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Cockrell v. Greene County Hospital Board

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

April 4, 2018

VICKIE COCKRELL, Plaintiff,
v.
GREENE COUNTY HOSPITAL BOARD, ET AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge

         Before the Court are Defendant Greene County Hospital Board's ("GCHB") Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 motion for summary judgment on all claims (doc. 28), and Defendant Elmore Patterson's ("Patterson") motion for summary judgment on all claims (doc. 30). The issues have been fully briefed and are ripe for review. For the reasons set out below, GCHB's motion is due to be GRANTED, and Patterson's motion is due to be GRANTED also.

         I. Background [1]

         The GCHB operates a hospital, physician clinic, and residential care facility in Eutaw, Alabama. Patterson, a male, was the Chief Executive Officer ("CEO") of GCHB at all times relevant to this case. In May 2013, Plaintiff began her employment with GCHB as a part-time administrative clerk in the residential care facility. In January 2014, Patterson promoted Plaintiff to a full-time position as GCHB's Human Resources ("HR") Coordinator. In that role, her "duties included orienting new employees, coordinating the completion of paperwork (including payroll tax forms) by new employees, training employees on labor and employment law, maintaining employee records, and creating job descriptions." (Doc. 27 at 3.) Plaintiff would review the employee handbook, which contains an anti-harassment policy[2] that provides a reporting procedure for reporting incidents of alleged harassment or discrimination, with new hires during employee orientation. After being placed in the HR Coordinator position, Plaintiff moved to work in the GCHB business office. Other than Patterson, all employees stationed to work in the business office were female. While serving as HR Coordinator, Plaintiff was assigned additional duties as an administrative clerk in the residential care facility in August 2015 and received additional compensation - her salary was increased from $12.60/hour to $13.60/hour. At that time, her duty station was moved from the business office to the residential care facility. A few months later, on October 6, 2015, Plaintiff lodged a written complaint via letter which states in pertinent part: "I am consistently thrown into numerous situations by Mr. Elmore Patterson, CEO which cause me to feel harassed, stressed, and targeted for no reason. I have verbally reported the feelings/concerns of his direct harassment to my direct supervisors in the past." (Doc. 32-2 at 166.)[3] The evidence Plaintiff provides of other complaints lodged with either her supervisor JoAnne Cameron ("Cameron") or Patterson is her own testimony and the testimony of Pinnia Hines, the Assistant Director of Nursing. Specifically, Cockrell claims that she complained to Cameron;[4] fellow employees, Tiffany Grisby, Sandra Root, Tonya Williams, and Pinnia Hines ("Hines"); and former or current board members Charles Robertson ("Robertson"), Ralph Banks, Loretta Webb, and Sue Vance ("Vance"). (Pl. Dep. at 146, 164, 174, 184-87; Hines Dep. at 22- 23; Robertson Dep. at 22, 68.) Other female employees had also submitted various complaints to the Board members regarding Patterson's conduct. (See Vance Dep. at 33; Robertson Dep. at 50-52.)

         Then on October 7, 2015, Plaintiff's counsel sent a letter to Patterson and Vance, then Chairperson of GCHB, stating that he represented Plaintiff with respect to the terms and conditions of her employment. The letter referred generally to "deteriorating working conditions" and "discrimination and harassment" by Patterson and others within management, but made no mention of the alleged discrimination being based on a protected characteristic such as gender or religion. (Doc. 32-1 at 19-20.) On November 16, 2015, Vance sent a letter to Plaintiff reinforcing GCHB's policy against discrimination and retaliation in the workplace and requesting she provide the specifics of her claims in writing to Board Member Fred Hughes ("Hughes") to enable GCHB to investigate and take appropriate remedial action if necessary. Vance also directed Plaintiff to report any complaints regarding conduct in violation of GCHB's policy against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation directly to Hughes, or in the alternative, to her. Plaintiff did not lodge any complaints with Hughes.

         Three days later, on November 19, 2015, the management of GCHB received a report from Shelia Henderson ("Henderson"), the Payroll/Registration Supervisor, that there appeared to be an invalid signature on the A-4 state tax form of Candace Brock ("Ms. Brock"), a newly-hired employee. The signature on the A-4 form appears to be distinct from Ms. Brock's signature on the other new hire forms. (See Doc. 32-1 at 24-26, 28-29.) Ms. Brock verified that she did not sign the form and that the signature on the form was not hers. She also indicated that she did not authorize Plaintiff, or anyone else, to sign the document on her behalf. Based on the nature of their duties, Plaintiff, Cameron and Henderson would have all had access to the allegedly forged document. When asked, Plaintiff denied forging the signature on the tax form. On December 3, 2015, Plaintiff was terminated from GCHB's employ by Cameron. The termination notice states she was being terminated based on GCHB's good faith belief that she forged an employee's signature on a tax form and amidst concerns regarding her job performance as a result of the forgery. Following her termination, Plaintiff's position was filled by another female employee. A few days later, Plaintiff filed her Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC, which is dated December 10, 2015.

