United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
case is before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment
filed by Defendants Greene County Hospital Board
(“GCH”) and Elmore Patterson
“Defendants”). (Doc. # 30). The Motion is fully
briefed, and the parties have filed evidentiary submissions.
(Docs. # 30-40). After careful review, the court concludes
that the Motion is due to be granted.
Relevant Undisputed Facts
operates a hospital, physician clinic, and residential care
facility in Eutaw, Alabama. (Doc. # 32-1 at ¶ 2). In
September 2013, GCH hired Patterson as its Chief Executive
Officer (“CEO”). (Id. at ¶ 1). Also
in September 2013, GCH hired Plaintiff Wennoa Peebles
(“Plaintiff” or “Peebles”) to work as
a Certified Nursing Assistant at the residential care
facility. (Doc. # 32-2 at p. 12). When she was hired, GHC
provided her with a copy of the GCH Employee Handbook, which
instructs employees to report all incidents of sexual
harassment to their supervisor, administrator, or any other
member of the management. (Id. at p. 18, 157-58).
applied to be Patterson's Executive Assistant in October
2013. (Id. at p. 15). In November 2013, Plaintiff
was selected for the Executive Assistant position. (Doc. #
32-1 at ¶ 3). Plaintiff held the positions of Executive
Assistant and Accounts Payable Clerk and worked in the GCH
business office until her termination. (Docs. # 32-1 at
¶¶ 3, 5; 32-4 at p. 22-23). All of the employees
stationed to work in the business office were female. (Docs.
# 32-1 at ¶ 5; 32-2 at p. 28). As Executive Assistant,
Peebles received and directed phone calls, managed
Patterson's schedule, and performed other secretarial
duties. (Doc. # 32-1 at ¶ 3). As Accounts Payable Clerk,
Peebles issued checks to pay bills as directed by her
supervisors and communicated with bill collectors and
vendors. (Doc. # 32-2 at p. 16). Plaintiff's direct
supervisor was JoAnne Cameron (“Cameron”), the
Business Office Manager. (Id. at p. 16-17).
Patterson also supervised Peebles. (Id. at p. 18).
two to three months of Patterson becoming CEO, former board
member Charles Robertson (“Robertson”) sent
Patterson a letter addressing the unprofessional attire that
some female employees were wearing in the workplace and the
overt and disrespectful statements Robertson had heard that
Patterson was making to female employees. (Doc. # 36 at p.
172-73). After beginning to work with Patterson, Peebles
noticed that Patterson used profanity in the workplace. (Doc.
# 32-4 at p. 18). At least once during a meeting, Patterson
told Peebles that she was “just part of the room”
and was “not to speak.” (Docs. 32-2 at p. 39-40;
32-4 at p. 24; 36 at p. 130, 155). Plaintiff alleges (and
Defendants deny) that Patterson made several other derogatory
comments to herself and to other female employees. (Docs. #
34 at p. 6; 40 at p. 2-3). For instance, Peebles alleges (and
Defendants deny) that Patterson referred to females as
“opossums, ” stated that he would not sleep with
the “opossums, ” and commented about paddling a
female employee. (Doc. # 32-2 at p. 23, 38, 43).
October 5, 2015, GCH received an anonymous
email complaining about the management of GCH
and questioning Patterson's uses of funding, hiring
choices, and overall management style. (Doc. # 32-2 at p.
168-70). The email also contained private information
regarding the salaries of certain GCH employees.
(Id.). When Patterson vented about this email to
Peebles, Peebles in some way indicated that Vickie Cockrell
(“Cockrell”), the Human Resources Coordinator for
GCH, had disclosed the salary information that was included
in the email. (Doc. # 32-2 at p. 48-49). However, when
Patterson asked Peebles to sign a statement that Cockrell was
involved in disclosing this information, Peebles refused to
do so because, according to Peebles, the statement was
October 8, 2015, Plaintiff's counsel sent a letter to
Patterson and Sue Vance (“Vance”), the
Chairperson of GCH, stating that Peebles had (1) previously
reported to them “the deteriorating working conditions
to which she is subjected” and (2) “experienced
discrimination and retaliation at the hands of [GCH's]
CEO, Elmore Patterson, and others within management.”
