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Peebles v. Greene County Hospital Board

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

May 23, 2018




         This case is before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Greene County Hospital Board (“GCH”) and Elmore Patterson (“Patterson”) (collectively “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.

         I. Relevant Undisputed Facts[1]

         GCH 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).

         Plaintiff 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).

         Within 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.[2] (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).

         On October 5, 2015, GCH received an anonymous email[3] 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 untrue. (Id.).

         On 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).

         In 2015, Plaintiff complained to Vance about Patterson's behavior.[4] (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).

         On 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.).

         On 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.[5] (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 ¶ 11).

         On 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[6] 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).

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Under 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.

         The 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.

         When 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 omitted).

         Summary 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 250-51).

         “[A]t 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.”).

         IV. Analysis

         In her 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.

         A. Title VII Sexually Hostile Work Environment Claim

         In 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. 6-13).

         The 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 ...

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