         Cameron also testified that she was suspicious of Plaintiff given other incidents of questionable conduct. (Doc. 39-10, Cameron Dep. at 23-24.) After leaving her position at the nursing home and becoming HR Coordinator, Plaintiff would directly enter her hours into GCHB's computer system, instead of clocking in and out "which [in Cameron's perspective] was just kind of deceptive." (Id. at 25-27.) Cameron also testified that Weenoa Peebles, Patterson's Executive Assistant, reported that Plaintiff would leave confidential information displayed on her computer screen at work and would let other employees gather around her desk to view it. (Id. at 28.) This is explicitly listed as unacceptable behavior in the Employee Handbook. (See Doc. 32-2 at 158.) Finally, Cameron also testified that she discovered Plaintiff was receiving family coverage from Blue Cross/Blue Shield ("BCBS") even though the premium for family coverage was not being deducted from her pay and that her husband used it during that time. (Doc. 32-3 at 43, 52- 53.) As the HR Coordinator, Plaintiff would review GCHB's monthly BCBS bill, add new employees and remove terminated employees from the coverage list, and notify BCBS of those changes. (Id. at 43.) Given that Plaintiff reconciled the BCBS bill, Cameron suspected that Plaintiff knew she was receiving family coverage without being charged for it.

         II. Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact[5] and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine if "the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party." Id. A genuine dispute as to a material fact exists "if the nonmoving party has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict in its favor." Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001)). The trial judge should not weigh the evidence, but determine whether there are any genuine issues of fact that should be resolved at trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, trial courts must give deference to the non-moving party by "view[ing] the materials presented and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric, 789 F.3d 1206, 1213-14 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). However, "unsubstantiated assertions alone are not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment." Rollins v. TechSouth, Inc., 833 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1987). Conclusory allegations and "mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment." Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1220 (11th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, Fla., 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). In making a motion for summary judgment, "the moving party has the burden of either negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case or showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the nonmoving party's case." McGee v. Sentinel Offender Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2013). Although the trial courts must use caution when granting motions for summary judgment, the "[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).

         III. Discussion

         A. GCHB's Motion for Summary Judgment

         1) Sexually hostile work environment pursuant to Title VII

         Plaintiff's first claim is that Patterson created a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.[6] As Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. sets forth,

[t]he legal standard for hostile work environment claims in this Circuit is well-settled. To prove a hostile work environment, the plaintiff must show [:]
(1) that he or she belongs to a protected group; (2) that the employee has been subject to unwelcome sexual harassment, such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other conduct of a sexual nature; (3) that the harassment must have been based on the sex of the employee; (4) that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment and create a discriminatorily abusive working environment; and (5) a basis for holding the employer liable.

594 F.3d 798, 808 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Mendoza v. Borden, Inc., 195 F.3d 1238, 1245 (11th Cir. 1999) (en banc), cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1068 (2000). GCHB contends that the alleged conduct was not severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of employment amounting to a cognizable sexual harassment claim. To satisfy the fourth element of her sexual harassment claim, Plaintiff must present evidence that is subjectively and objectively[7] severe or pervasive. Mendoza, 195 F.3d at 1246. Plaintiff herself must "subjectively perceive" the environment to be abusive and the harassing behavior must also render the work environment "one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive." Id. at 1245 (quoting Harris, 510 U.S. at 21-22). When "evaluating the objective severity of the harassment, this [C]ourt looks at the totality of the circumstances and considers, among other things: '(1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the severity of the conduct; (3) whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's job performance.'" Gowski v. Peake, 682 F.3d 1299, 1312 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Miller, 277 F.3d at 1276).

         The parties do not dispute that Plaintiff belongs to a protected group as a woman. The evidence[8] Plaintiff submitted to support her sexually hostile work environment claim, all of which allegedly occurred over a two-and-a-half-year period between May 2013 and December 2015 while Plaintiff worked in the business office, is as follows:

Three to four occasions when Patterson allegedly made a comment regarding the size of a particular nurse's behind. (PI. Dep. at 75-76.)
One occasion when Patterson allegedly made a comment inquiring if a female employee's pubic hair was the same color as the hair on her head. (Id. at 82-85.)
Two to four occasions when Patterson allegedly said "let me look at this picture" in reference to a female employee's computer screen saver, which was a photo of the employee from the waist up allegedly wearing only her bra. (Id. at 82-83, 110-12.)
One occasion when Patterson allegedly made a comment about a "passion mark" (or "hickey") on an employee's neck and said "you must have been busy last night." (Id. at 87-88.)
One occasion when Patterson allegedly, while participating in a group conversation, asked the employees in the business office what "comfort clothes" they changed into after work. (Id. at 95-98.)
Two to three occasions when Patterson allegedly made some sort of comment suggesting that he liked "dark-skinned" women, especially those with big hips. (Id. at 113-15.)
One occasion when Patterson allegedly told a female employee that she needed to get her hair fixed because it looked "butch" and needed to be "more feminine-like." (Id. at 114, 273-74.)
Three occasions when Patterson allegedly cited a scripture from the Bible suggesting that men are superior to women. (Id. at 118, 131-32.)
One occasion when Patterson allegedly said that a female employee's brain was not big enough to "fit up a gnat's behind." (Id. at 271.)
One occasion when Patterson allegedly asked the female Director of Nursing, "Where did you get your nursing license from, out of a Cracker Jack ...

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