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Hamner v. Tuscaloosa County School System

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

July 10, 2019




         Shannon Hamner initiated this action against her former employer, the Tuscaloosa County School System (“TCSS”), and three of its employees, Walter Davie (Superintendent), Allison Mays (Human Resources Director), and Clifton Henson (a middle school principal). Hamner asserts claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and Alabama state law, for alleged sexual harassment. Doc. 1. Before the court are the Defendants' motions to dismiss, docs. 5, and 8, which Chief Magistrate Judge John E. Ott converted to motions for summary judgment, doc. 10. The motions are fully briefed and ripe for review, docs. 6, 8, 14, 15, 18, and 19, and are due to be granted in part.


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Mere “‘labels and conclusions'” or “‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action'” are insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When evaluating a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts “the allegations in the complaint as true and construe[s] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Hunt v. Aimco Props., L.P., 814 F.3d 1213, 1221 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must . . . ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. In other words, the complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. See also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The burden then shifts to the non-moving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (all justifiable inferences must be drawn in the non-moving party's favor). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).


         Hamner worked for TCSS from 1988 until her discharge in 2017. Docs. 1 at 4; 1-1. This is Hamner's second lawsuit against TCSS for alleged sexual harassment. Doc. 1 at 5-6. Hamner contends that TCSS began retaliating against her during her first lawsuit, Hamner I, and that the retaliation continued thereafter. Id. at 6-7. After resolving Hamner I, Hamner transferred to a different school, and she alleges that Henson, the school's principal, sexually harassed her by stalking her, engaging in sexually inappropriate conduct, denigrating women, and “put[ting] his hand on her without her consent and with a suggestive look on his face.” Id. at 9-12. After Hamner reported the conduct to Mays, the Defendants launched a purported pretextual investigation, placed Hamner on administrative leave, and then discharged her in retaliation. Id. at 17-21.

         After her discharge, Hamner filed an EEOC charge, alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. Doc. 1-1. The EEOC dismissed the charge and issued a right-to-sue letter dated August 1, 2018, informing Hamner that she had ninety days to file a lawsuit. Doc. 1-2. In pre-litigation correspondence with counsel for TCSS, Hamner's counsel represented that the ninety-day limitation period expired on November 2, 2018, and asked that TCSS agree to toll the statute to allow Hamner thirty additional days to file suit. Doc. 5 at 19-20. When TCSS declined to do so, Hamner's counsel stated that he had mistakenly calculated the date, that the deadline to file was actually three days later, and filed this lawsuit accordingly. Id. at 22-24; doc. 1.

         Apparently, after filing her lawsuit, Hamner waited until three days before the expiration of the time limit for service set forth in Rule 4(m) to serve TCSS, Davie, and Mays. That day, Ronald White, a process server for Hamner, visited TCSS's central office to deliver the summons and complaint to these three defendants. Doc. 15-3 at 2. Allegedly, after White explained to the receptionist, Billie Davidson, that he needed to see Davie and Mays, Davidson referred White to Davie and Mays' assistant, Dana Fisher. Id. For her part, Davidson attests that White approached her initially about becoming a teacher, and then explained that he actually had a subpoena to deliver. Doc. 5 at 10. Davidson adds that White informed her that he did not know the individuals to whom he needed to deliver the subpoenas, and that she directed White to Fisher in the Human Resources office after White informed her that the subpoenas were for employee records. Id. at 10-11. Davidson claims that White never mentioned Davie or Mays specifically. Id. at 11.

         Thereafter, when White arrived at Fisher's office, White asked to see Davie and Mays, and Fisher explained that White could not see Davie and Mays and then offered to take the documents to them. Doc. 15-3 at 2. White gave the documents to Fisher, who was purportedly in a position to see and read the summons addressed to TCSS via Davie and to both Davie and Mays individually. Id. For her part, Fisher claims that White entered her office and asked her to help him become a teacher. Doc. 5 at 14. When she explained that her office did not do academic advising, White explained he was joking and handed her a stack of papers, saying that they were for Davie and Mays. Id. Allegedly, White never asked to see Davie and Mays or inquired about their availability. Id. In any event, later that afternoon, Fisher gave Davie the papers from White, and informed Mays, who was out of the office, by email about the summons. Id. at 8, 17. Mays received the summons when she returned to the office a day after the expiration of the ninety-day period to perfect service. Id. at 17.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Defendants have moved to dismiss, arguing that (1) the Title VII claim is time-barred, [2] (2) this Court lacks jurisdiction over TCSS, Davie, and Mays due to improper service of process, (3) Hamner cannot state a claim under § 1981, (4) Hamner's battery claim is barred by sovereign immunity, and (5) venue is not proper in this division. Docs. 6 and 8. The court addresses each contention in turn.

         A. Title VII ...

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