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Miles v. City of Birmingham

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

June 25, 2019

MARIA MILES, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BIRMINGHAM, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This sexual harassment and retaliation action involves an admitted two-year, sexual relationship between Plaintiff, Maria Miles, and her superior, Charlie Williams, during their employment with the City of Birmingham (“the City”) and Plaintiff's subsequent resignation in March 2016. The City and Williams have each filed Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docs. # 16, 17).[1]

         The court recognizes that unwanted sexual attention in the workplace is a concern that rightly occupies the minds of both employers and employees. In addressing workplace discrimination disputes, judges (including the undersigned) must be keenly aware that sexual harassment is an acute problem that affects our society. Having said that, the court is duty-bound to examine the facts of each case under the legal framework which the Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit have established. With these concerns in mind, the court has carefully considered Plaintiff's claims and the summary judgment record. However, no evidence in the Rule 56 record suggests that Plaintiff's two-year relationship with Williams was unwelcome. Accordingly, for the reasons more thoroughly explained below, Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment (Docs. # 16, 17) are due to be granted.

         I. Factual Background[2]

         First, the court discusses the Rule 56 evidence regarding Plaintiff's relationship with Williams and its effect on her employment. Second, the court outlines the summary judgment evidence regarding the actions the City took to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Finally, the court addresses the circumstances surrounding Plaintiff's resignation and her filing of a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).

         A. Plaintiff's Employment with the City and Her Relationship with Defendant Williams

         Plaintiff worked in the City's Department of Public Works from November 27, 2013 until March 16, 2016. (Docs. # 22-1 at 23). Although she started as a temporary truck driver, Plaintiff was promoted several times and eventually attained the position of Maintenance Supervisor. (Id. at 165). From February 2014 to December 1, 2017, Williams was the Deputy Director of the Department of Public Works and had supervisory authority over Plaintiff at various points in her employment. (Docs. # 22-2 at 7, 25; 16-2).

         Plaintiff first met Williams around February 2014 when he investigated two of Plaintiff's coworkers for employee misconduct. (Docs. # 22-2 at 34). Plaintiff explained the incident to Williams, and Williams ultimately recommended that the two employees be terminated. (Id.). After this initial contact, Plaintiff continued to act as a “confidential informant” for Williams when employees committed violations of City policies. (Id.).

         Over the course of the next few weeks, Plaintiff and Williams flirted via text message. (Id. at 35). In early 2014, Plaintiff accepted Williams's invitation to have dinner with him outside of work. (Doc. # 22-1 at 42-43). Prior to their date, Williams had never used vulgar language or made inappropriate advances toward her. (Id. at 42). Shortly after their dinner, Plaintiff and Williams had their first sexual encounter. (Id. at 44-47). Plaintiff did not push Williams away or reject his advances. (Id. at 46).

         Thereafter, Plaintiff and Williams participated in a two-year relationship, which ended in approximately April 2016. (Id. at 49). They talked on the phone and texted each other every day. (Id. at 51-52). In fact, Plaintiff initiated many of these communications herself, including asking Williams when he would come to her apartment. (Id. at 54, 66). On several occasions, Plaintiff allowed Williams to stay overnight without engaging in any sexual activity. (Id. at 55-57). Williams frequently visited on the weekends and developed a relationship with Plaintiff's youngest daughter. (Id. at 60-61). “[H]e would talk to her, let her play with his phone, …[and] give her money.” (Id. at 61). Plaintiff also introduced Williams to her son and her sister. (Id. at 68).

         To celebrate her one-year anniversary with Williams, Plaintiff suggested and planned a trip to Anniston. (Id. at 63-65). Plaintiff drove and paid cash for their hotel stay, while Williams paid for their meals. (Id. at 64; Doc. # 22-2 at 35). Shortly after their trip, Plaintiff told Williams she loved him and gave him a key to her apartment. (Id. at 65, 72). He did not ask for the key, but Plaintiff thought “it would be easier” for him to “come on in and not have to worry about [her] falling asleep or anything like that.” (Id. at 72). She also told one of her coworkers that she was in love with Williams. (Id. at 65-66). Periodically, Williams called her “Mush Cake, ” and Plaintiff would respond with “Mush Cake miss you.” (Id. at 67).

