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Edwards v. Montgomery County Board of Education

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

February 23, 2015

COSSAUNDRIA EDWARDS, Plaintiff,
v.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.

In this case charging sex discrimination and retaliation in employment, plaintiff Cossaundria Edwards names as defendants the Montgomery County Board of Education, its members, and various school officials. She rests her claims on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 1981a & 2000e through 2000e-17), and on § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 1983). She also charges all defendants except the school board with negligence and wantonness under Alabama state law. The court has original jurisdiction over the federal claims under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question) and 1343 (civil rights), and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3) (Title VII), and supplemental jurisdiction over her state-law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

This cause is before the court on the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment will be granted in favor of the defendants on Edwards's federal claims, and her state claims will be dismissed without prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c).

I. SUMMARY-JUDGMENT STANDARD

"A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought. The 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). The court must view the admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

II. BACKGROUND

Edwards claims an assistant superintendent, Lewis Washington, sexually harassed her while she worked for the Montgomery County Board of Education as an assistant superintendent. She also alleges that she was retaliated against for reporting the harassment. The facts that follow are drawn from the evidence taken in the light most favorable to her.

In May 2011, Washington began to harass Edwards sexually. The harassment began with comments on her appearance, such as, "That skirt sure is fitting, I wish I was that skirt." Edwards Affidavit (doc. no. 55-24), at 6. She mostly ignored him. A few months later, Washington began to send Edwards text messages, some of which were sexual in nature. One string of messages, for example, said, "I love u, " "Want you, " "Home. Wanting, " and "We could and may yet one day be awesome together." Board Memorandum (doc. no. 40-6), at 2. In total, Washington texted Edwards messages that were sexual in nature approximately 20 times. Some messages that Edwards considered inappropriate were also sent by email, though she could not recall the details of any particular messages.

Throughout this period, Edwards and Washington communicated frequently about professional and personal matters. Though she maintained a friendly relationship with Washington, Edwards did not respond to the more vulgar or crude messages, and she tried to deflect the contact with responses like "You're crazy, " "You're just too much, " or "That's just too much; you need to stop, " but he would continue. Edwards Test. (doc. no. 40-1), at 17. In July 2011, she also refused to attend an out-of-state conference with Washington, after he had expressly requested to other staff that she accompany him. Edwards told the Director of Professional Development that she would not attend because she was uncomfortable with Washington's advances.

In September 2011, the harassment became more explicit. Once, while they were in her office, Washington asked Edwards, "When are you going to let me lick that?" Edwards Test. (doc. no. 40-1), at 18. In the hallway, Washington told Edwards, "Push back from the table, your hips are spreading, " which Edwards understood as a comment on her weight. Id . On another occasion that month, Washington approached Edwards while they were alone in an elevator after a meeting and touched his stomach to her midsection. She immediately told him to get back on his side of the elevator. She pushed him off her with her hand, and he retreated. This was the only time Washington attempted physical contact with Edwards.

Later that month, after a meeting, Edwards took the stairs, and before she reached the stairwell door, Washington opened the door and approached her again. Edwards sternly said to him, "Don't start that shit or I'm going to scream." Edwards Test. (doc. no. 40-1), at 20. Washington responded, "Girl, please, " and then he left. Id . At the end of the month, Edwards confronted Washington and asked him to stop harassing her. She threatened to report Washington to the human resources department and to tell his wife, if he did not stop. Washington responded that his wife "would probably tell you to come and get me." Edwards Affidavit (doc. no. 55-24), at 7.

On October 7, 2011, Edwards approached Superintendent Barbara Thompson after a meeting and told her that Washington had been sexually harassing her. Specifically, she told Thompson that Washington had "gotten into [her] personal space, " cited the elevator and stairwell incidents, and explained that he had made her feel uncomfortable. Edwards Test. (doc. no. 40-1), at 22. Thompson sent Donald Dotson, Assistant Superintendent of Operations, to talk to Edwards.

The next day, when Assistant Superintendent Dotson met with Edwards, she told Dotson about the elevator and stairwell incidents, as well as the text messages. She also told him about one or two emails and showed him what she considered to be an inappropriate email sent from Washington, though she does not now recall what that email said. Dotson told her that he thought it was "just a relationship gone bad." Edwards Test. (doc. no. 40-1), at 23. Dotson reported back to Thompson that "he thought there was a relationship there." Thompson Test. (doc. no. 40-2), at 18.

