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Howell v. Baptist Health System, Inc.

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

October 11, 2017

BAPTIST HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., et al., Defendants.



         Audrey Lynn Howell brings this case against Baptist Health System, Inc. (“Baptist”)[1] under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. She alleges that Baptist required her to work in an environment tainted by pervasive sexual harassment and retaliated against her for lodging complaints related to that harassment. Howell also brings two state law claims against Baptist-assault and battery and negligent supervision. Baptist has filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Howell's claims, doc. 38, and that motion is now fully briefed, docs. 42; 45; 48, and ripe for review. Based on a thorough examination of the parties' briefs and the record, the court finds that summary judgment in favor of Baptist is due to be granted with respect to Howell's Title VII hostile work environment claim, and denied as to the Title VII retaliation claim and the state law claims.

         II. Standard of Review

         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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). 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 evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Id. at 255. Indeed, it is explicitly not the role of the court to “weigh conflicting evidence or to make credibility determinations.” Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (explaining “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge”).

         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)). Nor will “a . . . ‘scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party . . . suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.'” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). Instead, if “the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial, '” and summary judgment is appropriately granted. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted).

         III. Facts

         The following facts reflect an assessment of the record in the light most favorable to Howell. Howell worked for Baptist for over 25 years in various administrative capacities. Doc. 45 at 1. In November 2013, while serving as the clinic manager for Baptist's clinic in Gardendale, Alabama, Howell began working several days each week at the Baptist clinic in Pinson, Alabama. Id. at 1-2; Doc. 42 at 5. Baptist eventually offered Howell a position as clinic manager at the Pinson location. Doc. 42 at 5. Although Howell initially declined this offer, she went on to accept the position in January 2014. Id. at 6. As clinic manager in Pinson, Howell “directly managed all clinic staff except for physicians.” Id.

         Shortly after starting her new position, Howell was confronted with poor morale among the staff along with a variety of other problems. Doc. 39-55 at 5- 10, 19-21. Howell's testimony reveals that virtually all of these problems pertained to staff-related difficulties with implementing various Baptist administrative policies, dealing with challenging hourly requirements, and working with one of the clinic physicians, Dr. Walter Wilson. Id.; Doc. 39-21 at 1-2. Dr. Wilson allegedly flaunted Baptist procedures at every turn, micro-managed the staff, and frequently used profanity in the office. Id. Although Dr. Wilson had no direct supervisory authority over Howell, she alleges that he had the final say regarding employment and disciplinary decisions in the clinic, and that he operated the Pinson facility as his own private business with little oversight from Baptist. Docs. 39-55 at 7-9, 11, 18-19; 44-1 at 3. Howell also alleges that Dr. Wilson frequently ignored Baptist's rules and guidelines in his practice, and that he instructed his staff to do the same. Doc. 39-55 at 11, 19.[2]

         A. Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

         Almost all of the facts supporting Howell's allegations of sexual harassment stem from a single incident in March of 2014. Doc. 42 at 7. On the day of the incident, a front-office employee purportedly tricked Howell into a private, closed door meeting with Adam Goldweber, an outside pharmaceutical sales representative and, allegedly, a person who had previously engaged in sexually harassing behavior at the Pinson clinic. Doc. 39-55 at 16-17. In his meeting with Howell, Goldweber, who Howell asserts was a friend of Dr. Wilson's, made a series of inappropriate comments including referring to a “lesbian affair” conducted by a previous clinic manager and claiming that he was “a very controlled lover . . . [who] could rock [Howell's] world.” Id. at 16.

