse, " "erect, " "penis, " "orgasm, " "get off, " and "fuck."[17] Sometimes, when Collingsworth told his boorish stories, he would prop up his leg and grab his crotch, although plaintiff acknowledged during her deposition that Collingsworth may have just been "adjusting himself."[18] Collingsworth also once said, "You know how a good pair of Levi's feels when you're young."[19]

Collingsworth "told everybody the same stories" and jokes - including plaintiff, other male and female employees, customers, and the man ...

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