         During work hours, Williams would greet Plaintiff by saying “hey, cutie” or “hey, sexy.” (Id. at 83). On at least one occasion, he told a friend over the phone that “he was watching this sexy, young thang cut grass, ” referring to Plaintiff. (Id.). Plaintiff was not offended by this conduct. (Id.). Instead, she smiled. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, Williams also “rubbed [her] butt” at work “once or twice.” (Id. at 84). Again, Plaintiff was not offended and only told him to stop because “somebody could have [seen] him.” (Id. at 84-85).

         Plaintiff testified that even when he was not acting as her direct supervisor, Williams sometimes contacted her supervisors to change her daily work assignments. (Id. at 141-42, 158-61). He hovered near Plaintiff at job locations, drawing the attention of her coworkers. (Id. at 140-41). If Williams did not know where Plaintiff was assigned on a particular day, “he would call the radio” or “call [Plaintiff's] phone. If [she] didn't answer, he would continue to call.” (Id. at 141). Plaintiff felt that Williams took credit for her career advancement. (Id. at 146-47). Specifically, he advised her about what certifications she needed to be considered for a position (Id. at 164-65) and recommended her for promotions to her supervisors (Id. at 164).[3]

         At no point in their relationship did Plaintiff communicate to Williams that his advances or their sexual encounters were unwelcome. (Id. at 74, 88-89). Plaintiff testified at her deposition that “[Williams] wouldn't have [known the relationship was unwelcome] because I never gave him any indications because of what I thought he might do to me. So I kept it as if everything was okay, but it wasn't.” (Id. at 88-89).

         Williams never directly threatened Plaintiff by telling her there would be consequences affecting her career if she ended the sexual relationship. (Id. at 90). But, Plaintiff testified that she felt indirectly threated because Williams implied that he had control over her job by saying “how you got to where you got. Its because of me. I'm the one that helped you [get] there…And everything I say do, that's what you do, and don't pay them any attention.” (Id. at 90-91). According to Plaintiff, “[h]is favorite saying was let nobody take your power.” (Id. at 138).

         B. The City's Sexual Harassment Policies and Response to the Relationship

         During orientation, the City gives all new employees a copy of the City's Sexual and Gender Harassment Policy and explains how to report harassment. (Doc. # 16-6 at 28-29). The Sexual and Gender Harassment Policy provides in pertinent parts:

It is the policy of the City of Birmingham that sexual or gender harassment of City employees or applicants for City employment is strictly prohibited and shall be grounds for dismissal.
Sexual harassment for purposes of this policy is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
(a) Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment; or
(b) Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or
(c) Such conduct has the purpose or effect of interfering with an individual's work.
Individuals who feel that they have been sexually harassed are encouraged to take action themselves in a rational and responsible way.
Other Actions:
(a) Report incidents of sexual harassment to your supervisor, your supervisor's superior, or the City's Human Resources Department.
Supervisors can be held personally liable if they:
(a) Make sexual advances.
(b) Use sex as an expression of power or dominance.
(c) Suggest that sexual favors are a condition of employment.
(d) Discriminate as to gender.
(e) Otherwise create a hostile work environment or condone sexual or gender harassment in the workplace.

(Doc. # 16-8 at 1-4).

         On December 12, 2013, Plaintiff received a copy of the Sexual and Gender Harassment Policy at her new employee orientation. (Docs. # 22-1 at 86-87; 16-3). Plaintiff also signed an acknowledgement form that states: “If I feel I am being harassed, I have a right and responsibility to communicate this directly to the alleged harasser, my supervisor, department head, a non-involved supervisor, the City's Personnel Office and/or seek resolution through the grievance and complaint procedures of the Rules and Regulations of the Jefferson County Personnel Board.” (Doc. # 16-3).

