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Curry v. Koch Foods, Inc.

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

March 20, 2019

BRANDI CURRY, Plaintiff,
KOCH FOODS, INC., et al., Defendants.



         This is a sexual harassment case brought by Brandi Curry against Koch Foods, Inc., and Alex Huddleston. (Doc. 1). Against Koch Foods, Curry asserts claims for “hostile work environment” sexual harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq.; retaliation in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981; and state law negligence. (Id. at 8-9, 11, 13). Against Huddleston, Curry asserts state law claims for invasion of privacy and assault. (Id. at 12-13). Additionally, Curry seeks to impose liability on Koch Foods for Huddleston's intentional torts. (Id.). Pending before the undersigned are motions for summary judgment filed by Koch Foods and Huddleston. (Docs. 37 & 43). For the reasons discussed below, Koch Foods' motion is due to be denied in part and granted in part, and Huddleston's motion is due to be denied.

         I. FACTS[2]

         A. Background

         Curry was hired by Koch Foods on September 4, 2014, to work as a General Laborer at its Ashland, Alabama poultry processing plant and assigned to the evisceration department in November 2014. (Doc. 45-1 at 18-19). She was promoted to the position of Inspector Helper in that department on June 2, 2015. (Id. at 19). An Inspector Helper is a Koch Foods' employee who works next to an employee of the federal government known as a United States Department of Agriculture Inspector (“USDA Inspector”) on a production line at the plant. (Id. at 21-23). From one side of a stand, the USDA Inspector inspects birds coming down a line and signals to the Inspector Helper on the other side of the stand which birds to mark for trimming or send to “washout.” (Id. at 22-23, 32-33, 65; Doc. 46-2 at 119). Koch Foods' job description for Inspector Helpers states these employees “follow the government inspector's instructions to properly mark and/or pull below standard birds from the processing line.” (Doc. 46-2 at 119). Koch Foods cannot run its production lines without USDA oversight. (Doc. 45-1 at 22). In both her position as a General Laborer and an Inspector Helper, Curry worked the third shift, which ran from approximately 8:43 P.M. to 5:45 A.M. (Id. at 18-19, 21).

         During the time in question, Huddleston was a USDA Inspector assigned to Koch Foods' Ashland plant. (Doc. 45-2 at 5). He worked the first shift, which ran from approximately 5:45 A.M. to 2:15 P.M. (Id. at 11). However, he sometimes began his shift approximately 30 minutes early. (Id. at 5, 11). When he did so, his shift overlapped with Curry's shift for approximately 30 minutes. (Id. at 12; Doc. 45-1 at 21, 24). Both as a General Laborer and as an Inspector Helper, Curry sometimes worked alongside Huddleston when he began his shift early. (Doc. 45-1 at 21, 24-25).

         Curry testified she initially got along well with Huddleston. (Id. at 25). A few weeks after Curry first worked with Huddleston, he asked her whether she was in a relationship with a female Koch Foods' employee named Brandy. (Id. at 25-26). This question did not bother Curry. (Id. at 26). Huddleston also told Curry he had undergone a surgery on his “private area, ” his “dick didn't work, ” he “didn't have anything going on [] down there, ” and he loved oral sex. (Id. at 26, 59).[3] These comments did not make her uncomfortable. (Id. at 26-27).[4] Curry felt like Huddleston was just a friend sharing this information with her. (Id. at 26). Curry testified Huddleston began making inappropriate comments after he heard she was in a relationship with a female Koch Foods' employee named Dee Dee. (Id. at 26).

         B. Huddleston's Comments and Conduct Between September 2014 and November 2015

         Curry testified that between the time she was hired and the time she was promoted to the position of Inspector Helper, Huddleston made the following unwelcome comments to her:

• He asked her whether her “pussy ha[d] a smell, ” told her she didn't have a “smell down there, ” and told her his wife “has smell when y'all do that little thing y'all do.” (Id. at 27, 57). She told him that was her personal business and that what she had going on in her bedroom was her business. (Id. at 27).
• When he saw Dee Dee, a female Koch Foods' employee with whom Curry was in a relationship, he told Curry she and Dee Dee could use some help in the bedroom and that “[he] bet [he] could eat [her] pussy better than Dee Dee.” (Id. at 26-28). During this encounter, he simulated oral sex with his tongue. (Id. at 45). She asked him not to say that and to please stop talking to her like that. (Id. at 26).
• He told her she would rebuff him at first like a black female named Brenda but that she would “fold, ” stating he “turned [Brenda] out to the point where she came and knocked on [his] door, [] knowing [he] was married.” (Id. at 27).
• He asked her why she was a lesbian several times and told her he had told his niece who was a lesbian that “it is absolutely nasty.” (Id. at 28). Curry said, “[H]ow about we just don't even talk about it period.” (Id.).
• He asked her whether she had any pictures and told her he could give her his e-mail address so that she could send pictures to him. (Id.). She told him she would not do that. (Id.).
• He told her a white Koch Foods' employee named Cindy had adopted one or more children and needed help and that he was going to help Cindy. (Id.) Later, he told her he was not going to help Cindy because Cindy “[was] not talking about opening her legs.” (Id.).
• After Curry asked him why he continued to talk to her “like that, ” he told her that she, like Brenda, would “fold.” (Id.).

