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Lisenby v. Williams

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

March 27, 2018

MARY E. LISENBY, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN WILLIAMS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Mary Lisenby originally filed this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 stat. 253, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., against the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department, the Lowndes County Commission, the Lowndes County Sheriff, John Williams, and several other employees of the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department. Lisenby, who is Caucasian, alleges that the Department was a hostile working environment tainted by pervasive racial and sex harassment, that she was discriminated against because of her race, and that Sheriff Williams retaliated against her by discharging her when she complained about her treatment. The court has already granted two previously filed motions to dismiss, docs. 13 and 15, and only Lisenby's hostile work environment and racial/gender harassment claim, count one, and her discrimination claim, count two, against Sheriff Williams are before the court. Doc. 23 at 7. Sheriff Williams has now filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Lisenby has failed to establish the requisite severe or pervasive harassment necessary to prevail on a hostile environment claim. Doc. 29. That motion is now fully briefed, see docs. 30; 33; and 34, and ripe for review.[1] After carefully considering the parties' briefs and the record, the court concludes that questions of material fact preclude it from granting summary judgment. Accordingly, Sheriff Williams' motion, doc. 29, is due to be denied.

         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). Thus, “a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 256. However, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Id. at 255. 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 that “[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”).

         “[M]ere 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) (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 appropriate. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quotation omitted).

         III. FACTS

         Sheriff Williams hired Lisenby in June 2015 as a deputy sheriff in the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department. Docs. 30-1 at 2; 33-1 at 6. During her term of employment, Lisenby was the only white female officer in the Department. Doc. 33-1 at 7-8.[2] Department employees, including Lisenby and her fellow officers, were directed to refrain from “divisive criticism of . . . supervisory personnel” and were prohibited from engaging in insubordinate behavior. Doc. 30-3 at 4, 7, 11-12. Sheriff Williams managed the Department closely by specifically assigning particular tasks to each officer and expecting officers to exclusively focus on those duties. Doc. 30-2 at 3. As relevant here, Sheriff Williams relegated traffic control responsibilities only to the officers issued Uniform Traffic Ticket and Complaint books. Id. All other officers were expected to focus on their assigned tasks and to issue only verbal warnings if they noticed traffic violations, absent some basis for effectuating an arrest. Id. at 3-4.

         Over the course of Lisenby's employment, Sheriff Williams repeatedly singled out and insulted her, particularly when she conducted traffic stops. See Doc. 33-1 at 18, 20, 26, 31. Among other things, Sheriff Williams commented on Lisenby's breasts while discussing bulletproof vests with her, id. at 23, called her “a stupid bitch” on several occasions, id. at 18, 31, commented to other officers that dealing with Lisenby was like dealing with a “fucking five year old, ” id. at 18, called her a “typical white female [who] can't do a damn thing right, ” id. at 19, and, when Lisenby had trouble understanding him on the radio, commented that he just did not “know what it is about you females.” Id. When Lisenby asked Sheriff Williams to stop speaking to her in such a derogatory manner, he told her to resign if she could not tolerate his behavior. Id. at 18. Sheriff Williams also purportedly locked Lisenby out of a meeting for several minutes because “her dumb ass was late.” Id. This pattern of harassment allegedly became so severe that Lisenby avoided the Sheriff's Office and the county jail to reduce her interactions with Sheriff Williams. Id. at 26, 31, 33.[3]

         Lisenby's issues with Sheriff Williams apparently reached a tipping point on August 5, 2016. Id. at 10. That day, Lisenby, who was not assigned to traffic duty at the time, id. at 11, pulled a motorist over for running a stop sign and nearly colliding with Lisenby's vehicle. Id. at 10.[4] The motorist was irate about the stop and aggressively confronted Lisenby. Id. The motorist then proceeded to call Sheriff Williams during the stop and to complain directly to him regarding Lisenby's conduct. Id. at 11. Using the motorist's phone, Sheriff Williams instructed Lisenby to release the motorist without writing a ticket even after Lisenby purportedly explained that the motorist was impaired. Id. at 11-13. During the call, Sheriff Williams berated Lisenby for pulling the motorist over and called her “a stupid bitch, ” among other things. Doc. 33-1 at 13, 31. Although Lisenby felt that her life was in danger when the motorist confronted her, she complied with Sheriff Williams' instructions. Id. at 13-15. An official investigation was subsequently initiated into the incident and Lisenby was terminated a few days later, allegedly without proper notice of the disciplinary proceedings or an opportunity for an exit interview. Id. at 15-17, 30; Doc. 30-6 at 2-4.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Lisenby's complaint pleads two counts-a hostile environment claim she titles “racial/gender harassment and hostile environment, ” count one, and a discriminatory discharge claim she titles “Title VII, ” count two. The court will address both counts in turn, beginning with the hostile environment claim.

         A. Count I-Hostile Work Environment

         In order to prevail on a hostile environment claim brought under Title VII, Lisenby must show that:

(1) [she] belonged to a protected group, (2) [she] was subjected to unwelcome harassment, (3) the harassment was based on a protected characteristic, (4) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of [her] employment and create an abusive working ...

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