         Howell understandably became extremely uncomfortable and ended the conversation immediately. She then reported the encounter to Dr. Wilson, who purportedly told her not to complain about the incident because of his friendship with Goldweber. Id. at 16-17. Dr. Wilson also took the opportunity to make a series of inappropriate comments including: (1) a reference to the previous clinic manager having sex with Goldweber; (2) a reference to the previous clinic manager's “camel toe;” and (3) looking down Howell's blouse while telling Howell she should appreciate men who looked at her breasts because “humans are the only people that have sex looking at each other.” Id.; Doc. 45 at 9. Bizarrely, Dr. Wilson also gave Howell a “head noogie, ” a term the parties use to refer to Dr. Wilson's practice of grabbing another person's head and pressing his forehead against their face. Docs. 39-55 at 25; 45 at 9. Including this incident, Howell asserts that she received five “head noogies” from Dr. Wilson. Doc. 39-55 at 25.

         In addition to the Goldweber episode, Howell points to one other significant harassing event. Purportedly, Dr. Wilson summoned Howell into his office and asked her to pick out her body type in an open Sports Illustrated swimsuit magazine on his desk. Id. at 18. Although Howell declined to do so, Dr. Wilson attempted to pressure her into accepting his request by noting which body type he thought Howell possessed and telling her “[y]ou've got the body . . . just pick it out.” Id.; Doc. 45 at 10. At the conclusion of this interaction, Dr. Wilson gave Howell another “head noogie, ” apparently in an attempt to lighten the mood. Doc. 39-55 at 18.

         Howell further alleges that Dr. Wilson twice called her into his office so that he could look at her butt, id. at 37, that he routinely cursed and demeaned women in her presence, and that he instructed her to only send pharmaceutical sales reps to meet with him if they were at least a 34C in bra size. Id. at 6, 8-11, 37, 43; Docs. 44-2 at 2; 45 at 3. Additionally, Howell claims that Dr. Wilson posted both sexually explicit and racially derogatory images on his office door. Doc. 39-55 at 22-23. Howell asserts that she promptly reported all of these incidents to her supervisors in Baptist's corporate office, as well as to a third party human resources consultant working with the staff at the Pinson clinic. Id. at 18-19, 22, 36.

         B. Retaliation

         In addition to the alleged incidents of sexual harassment, Howell further avers that Dr. Wilson made a number of racially derogatory statements which she also reported to Baptist. These comments mostly involved Dr. Wilson's adamant opposition to the hiring of African-Americans. In one instance, Dr. Wilson explained that he would not “have a mother fucking [racial epithet] working here.” Id. at 11. Dr. Wilson repeated this racial epithet in several other contexts around the office, and he maintained a bulletin board by his office which included a derogatory cartoon of President Barrack Obama. Id. at 8-9, 22. After Howell reported these highly offensive remarks to Baptist, Dr. Wilson confronted Howell and raised his voice at her stating “Let me make this goddamn clear. I hire my own people. I've told you that. Not them . . . I am pissed that you have made that complaint. . . I hire my own goddamn mother fucking people.” Id. at 18. Allegedly Dr. Wilson also informed Howell that she would lose her job if she continued her complaints. Id.

         Similarly, after Dr. Wilson learned that Howell had reported Goldweber to Baptist, he confronted her twice in her office telling her he was “pissed” she had chosen to report the incident despite his request that she not do so. Id. at 37. He also purportedly instructed Howell to “get [her] head out of corporate's ass.” Doc. 39-58 at 32. These allegedly retaliatory actions replicated a pattern of behavior in which Dr. Wilson belittled Howell and her adherence to Baptist's rules and regulations by, among other things, labelling her “the biggest bitch” for attempting to follow proper workplace protocol. Doc. 39-55 at 10, 28.

         All of these events occurred in the roughly three and a half months between when Howell began working full time at the Pinson clinic and when she took medical leave in May 2014. Doc. 44-2 at 2. During her leave, Howell continued to communicate with Baptist regarding the conditions in Pinson. Doc. 42 at 14-19. Based on these conversations, Baptist administrators met with Dr. Wilson and informed him that Baptist would not renew his contract. Id. at 18-19; Doc. 45 at 18. Howell never returned to work following her medical leave. Doc. 42 at 14.

         IV. ...

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