         Curry testified that between June 2015 and November 2015, Huddleston engaged in the following unwelcome conduct:

• After Curry told Huddleston that his wife was beautiful - Huddleston had shown a picture of his family to Curry - Huddleston said, “[N]ot as beautiful as you, I could just reach over there and bite that lip.” (Id. at 28-29).
• In the process of reaching to get a piece of paper, he hit her breast with his arm while he was “looking dead at [her], ” which led Curry to believe he did it on purpose. (Id. at 29).

         Curry testified Huddleston made sexual comments to her all the time. (Id. at 27). She also testified that no matter what she talked about or did while working alongside Huddleston, “[H]e [went] back to sex. He [was] going to bring sex out of it.” (Id. at 29).

         C. Curry's November 2015 Complaint

         Koch Foods' Equal Employment Opportunity and Harassment Policy permits an employee to report harassment “by any [] person with whom the employee has contact as a result of their employment, ” orally or in writing, and designates a number of individuals for receiving harassment complaints, including a Shift Manager. (Doc. 46-2 at 78). Curry testified other USDA Inspectors told her the government “rules over Koch Foods” and advised her not to say anything about Huddleston's conduct because both she and Huddleston would probably be fired. (Doc. 45-1 at 33).

         Nonetheless, in early November 2015, Curry spoke with her supervisor, Carolyn Richey, about Huddleston's behavior. (Id. at 29-31, 35-36). Curry told Richey that Huddleston was making sexual comments to her and sexually harassing her, she did not like talking about sex every day, and she did not want to work with Huddleston. (Id. at 29, 31, 35). Curry told Richey everything Huddleston had said to her and also told Richey that Huddleston had simulated oral sex. (Id. at 39, 46). Richey said she did not have any control over who the USDA sent to work at the plant but that she would speak with the Night Shift Manager, Jeff Hawkins, about Huddleston's behavior and let Hawkins know Curry did not want to work with Huddleston because he was making her uncomfortable. (Id. at 31, 35). Richey did speak with Hawkins. (Doc. 45-7 at 16). Two or three days after Curry complained to Richey, Hawkins asked Curry to give him a few days to see what he could have done and told her that he would get back to her. (Doc. 45-1 at 31, 35-36).

         D. The “Book Incident”

         After Curry complained to Richey in early November 2015, the “book incident” happened. (Id. at 30). Huddleston asked Curry whether she had seen the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey.” (Id.). After Curry responded she had seen the movie, Huddleston asked her whether she liked it. (Id.). Curry responded “all it was about was sex.” (Id.). Huddleston told Curry the book on which the movie was based was good and very interesting. (Id.). Curry said she did not need to read the book because she had seen the movie, but Huddleston insisted he give Curry the book to read, after which she could let him know what she thought about it. (Id.). Curry was not uncomfortable that Huddleston asked her to read the book. (Id. at 43). Huddleston brought the book to work on November 17, 2015. (Id. at 31, 36). Curry took the book, but she did not read it. (Id. at 31). Instead, Curry's mother saw the book in Curry's car and asked if she could read it. (Id.). Curry asked Huddleston if her mother could read the book, and Huddleston said that was not a problem and to “take your time.” (Id.).

         Curry testified problems arose when she did not talk to Huddleston about the book:

He would get absolute - he was like did you read this part where, you know, he is beating her pussy out, did you see that part where he was just - like he was just in control and he was just beating her out and - anyway. And then he said - I was like no, I didn't - I didn't get to that part, I haven't got to that part yet, didn't get to that part. It was like every day, it was like did you read this part, this part, this part, and I'm like no, I haven't got there yet. Got to the point where [Huddleston] would get on the stand and I would tell him my tooth was hurting so he wouldn't say nothing about the book.

(Id.). Huddleston then began asking when Curry was going to return the book. (Id.). Curry told Huddleston she would return the book after her mother finished reading it. (Id.). Curry did bring the book to work after her mother finished reading it, but she left the book in her car. (Id.). She told Huddleston she would give the book to the guard and he could get it from the guard when he came in the next morning. (Id.). On November 30, 2015, Huddleston told Curry he had checked with the guard and that Curry had not given the book to the guard. (Id. at 31, 60-61). He said, “If I don't have my book, then I'm going to knock your ass out.” (Id.). On December 1, 2015, Huddleston came up the steps on Curry's side of the stand and said, “[I]f you don't have my book today, I'm going to shove my dick so far up you it's going to come out your throat.” (Id. at 32-33, 35). Curry pulled the book out from under her smock, shoved or slung the book toward Huddleston, who let it hit the ground, and loudly told Huddleston to “get out of [her] motherfucking face.” (Id. at 32).