(Doc. # 32-1 at p. 6-7). The letter also stated that counsel
had begun the process of involving the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) regarding
Peebles's complaints. (Id.). Plaintiff filed a
Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC on November 4, 2015.
(Doc. # 32-2 at p. 165-67). The Charge alleges sex
discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment.
(Id. at p. 165).
2015, Plaintiff complained to Vance about Patterson's
behavior. (Doc. # 35 at p. 10). Vance told Peebles
to “keep [her] own records.” (Id. at p.
10-11). At various points, Peebles also complained to board
members Fred Hughes (“Hughes”), Ralph Banks,
Robertson, Loretta Webb, and Johna Madison about
Patterson's behavior generally and about Patterson
telling Peebles to sign a statement against Cockrell, in
particular. (Doc. # 32-2 at p. 56-64). Other female employees
had also complained to board members about Patterson's
behavior. (Doc. # 35 at p. 63-69, 185-88). Cameron
occasionally heard Plaintiff “bl[o]w[ing] off steam
about whatever was bothering her, ” including her work
for and interactions with Patterson. (Doc. # 36 at p. 152,
163). For instance, Cameron overhead Peebles stating that
Patterson said that Peebles's “brain was so small
it could fit up a gnat's behind” and that
Peebles's “hair looked butch.” (Id.
at 163). However, although at some point Plaintiff complained
to Cameron about another employee, Plaintiff never directly
made any complaints to Cameron about Patterson. (Id.
at p. 152, 163).
November 16, 2015, Vance sent Plaintiff a letter stating that
GCH had designated board member Hughes to receive complaints
related to Peebles's work environment. (Doc. # 32-1 at p.
9). The letter directed Plaintiff to send any complaints to
Hughes in writing and informed Peebles that she could contact
Vance if she felt that her complaints were not adequately
addressed or if she felt uncomfortable sending her complaints
to Hughes. (Id.). In the letter, Vance also offered
Peebles the option of transferring back to her previous
position as a Certified Nursing Assistant at her then current
hourly wage. (Id.).
January 19, 2016, Patterson received an email from the Murkin
Group, a debt collector for one of GCH's creditors,
regarding a debt collection matter. (Doc. # 32-1 at p. 11-
12). Two of the personal email addresses of GCH board members
(Vance and Hughes) were copied on the email. (Docs. # 31 at
¶ 14; 32-1 at p. 11-12). Because Peebles was responsible
for routing incoming debt collection calls, Patterson
suspected that she had provided these personal email
addresses to the debt collector, but when Patterson asked
Peebles if she had given the debt collector these address,
she denied doing so. (Docs. # 31 at ¶ 14-15; 32-1 at p.
11-12). Peebles also told Patterson that she referred the
only debt collection call from the Murkin Group to Tiffany
Grisby (“Grisby”), the Chief Financial Officer of
GCH, as she had been directed to do. (Docs. # 32-1 at p. 11;
32-2 at p. 192; 32-3 at p. 7). However, before Peebles's
termination, a representative from the Murkin Group informed
Patterson, through GHC's counsel, that Peebles did in
fact provide these personal email addresses during a
telephone conversation on December 18, 2015. (Doc. # 32-1 at
January 27, 2016, GCH terminated Plaintiff's employment.
(Docs. # 32-1 at ¶ 12; 32-1 at p. 14; 32-2 at p. 64).
Defendants contend that Plaintiff's termination was based
on her disclosure of confidential information, including the
personal email addresses of GCH board members to the Murkin
Group, and on her dishonesty in denying that she disclosed
these addresses. (Docs. # 32-1 at ¶ 12; 32-1 at p. 14;
32-2 at p. 64). Plaintiff alleges that if she provided these
email addresses it was because neither Patterson nor
Grisby would return the creditor's calls and that her
conduct in disclosing these addresses was clearly within her
responsibility as Accounts Payable Clerk. (Doc. # 32-2 at p.
65). Plaintiff asserts that the actual reason for her
termination was her complaints of discrimination. (Doc. # 36
at p. 28). Following Plaintiff's termination, her
position was filled by another female employee. (Doc. # 32-4
at p. 28).
