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High v. R & R Transportation, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 16, 2017

SAFIYA HIGH, Plaintiff,


          Loretta C. Biggs United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff initiated this action on January 11, 2016 against her former employer, R&R Transportation, Inc. (“R&R” or “Defendant”), alleging sex discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 et seq. (“Title VII”), as well as breach of contract.[1] Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 42.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         R&R is a transportation company located in Greensboro, North Carolina. (ECF No. 42-1 ¶ 2.) Karl Robinson is the owner and President of the company. (Id. ¶ 1.) The company employs several of his family members including: (i) Allen Robinson, his brother and Vice President, who served as Plaintiff's supervisor, (ECF No. 34 ¶ 24; ECF No. 42-1 ¶ 3; ECF No. 48-2 at 17:18-20); (ii) LaShelle Robinson Spinks, his daughter, who works in the office and manages R&R's administration, (ECF No. 42-1 ¶ 3; ECF No. 34 ¶ 12); and (iii) Harrold Thornton Dennis Robinson (“Dennis Robinson”), his cousin, who “perform[s] maintenance on the [company] vehicles, ” (ECF No. 42-1 ¶ 4).

         Plaintiff was employed by R&R, as an Administrative Assistant, from September 2, 2014 until March 2, 2015. (ECF No. 34 ¶¶ 21, 151; ECF No. 34-28.) R&R, at the time, had 16 employees, (ECF No. 34-8), two of whom - Plaintiff and LaShelle Robinson Spinks - were the only female employees, (ECF No. 34 ¶ 12; ECF No. 35 ¶ 12). Plaintiff alleges that, while employed at R&R, she was subjected to sexually harassing conduct. (See ECF No. 34 ¶¶ 174- 182.) Plaintiff filed three (3) Charges of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (ECF Nos. 48-13, 48-14, 48-15.) Plaintiff filed the first charge (“Charge 1”) on February 24, 2015, alleging discrimination based on sex and retaliation, and stating, among other things, that “[f]rom the outset of my employment I've been sexually harassed by a male coworker.”[2] (ECF No. 48-13 at 2.) Plaintiff also alleged in Charge 1 that after reporting the harassing behavior to her supervisor, R&R's Vice President, the harassment ceased, but later resumed. (Id.) Plaintiff then “escalated” her complaints to the President “and the harassment stopped.” (Id.)

         The day after Plaintiff filed Charge 1, on February 25, 2015, she sent an email to Karl Robinson stating that she was “giving [her] two week notice.” (ECF No. 34-24 at 1.) Karl Robinson met with Plaintiff nearly a week later, on March 2, 2015, to discuss her resignation notice. (ECF No. 36-26; ECF No. 42-1 ¶ 7; ECF No. 34 ¶ 151.) During that meeting, Karl Robinson told Plaintiff that it was not necessary to give two weeks' notice, and asked Plaintiff to sign R&R's Separation of Employment form. (ECF No. 42-1 ¶ 7; ECF No. 34-28; ECF No. 34 ¶ 151.) Plaintiff refused to sign the form, gathered her belongings, and left R&R's facility. (Id.)

         A few days later, on March 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed a second EEOC charge (“Charge 2”) alleging sexual harassment and claiming that she was discharged in retaliation for having filed Charge 1. (ECF No. 48-14 at 1.) Nearly a month later, on March 30, 2015, Plaintiff filed a third EEOC charge (“Charge 3”), in which she alleged discrimination based on sex. (ECF No. 48-15 at 3.) Plaintiff also alleged, among other things, in Charge 3, that she was “sexually harassed by two . . . male coworkers”[3] and the “sexual harassment did not stop following . . . complaints to management, as I suggested in my previous charge, and the fact that a second male coworker was also sexually harassing me was not brought up because I'd forgotten.” (Id.) Ultimately, the EEOC dismissed Plaintiff's three charges and issued a Notice of Right to Sue for each charge. (ECF Nos. 34-1, 34-2, 34-3.) Plaintiff then filed the instant lawsuit seeking compensatory and punitive damages. (ECF No. 34 at 48-49.) R&R has moved for summary judgment “on every claim asserted by Plaintiff.” (ECF No. 42 at 1.)


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the litigation, and a dispute is “genuine” if the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “The summary judgment inquiry . . . scrutinizes the plaintiff's case to determine whether the plaintiff has proffered sufficient proof, in the form of admissible evidence, that could carry the burden of proof of his claim at trial.” Mitchell v. Data Gen. Corp., 12 F.3d 1310, 1316 (4th Cir. 1993).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of “pointing out to the district court . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). To defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324. The nonmoving party must support its assertions by citing to particular parts of the record, such as affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324. When the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof on an issue, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the nonmoving party “fail[s] to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323.

         The role of the court is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter” but rather “to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 249. A genuine issue for trial exists only when “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Id. “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Id. at 249-50 (citations omitted). When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must “resolve all factual disputes and any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable” to the nonmoving party. Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)).


         Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer “to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Before a plaintiff files suit under Title VII, she must exhaust her administrative remedies by, first, filing a charge with the EEOC. Smith v. First Union Nat'l Bank, 202 F.3d 234, 247 (4th Cir. 2000). A plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies deprives the court of subject matter jurisdiction over the claim. Jones v. Calvert Grp., Ltd., 551 F.3d 297, 300 (4th Cir. 2009).

         A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         R&R argues that Plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies and thus, should be limited only to the specific factual allegations recited in her EEOC charges. (ECF No. 47 at 9, 11.) Plaintiff argues that her Title VII claims are not barred because “it is clear that Plaintiff has met her burden of exhausting her administrative remedies.” (ECF No. 48 at 10.)

         When an action is filed alleging Title VII violations, the EEOC charge “defines the scope of [plaintiff's] subsequent right to institute a civil suit” in federal court. First Union Nat'l Bank, 202 F.3d at 247. The charge must be “sufficiently precise to identify the parties, and to describe generally the action or practices complained of, ” 29 C.F.R. § 1601.12(b), such that a claimant's “employer is put on notice of the alleged violations, ” Miles v. Dell, Inc., 429 F.3d 480, 491 (4th Cir. 2005). The scope of a plaintiff's Title VII lawsuit, however, is not strictly limited only to those discrimination claims expressly stated in the EEOC charge. See Chisholm v. U.S. Postal Serv., 665 F.2d 482, 491 (4th Cir. 1981). Discrimination claims reasonably related to the charge, and those developed by reasonable investigation of the charge can also be asserted in a subsequent lawsuit in federal court. See Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 963 (4th Cir. 1996).

         Generally, a claim in a plaintiff's civil suit will be barred if: (i) the charge alleges one basis of discrimination (e.g., sex) and the complaint alleges a different basis of discrimination (e.g., race), see Jones, 551 F.3d at 300; (ii) the charge alleges one type of discrimination, (e.g., failure to promote) and the complaint alleges a different type of discrimination (e.g., discrimination in pay and benefits), see Chacko v. Patuxent Inst., 429 F.3d 505, 509 (4th Cir. 2005); or (iii) the charge “reference[s] different time frames, actors, and discriminatory conduct than the central factual allegations in [the] formal suit, ” id. at 506. Because “lawyers do not typically complete the [EEOC] administrative charges, . . . courts construe them liberally.” Id. at 509. As explained by the Fourth Circuit, while important, “the exhaustion requirement should not become a tripwire for hapless plaintiffs [and] we may not erect insurmountable barriers to litigation out of overly technical concerns.” Sydnor v. Fairfax Cty., Va., 681 F.3d 591, 594 (4th Cir. 2012). Essentially, the Court must seek “to strike a balance between providing notice to employers and the EEOC on the one hand and ensuring plaintiffs are not tripped up over technicalities on the other.” Sydnor, 681 F.3d at 594.

         R&R primarily relies on Chacko v. Patuxent Inst., 429 F.3d 505 (4th Cir. 2005), to support its argument that Plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. In that case, the plaintiff's administrative charges alleged specific instances of harassment by his supervisors and made no mention of harassment by co-workers nor the use of racial epithets. See Chacko, 429 F.3d at 507. At trial, however, the bulk of plaintiff's evidence centered on co-worker harassment, spanning 20 years, including the use of racial epithets against plaintiff. Id. at 508. The Fourth Circuit concluded that “the administrative charges and the evidence at trial describe two different cases [which] is precisely the sort of disjunction that the administrative complaint process is designed to avoid.” Id. at 512.

         Here, Plaintiff's EEOC charges essentially allege, among other things, that:

(i) she was sexually harassed by a male co-worker “[f]rom the outset of [her] employment, ” (ECF No. 48-13 at 2; see ECF No. 48-14 at 1);
(ii) she was sexually harassed by two male co-workers, (ECF No. 48-15 at 3);
(iii) the sexual harassment by a male coworker “consisted of him propositioning [her] to date him, ” (ECF No. 48-13 at 2);
(iv) a male coworker tried to kiss her and asked her for a kiss, (id.);
(v) a male coworker “attempt[ed] to place [her] arm around his shoulders, ” (id.); and
(vi) a male coworker “improperly touch[ed]” her arm and waist, (id.)

         The allegations in Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint (“Complaint”) include, among other things, that:

(i) Dennis Robinson told Plaintiff that he was interested in her and, on more than one occasion, he told Plaintiff that he wanted to take her out and be in a relationship with Plaintiff, (ECF No. 34 ¶¶ 35, 38, 40, 41, 59, 61, 64);
(ii) Stacy Wilcox asked Plaintiff out on a date on more than one occasion, (id. ¶¶ 75, 78, 84);
(iii) Dennis Robinson “rubb[ed] Plaintiff's right arm up and down with his hand, ” (id. ¶ 39);
(iv) Dennis Robinson told Plaintiff “to lean over and give him a kiss grabbing Plaintiff around the waist ...

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