         Curry testified that when Huddleston made one or both of these threats “[h]e was at [her] face, ” “was so mad and red, ” and was “really, really serious.” (Id. at 34). She testified “[she] [couldn't] say that [she] thought he was going to [carry out one or more of the threats], but he might have - it had gotten to the point where they [were] still allowing him to still come out there, he could have done anything.” (Id.). She also repeatedly testified later that she thought Huddleston was going to hurt her, noting she worked with a long, sharp knife that was not far from Huddleston. (Id. at 34, 65). Curry also generally wore steel-toed boots and a full-coverage, chainmail-type glove on her non-dominant hand when at work. (Id. at 64-65).

         Curry testified Huddleston's actions brought back memories of a childhood trauma that involved her being molested by a man who drove her to preschool for two-and-a-half years because her mother did not have a car. (Doc. 45-1 at 59). The man stuck a rifle down her throat and told her he would “blow her brains out” if she told anyone. (Id.). She testified she continues to have flashbacks and nightmares every other week, both about her childhood trauma and Huddleston's conduct. (Id. at 58, 60). She testified she started taking Tylenol PM to sleep in December 2015 after Huddleston threatened her. (Id. at 58).

         E. Curry's December 1, 2015 Complaint & Koch Foods' Response

         When Huddleston made his December 1, 2015 threat, Curry hit a button that called one of Huddleston's supervisors, USDA Supervisory Veterinarian Courtney Baldwin, to the production line. (Id. at 32). Curry told Dr. Baldwin what Huddleston had said, that he had threatened her, and that she was not going to work with him anymore. (Id. at 32-33).

         Also on that day, Curry made a written statement. (Id. at 36-37). In the statement, Curry wrote Huddleston had threatened her about returning the book. (Doc. 46-1 at 59). She also wrote she had asked Huddleston whether the real reason he was upset was not the book, but rather because she asked another USDA Inspector not to let him on the stand because he was “disrespectful in a sexual way.” (Id.). Additionally, she noted several specific sexual comments Huddleston had made to her, although not regarding the book. (Id. at 59-60). Hawkins shared Curry's statement with Dr. Baldwin the next day. (Doc. 45-5 at 14).

         Curry's statement was also delivered to Lisa Wright, Human Resources Manager at the Ashland plant. (Doc. 45-6 at 29-30). Wright shared the statement with Randy Cisne, Complex Human Resources Manager, with oversight of multiple Koch Foods' plants, including the Ashland plant. (Id. at 30; Doc. 45-4 at 10-11). At Cisne's direction, Wright interviewed Curry about the contents of the statement. (Doc. 45-1 at 40-41; Doc. 45-3 at 10-11; Doc. 45-6 at 30).[5] During the interview, Curry told Wright that Huddleston had threatened her about returning the book. (Doc. 45-1 at 44). During the same interview and a subsequent conversation that Wright indicated was off the record, Curry also told Wright about Huddleston's sexual comments. (Id. at 40-43). Wright believed Huddleston had sexually harassed Curry and relayed this determination to Cisne. (Doc. 45-6 at 15, 41). Based on the investigation conducted by Wright, Cisne also believed Huddleston had sexually harassed Curry. (Doc. 45-4 at 15).

         Koch Foods offered to move Curry from the evisceration department to another department within the plant, such as “live hanging” or the “cold side.” (Doc. 45-1 at 51). Curry declined the offer because she did not think she should have to change departments because of Huddleston's conduct. (Id.). Instead, Koch Foods arranged for someone to relieve Curry for the last thirty minutes of her shift if Huddleston came in early so that Curry would not have to interact with Huddleston. (Id. at 51-53). Initially, Koch Foods instructed Curry to sit in the break room until the end of her shift. (Id. at 52). Curry was nonetheless paid for her full shift. (Id.). At some point, Koch Foods moved Curry to a different line for the last thirty minutes of her shift. (Id.). Curry performed the same job and received the same pay on this other line. (Id.). However, she was embarrassed by having to leave her stand thirty minutes before the end of her shift. (Id. at 53). She testified that when she had to do so, it caused a lot of chaos; everybody looked at her and asked her questions; she had to sit in the break room “like [she] [was] the one [who] did something”; and that she was “completely absolutely run off the line.” (Id. at 49).

         Curry does not recall working with Huddleston again after December 1, 2015. (Doc. 45-1 at 49). Huddleston did make one additional comment to Curry after that date. (Id. at 53). One morning as Curry was leaving the line, she passed Huddleston as he was coming onto the line, and he loudly said, “[M]onkeys don't stop my show.” (Id.).