         In January 2015, the City conducted a mandatory training session with all employees, including Department Directors and Deputy Directors. (Doc. # 16-6 at 29-30). City officials instructed attendees on the provisions of the Sexual and Gender Harassment Policy and provided examples of conduct constituting sexual harassment. (Id.). Plaintiff attended this session and signed another acknowledgement form certifying that she had neither suffered nor was aware of any conduct at her work station “that would constitute sexual or gender harassment under the [Policy] within six months of the date of this certification.” (Doc. # 16-4).

         Moreover, Plaintiff personally discussed the Policy with the Director of Public Works, Stephen Fancher. (Docs. # 22-1 25-26; 16-7). In fact, Fancher approached Plaintiff two or three times following complaints from her coworkers about her relationship with Williams. (Doc. # 22-1 at 17-18, 98, 107-109). Plaintiff testified at her deposition that on one occasion, Fancher called her after hours with two other employees listening on the line to ask whether there was anything happening between her and Williams. (Id. at 18, 152-53). In Plaintiff's view, Fancher's tone implied a statement, rather than a question-as if he was instructing her to answer in the negative. (Doc. # 22-1 at 153). Plaintiff answered no. (Id.). Twice, Fancher directly asked Plaintiff whether she was having a relationship with Williams. (Id. at 18, 153-54). Each time, she denied the relationship. (Id. at 18). During one of these conversations, Fancher informed Plaintiff that Williams was a married man with two children. (Id. at 50, 154). Fancher also instructed Williams to stay away from Plaintiff. (Id. at 17).

         Despite her awareness of the City's Sexual and Gender Harassment Policy and the different avenues for reporting sexual harassment, Plaintiff never utilized any of these reporting mechanisms. (Id. at 180-81). When asked how the City would have known that she was having an unwelcome relationship with Williams, Plaintiff responded, “They wouldn't have because I didn't say anything to anybody because of the conversations that I had with Mr. Williams and the statements that Mr. Williams had made to me saying he put me where I was and Fancher had nothing to do with it.” (Id. at 89). Plaintiff testified that she did not tell her supervisors about the relationship because she feared Williams would retaliate against her: “I've seen how he's done other employees when they've done something to him or said anything about anybody, the way that he would target them, have them written up.” (Id. at 13). Consequently, prior to the filing of Plaintiff's EEOC charge, the City never received notice that Plaintiff was either subjected to an allegedly hostile work environment or forced to participate in an unwelcome relationship. (Doc. # 16-6 at 28).

         C. Plaintiff's Resignation and EEOC Charge

         In late 2015 or early 2016, Plaintiff's coworker, Fatuma Robinson, approached Plaintiff to complain about nepotism in the City's hiring practices. (Docs. # 22-1 at 22-24; 16-2). In her deposition, Plaintiff explained that Robinson was upset about “not being hired with the City and that the other supervisor had got her daughters on. And she knew that the daughters were not being hired, and Ms. Fatuma felt that that caused a problem as far as her being discriminated against.” (Doc. # 22-1 at 22-23). Plaintiff advised Robinson to first take her complaint to Fancher, then to the EEOC. (Id. at 23-24, 28-29, 122-23, 155-56).[4]

         On March 16, 2016, Fancher called Plaintiff to his office to question her about reports that Plaintiff was telling her coworkers to bring their sexual harassment claims directly to the EEOC. (Id. at 25-27, 155-57; Doc. # 16-7). He read from the City's Sexual and Gender Harassment Policy, but he did not directly ask Plaintiff about Robinson's complaint. (Id.). Plaintiff responded that she had not talked with other employees about sexual harassment. (Id. at 37-38; Doc. # 16-7). She did not tell Fancher about her conversations with Robinson because she wanted to protect Williams. (Doc. # 22-1 at 156-57). Plaintiff left the meeting thinking her professional relationship with Fancher had suffered, but she did not feel as though her job was in jeopardy. (Id. at 38). Furthermore, the ...


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