Summary Judgment Standard
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is
proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to
any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for
summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of
informing the court of the basis for its motion and
identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which
it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of
material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has
met its burden, Rule 56 requires the non-moving party to go
beyond the pleadings and -- by pointing to affidavits, or
depositions, answers to interrogatories, and/or admissions on
file -- designate specific facts showing that there is a
genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.
substantive law will identify which facts are material and
which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts
about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved
in favor of the non-movant. See Allen v. Bd. of Pub.
Educ. for Bibb Cnty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1314 (11th Cir.
2007); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112,
1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the
evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a
verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson,
477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is
not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.
See Id. at 249.
faced with a “properly supported motion for summary
judgment, [the non-moving party] must come forward with
specific factual evidence, presenting more than mere
allegations.” Gargiulo v. G.M. Sales, Inc.,
131 F.3d 995, 999 (11th Cir. 1997). As Anderson
teaches, under Rule 56(c) a plaintiff may not simply rest on
his allegations made in the complaint; instead, as the party
bearing the burden of proof at trial, he must come forward
with at least some evidence to support each element essential
to his case at trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.
“[A] party opposing a properly supported motion for
summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere
allegations or denials of his pleading, but . . . must set
forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue
for trial.'” Id. at 248 (citations
judgment is mandated “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., 477 U.S. at 322. “Summary judgment may be
granted if the non-moving party's evidence is merely
colorable or is not significantly probative.”
Sawyer v. Sw. Airlines Co., 243 F.Supp.2d 1257, 1262
(D. Kan. 2003) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at
the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not
himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the
matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for
trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.
“Essentially, the inquiry is ‘whether the
evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require
submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one
party must prevail as a matter of law.'”
Sawyer, 243 F.Supp.2d at 1262 (quoting
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52); see also LaRoche
v. Denny's, Inc., 62 F.Supp.2d 1366, 1371 (S.D. Fla.
1999) (“The law is clear . . . that suspicion,
perception, opinion, and belief cannot be used to defeat a
motion for summary judgment.”).
Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges the following claims
against Defendants: (1) sexually hostile work environment in
violation of Title VII, (2) sexual harassment and gender
discrimination in violation of Title VII, (3) outrage, and
(4) negligent training, supervision, and retention. (Doc. #
6). Plaintiff has conceded that the Title VII claims against
Patterson are due to be dismissed. (Doc. # 34 at p. 12). The
court addresses the merits of Plaintiff's Title VII
claims against GCH and state law claims against GCH and
Patterson, in turn.
Title VII Sexually Hostile Work Environment Claim
order to establish a claim of sexually hostile work
environment under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that
because of her sex “‘the workplace is permeated
with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that
is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions
of . . . employment and create an abusive working
environment.'” Trask v. Sec'y, Dep't of
Veterans Affairs, 822 F.3d 1179, 1195 (11th Cir. 2016)
(quoting Gowski v. Peake, 682 F.3d 1299, 1311 (11th
Cir. 2012)). More specifically, a plaintiff must establish
the following elements: “(1) that [s]he belongs to a
protected group; (2) that [s]he has been subject to unwelcome
harassment; (3) that the harassment [was] based on a
protected characteristic 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) that
the employer is responsible for such environment under either
a theory of vicarious or direct liability.” Miller
v. Kenworth of Dothan, Inc., 277 F.3d 1269, 1275 (11th
Cir. 2002). Here, GCH focuses on the fourth element. It
argues that Plaintiff cannot establish her hostile work
environment claim because the sexual harassment she allegedly
experienced was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter
the terms and conditions of her employment. (Doc. # 31 at p.
fourth element of a hostile work environment claim
“contains both an objective and a subjective
component.” Miller, 277 F.3d at 1276.
“Thus, to be actionable, this behavior must result in
both an environment ‘that a reasonable person would
find hostile or abusive' and an environment that the
victim ‘subjectively perceive[s] . . . to be
abusive.'” Id. (quoting Harris v.
Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21-22 (1993)).
Courts consider four factors in determining whether the
conduct at issue is severe or pervasive enough to permeate a
workplace: “(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.”
Id. The conduct must be examined in context, not as
isolated acts, and the court must determine under the
totality of the circumstances whether the ...