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Stancombe v. New Process Steel, LP, LLC

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

April 9, 2015

MICHAEL STANCOMBE, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW PROCESS STEEL, LP, LLC, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ABDUL K. KALLON, District Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Stancombe alleges that his former coworker, Defendant Roderick Woodfin, sexually harassed him by grabbing his buttocks on one occasion, and making pelvic thrusting motions against his body two days later. Immediately after the second incident, Stancombe quit his job at New Process Steel, where he had worked as a temporary employee for about one month. Based on Woodfin's conduct, Stancombe brings claims under Alabama law against Woodfin for invasion of privacy, outrage, and assault and battery. Doc. 1. Stancombe also alleges that Defendants New Process Steel, L.P., New Process Steel, LP LLC, and New Process Steel Corporation of Illinois (collectively "NPS") are vicariously liable under Alabama law for Woodfin's torts, negligently and wantonly supervised Woodfin in violation of Alabama law, and subjected Stancombe to a hostile work environment and constructively discharged him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e et seq. Id.

Defendants now move for summary judgment. Doc. 22. As the court will fully explain below, summary judgment is proper with respect to the Title VII claims because Stancombe has not established that Woodfin's harassing conduct rises to the required severe or pervasive level, or that NPS extracted Stancombe's resignation. Summary judgment is also due with respect to all of the state law claims against NPS. Finally, summary judgment is due as to the tort of outrage and invasion of privacy claims against Woodfin, and denied as to the assault and battery claim.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper "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." To support a summary judgment motion, the parties must cite to "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations, admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). Moreover, "Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, 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). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to "go beyond the pleadings" to establish that there is a "genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact 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). The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). However, "mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion." Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Furthermore, "[a] mere scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party." Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This action arises from two episodes of alleged sexually inappropriate conduct. As a temporary placement through temp agency Personnel Staffing, Inc., Stancombe worked at NPS's steel processing facility as a "banding line" worker beginning in January 2012. Doc. 22-1 at 3-4. The alleged harasser, Woodfin, also worked at NPS as a crane operator. Id. at 4.

The first alleged incident occurred on February 9, 2012 after Stancombe retrieved a piece of steel for his supervisor, Joe Young, Jr. Doc. 26-17 at 2. According to Stancombe, Woodfin approached Stancombe, gave him a "really deep bear hug, " said "good job, good job, " "dropped his hand down like he was letting go" and "grabbed [Stancombe's] butt." Doc. 22-1 at 9, 48. Woodfin purportedly repeated this sequence two more times-saying "good job, good job" while giving Stancombe a hug, then dropping his hand down and grabbing Stancombe's buttocks. Id. Stancombe told Woodfin to stop and soon thereafter reported the incident to his supervisors, Young and Doug Logan. See docs. 26-2 at 4; 26-17 at 2. In response, Logan took written statements from Stancombe and Woodfin, moved Stancombe to a different department to separate him from Woodfin, instructed Woodfin to "not have any contact with... Stancombe, " and proceeded with an investigation of the incident by interviewing other employees. Docs. 22-1 at 67; 26-2 at 4. Logan also told Stancombe that starting the following Monday, February 13, 2012, NPS would assign Stancombe to a different shift than Woodfin. Doc. 22-1 at 18.

In the meantime, when Stancombe returned to work the day after the first incident, he learned from Young that he had the option of signing up to work a Saturday shift the next day if "he still wanted that overtime that [he had] been asking for, " and indeed Stancombe voluntarily signed up to work the Saturday shift. Doc. 22-1 at 56. Unbeknownst to Stancombe, Woodfin had also volunteered for the Saturday shift. Id. This Saturday shift was the scene of the second incident of allegedly sexually inappropriate conduct. Purportedly, while Stancombe was kneeling over to complete a task, Woodfin walked up to Stancombe, "grabbed [him] by the back of the head... and did... pelvic thrusting" motions three times against Stancombe's body for three to four seconds. Id. at 60. In shock and "livid about the situation, " Stancombe "angrily stormed out" immediately and quit his job without reporting the incident to anyone at NPS. Id. at 15. NPS only learned about the incident when it received a letter from Personnel Staffing the next work day stating that Woodfin "grabbed [Stancombe's] head and made pelvic thrusts [three] times." Doc. 26-1 at 2.

Upon receiving the letter, NPS's Human Resources Administrator Renee Richardson (who was on vacation the prior week) launched an investigation. Doc. 22-4 at 1. Ultimately, with respect to the first incident, Richardson concluded that Stancombe "was the initiator of the physical contact." Doc. 22-4 at 5. Apparently, because no other employees corroborated Stancombe's account of the first incident, Richardson chose to accept Woodfin's account that Stancombe initiated the physical touching when he "was up against" Woodfin "messing with him." Id. Notwithstanding Richardson's finding, NPS concluded that Woodfin's actions constituted "physical contact... inappropriate in the workplace" and suspended Woodfin for three days. Id. at 4. As to the second incident, however, NPS took no disciplinary action against Woodfin because Richardson concluded "there could not have possibly been any contact between" Stancombe and Woodfin. Id. at 5. Again, Richardson reached this conclusion based on Woodfin's account denying the harassing conduct and because no employees corroborated Stancombe's allegations. Id.

III. ANALYSIS

NPS and Woodfin maintain that summary judgment is appropriate with respect to all claims. The court addresses each claim in turn, beginning first with the Title VII claims and then turning to the state law claims.

A. Title VII hostile work environment and constructive discharge

NPS contends that Stancombe cannot establish the "severe or pervasive" element of the prima facie hostile work environment case. NPS also contends that the constructive discharge claim fails because Stancombe did not provide NPS with sufficient opportunity ...


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