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Keeton v. Big Lots Stores, Inc.

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

January 7, 2015


For Sondra Keaton, Plaintiff: Kimberly R Dodson, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF KIMBERLY R DODSON LLC, Birmingham, AL.

For Big Lots, Inc., Defendant: Brian R Bostick, LEAD ATTORNEY, Katherine E Reeves, OGLETREE DEAKINS NASH SMOAK & STEWART PC, Birmingham, AL.


C. Lynnwood Smith, Jr., United States District Judge.

Plaintiff, Sandra Keeton, 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, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq.[1] The case currently is before the court on Big Lots' motion for summary judgment.[2] Upon consideration of the briefs and evidentiary submissions, the court concludes that the motion is due to be granted.


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, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (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, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (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" ).


Plaintiff was a part-time employee at the Big Lots store in Florence, Alabama, from 2005 to 2013.[4] The Big Lots Associate Handbook contains the company's Harassment-Free Environment Policy, which includes the following statements:

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.

Doc. no. 18-3 (Saenz Declaration), at ECF 30 (January 2008 Associate Handbook).

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.

Id. at ECF 31 (alteration supplied).

An employee who believes she has either been subjected to or 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, she is directed to contact Big Lots' " Vice President of Associate Relations immediately or call the GET REAL HOTLINE at 1.866.834.REAL (7325)." [5] Employees also are advised that they can make a report to an ...

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