Board policy requires a determination to be made within five working days as to the validity of any sexual-harassment complaint, and also requires that a complainant be notified in writing of the results of any investigation and of the determination of the validity of the complaint. Amended Complaint, Exh. D (doc. no. 14-4), at 3. However, Edwards was never notified of the status of her internal complaint, and she took no further action until she reported the harassment again in July 2012.

Edwards says that, between September 2011 and June 2012, Washington made about 15 to 20 sexual comments to her; the harassment stopped on its own by June 2012; and Edwards did not have any further contact with Washington after July 2012.

Even after her initial internal complaint, Edwards maintained a close friendship with Washington, and she does not dispute that she maintained a personal, complimentary correspondence with him. For example, in December 2011, she emailed to Washington: "I know you are truly KRAZY... But, we work well together. You know, where my heart is. No matter what." Dec. 4, 2011 emails (doc. no. 40-23), at 2 (punctuation as in original). In January 2012, she discussed an upcoming absence in an email with Washington: "I know you will miss me, but try to contain yourself.... Thank you so much for being you. I know I have a set of angel wings behind me at all times. See you soon buddy f04a." Jan. 12, 2012 emails (doc. no. 40-24), at 2. Similarly, in April 2012, she emailed Washington: "Thank you. You have always had my back. I can never repay you Lewis. I kept you structured. God always knows. Thank you for always having my back." Apr. 18, 2012 emails (doc. no. 40-27), at 2.

However, Edwards also says that Washington and others in the office formed a "conspiracy" against her and began to spy on her through her electronic devices. As an example, she alleges that, in or about March 2012, after she made a comment to Washington about not getting rest the night before, he responded, "What, did you tell [your husband] to just go on and get it and be through with it?" Edwards Affidavit (doc. no. 55-24), at 7. Edwards had, indeed, said the same thing to her husband the night before, and she understood this as proof that Washington was spying.

Nine months after her October 2011 meeting with Assistant Superintendent of Operations Dotson, Edwards was called to speak with Superintendent Thompson and Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Veverly Arrington about a recent physical altercation between Edwards's husband and an employee under Edwards's supervision. At the end of the meeting, Edwards reiterated to Thompson and Arrington her concerns about Washington, though she did not provide any details. Edwards also explained problems she was having with other staff on her floor. A few days later, at the request of Thompson, Edwards met with counsel for the school board. Edwards recounted the incidents with Washington, showed the attorneys some of the text messages, and described problems that she had been having in the office with other staff, including her belief that certain co-workers were involved in a conspiracy against her and spying on her at home.

At a staff breakfast in August 2012, Edwards asked Dotson what was going to happen to Washington regarding her internal complaints. Soon after this conversation, Thompson and Arrington met with Edwards to discuss transferring her to a different position with less supervisory authority but the same pay and in a different building. Edwards was told that she was being transferred to "get [her] away from Washington and everything that was going on... [in] the central office building." Edwards Test. (doc. no. 40-1), at 51. When she asked why Washington could not be moved instead, Arrington responded, "We can't just move him out of his office right now." Id. at 48.

The defendants allege that Edwards was to be transferred to remove her from three situations: first, because of concern about a romantic relationship between Edwards and a supervisee; second, her proximity to Washington during the course of the investigation; and, third, her proximity to Washington and the other staff members whom Edwards believed had been spying on her. See Thompson Test. (doc. no. 40-2), at 15.

Because Edwards was tenured, the transfer would be immediately effective only if Edwards agreed to the move. Without her agreement, her transfer could not be approved until she had had an opportunity to present her objections before the school board at a hearing, pursuant to 1975 Ala. Code § 16-24C-7(c).

The next day, Edwards submitted her letter of resignation. She explained in a later email to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Arrington that she was "disappointed that the bigger issue of harassment and retaliation were not paramount" in the school board's decision to accept her resignation. Aug. 15, 2012 email (doc. no. 40-10), at 2. Shortly after that, Washington was placed on ...


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