         F. The USDA's Inquiry

         The USDA has a policy for handling complaints made by regulated industry establishments like Koch Foods against employees of the agency, referred to as Food Safety and Inspection Service Directive 4735.7 (“FSIS Directive 4735.7” or the “Directive”). (Doc. 46-1 at 116-120; Doc. 46-2 at 1-5). The Directive provides that an establishment may make a formal complaint, which is generally in writing and may require a formal inquiry and response, or an informal complaint, which is generally verbal and addressed at the local level. (Doc. 46-1 at 119; Doc. 46-2 at 1). After receiving a formal, written complaint, a supervisory official may conduct an inquiry and/or request that the Labor and Employee Relations Division of the USDA's Employee Relations Branch (the “LERD”) conduct a formal investigation. (Doc. 45-3 at 9; Doc. 46-2 at 1-2). A supervisor may receive an informal, verbal complaint. (Doc. 46-2 at 1). The Directive advises, “Resolution at the lowest possible supervisory level is desirable and encouraged.” (Id.). It provides an appeal process to the extent an establishment is not satisfied with the resolution of a complaint. (Doc. 45-3 at 42; Doc. 46-2 at 2-3).

         Cisne believed the USDA would be looking into Curry's allegations against Huddleston after Curry's December 1, 2015 statement was shared with Dr. Baldwin. (Doc. 46-3 at 4). On January 13, 2016, Cisne and Wright met with James Jordan, a USDA Supervisory Veterinarian who directly supervised Huddleston, because Koch Foods had not received any communication from the USDA regarding the status of its investigation and Huddleston continued to work overtime, causing his and Curry's shifts to overlap. (Doc. 45-6 at 53; Doc. 46-1 at 51; 46-3 at 4). They presented the investigation file to Dr. Jordan. (Doc. 45-6 at 53; Doc. 46-1 at 51; 46-3 at 4). Dr. Jordan told Cisne and Wright he would provide the file to Dr. John Huie, a USDA Front Line Supervisor who conducts inquiries into USDA Inspectors. (Doc. 46-3 at 4). At that point, Dr. Huie commenced an inquiry into the allegations. (Doc. 45-3 at 15-16).

         Cisne requested an update from Dr. Huie on February 9, 2016. Dr. Huie told Cisne the inquiry was being processed and would take some time to resolve. (Doc. 46-2 at 6). On March 21, 2016, Cisne notified Dr. Huie that Curry had filed an EEOC Charge, requested another update from Dr. Huie, and asked that the USDA ensure Huddleston was not working on Curry's line. (Id. at 19-20).

         On March 23, 2016, Wright called Curry to check in and ask whether she had had any more problems. (Doc. 45-1 at 54). Curry told Wright people were asking a lot of questions regarding the matter with Huddleston and that she felt disrespected by Koch Foods and like she was not being taken seriously. (Id.; Doc. 46-2 at 9). She also told Wright about Huddleston's monkey comment. (Doc. 45-1 at 54; Doc. 46-2 at 9).

         On March 24, 2016, Dr. Huie asked Koch Foods to speak with one of its employees named Andreal “Nikki” Cofield about whether a USDA employee had made inappropriate comments to her. (Doc. 46-2 at 19). Wright interviewed Cofield on March 25, 2016. (Id. at 10). Wright's interview notes indicate Cofield said Huddleston had made several sexual gestures and comments to her when she worked with him approximately two years prior; said Huddleston had made her feel very uncomfortable by staring at her while she was working and constantly hollering her name in an effort to get her attention; and recalled several specific things Huddleston had said to her and how they made her feel. (Id.). A written statement Cofield made at the time of Wright's interview recounts an incident where Huddleston asked her why she was holding her shirt down to cover her bottom, she responded she was doing so in order that he couldn't see anything, and he replied, “ ‘ Well I'm gonna stand here till you let it go where I can see what I want.” (Id. at 11). Cofield told Wright she contemporaneously reported Huddleston's conduct to her supervisor and gave a statement to Jennifer McCollough, [6] then the Human Resources Manager at the Ashland plant. (Id. at 10). McCollough asked her whether she would consider transferring to a different department, and she accepted this offer. (Id.). In her March 25, 2016 statement, Cofield wrote that Huddleston gave her no more problems after the shirt incident. (Id. at 12). Wright submitted her interview notes and Cofield's later statement to Dr. Huie. (Id. at 19).

         After interviewing Cofield, Wright found Cofield's May 2014 written statement. (Doc. 45-6 at 11-12). In the statement, Cofield recounted the incident where she pulled her shirt down to cover her bottom and further stated Huddleston had done other things, such as making obscene gestures mimicking the performance of sexual acts on her. (Doc. ...

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