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Greene v. Shapiro & Ingle, LLP

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

June 15, 2018

LAURA B. GREENE, Plaintiff,
v.
SHAPIRO & INGLE, LLP, Defendant.

          ORDER

          ROBERT J. CONRAD, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 24); its Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 34), Plaintiff's Response in Opposition, (Doc. No. 40); Defendant's Reply, (Doc. No. 44); Plaintiff's Motion to Strike Defendant's Reply, (Doc. No. 50); her Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 51); Defendant's Response in Opposition, (Doc. No. 52); and Plaintiff's Reply, (Doc. No. 53). The two motions are ripe for adjudication. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion to Strike Defendant's Reply.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background.

         Laura B. Greene (“Plaintiff”) filed her Complaint, (Doc. No. 1-1), against Shapiro & Ingle, LLP (“Defendant”) on May 9, 2017, in the Superior Court of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. On May 17, 2017, Plaintiff's case was removed to the Western District of North Carolina. (Doc. No. 1). On October 24, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel Discovery, (Doc. No. 14), which the Magistrate Judge granted and denied in part, (Doc. No. 20 at 6). Plaintiff filed a second Motion to Compel Discovery, (Doc. No. 22), on February 22, 2018, which the Magistrate Judge granted on March 30, 2018, (Doc. No. 48). This second order by the Magistrate Judge set April 9, 2018, as the deadline for Defendant to provide full discovery responses. (Doc. No. 48 at 4). It also required Defendant to reimburse Plaintiff for her reasonable costs and fees associated with preparing and filing her second motion and its supporting memoranda. (Id.). On March 1, 2018, Defendant filed its Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 24). On April 5, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Strike Defendant's Reply in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 50), arguing that it relied on evidence presented for the first time. Oral arguments regarding Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment were heard on May 31, 2018.[1]

         B. Factual Background.

         Plaintiff is an attorney residing in Gaston County, North Carolina. (Doc. No. 1 ¶1). Defendant is a law firm with offices in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. (Id. ¶2). From January to September of 2015, Defendant employed Plaintiff as a salaried attorney in its Charlotte, North Carolina office. (Id. ¶6, 22). Throughout the hiring process, Defendant made known it valued Plaintiff's dual licensure in North Carolina and Tennessee. (Id.). Defendant also understood that Plaintiff was in the process of completing her LLM degree in taxation through online classes. (Id. ¶7).

         By February of 2015, Plaintiff began working in Defendant's Title Department alongside Title Manager, James Albert, and legal assistant, Matt Hill. (Id. ¶9). As she began her new role, Plaintiff participated in email communication with coworkers that would frequently shift from business to personal matters. (Id. ¶11). Of particular note are those communications between Plaintiff and Title Manager Albert. (Id. ¶12).

         1. Interactions with James Albert

         Emails and interactions between Albert and Plaintiff began professional but, as Plaintiff tells it, soon became “inappropriate and sexual in nature.” (Id.). Albert began commenting to Plaintiff on the attractiveness of other female employees. (Doc. No. 40 at 7). He opined on others' weight, how he favored short skirts, and asked which of Defendant's employees were pursuing sexual relationships with each other. (Id. at 7-8).

         Plaintiff alleges that Alberts comments to her constituted sexual harassment. In doing so, Plaintiff points to various emails Albert sent her throughout the summer of 2015 that she claims “crossed a line.” (Id.). While Plaintiffs brief supplies Albert's comments in isolation, a more accurate portrayal of his comments in the record are as follows:

• In an email where Plaintiff asked Albert, “So how late do you have to stay? I saw you in there, having a meeting. Do you have to sleepover?” Albert responded, “Are you staying to sleep over with me?” Plaintiff emailed Albert back, “No, I am not Matt Hill, therefore I do not desire to sleep on the couch in the breakroom.” (Doc. No. 40-18 at 9-10).
• When Plaintiff forwarded Albert several Title numbers, Albert responded, “I didn't review [one of those titles], I passed it on to [another employee] who did the review… do you have me on your mind?” (Doc. No. 40-22 at 3-5).
• In an email where Plaintiff asked Albert if he had Tylenol in his office for her migraine, Albert responded that he was out. Plaintiff stated, “And guess you didn't ever want me to come visit again since you ate all the Tylenol.” Albert responded, “You can visit me whenever you want, I'm yours for the taking.” (Doc. No. 40-18 at 11-13).
• When Albert answered a business-related question from Plaintiff, she responded, “Thank you! Yes, I seriously though [sic] that a non-moron would know these are available online. I will take you to [V]egas ... If they ever give me raise.... Haha.” Albert stated, “It'll be a blast!” Plaintiff then asked Albert if his wife would want to go and Albert responded that he wasn't planning on bringing her. Plaintiff continued, asking, “Isn't she down to parttty?” Albert later asserted that he “deserve[d] some alone time.” Plaintiff responded, “Haven't you see[n] the hangover? You can just drug yourself for fun.” After Plaintiff mocked Albert's apparent interest in the game Dungeons & Dragons, she stated he should go to a “D&D fest” in Las Vegas. It was only then that Albert stated, “Don't mock, you know you'd want to come.” (Doc. No. 40-22 at 6-12).
• In another email, Plaintiff told Albert that she had a sprained ankle with a bug bite. “It is huge and itches, ” Plaintiff wrote. Albert responded by asking, “Do you want me to starch [sic] it for you lol?” Albert then corrected himself, saying that he meant “Scratch it… or whatever you need.” When Plaintiff stated that all she needed was bug spray and a bandage, Albert wrote, “Ok, was just trying to nice and help ya out, I have some magic hands.” (Doc. No. 40-19 at 3-6).

         As the excerpts above show, Plaintiff contributed to the conversations with Albert. For example, Defendant points out that Plaintiff sent Albert an email commenting on a “hot guy.” (Doc. No. 25 at 8) (citing Doc. No. 25-2 at 34). Several employees saw Plaintiff enter Albert's office frequently. (Id at 9). While Plaintiff claims her visits to Albert were because he was a notary, a number of notaries were employed throughout the building. (Id. at 10).

         As far as Albert's outward conduct toward Plaintiff goes, he never threatened Plaintiff or touched her sexually. (Doc. No. 25 at 3); see also (Doc. No. 25-11 at 48).

         Rather, Plaintiff admits that Albert's behavior remained “along the lines of these more subtle innuendos and whatnot in [their] conversations.” (Doc. No. 25-11 at 48).

         2. Plaintiff's Reports to Defendant

         Plaintiff states that she reported Albert's comments to Defendant multiple times. First, Plaintiff states that she made verbal comments to Michelle Toney, a human resource (“HR”) specialist, during the week of May 21, 2015. (Doc. No. 40 at 9). During this verbal meeting with Toney, Plaintiff said that Albert could be vindictive and made inappropriate comments. (Doc. No. 40-1 at 32). Plaintiff admitted that she did not use the words “sexual harassment” with Toney, but she attempted to relay that Albert would say “weird things.” (Id. at 33). Plaintiff told Toney that she believed she had to entertain Albert's comments or he would not help her professionally. (Id.).

         Plaintiff's second verbal complaint occurred in either late June or early July of 2015. (Doc. No. 40 at 9). On August 4, 2015, Plaintiff began emailing Toney. (Doc. No. 40-2 at 8). Plaintiff forwarded Albert's email where he stated that his “magic hands” could help Plaintiff's bug bite on her ankle. (Doc. No. 40 at 9). Then, on August 26, Plaintiff emailed Toney again, attaching a message Albert sent via “G-chat” stating, “U r killing me smalls.” (Doc. No. 40-19 at 8). This comment was sent in response to Plaintiff's complaints to Toney. (Doc. No. 40 at 10). That same day, Toney emailed Elizabeth Ells, the firm's operations manager, and stated that “[Plaintiff] wants [Albert] to treat her professionally and to stop communications that do not have anything to do with work.” (Doc. No. 40-21 at 1). Toney asked if she should talk to Albert about his “unprofessional communications.” (Id.). Ells replied, “Yes, speak to James. Although you told me Laura Greene keeps showing up in his office.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff's last report occurred on August 31, 2015, when she met with Ells and Grady Ingle, the firm's managing partner. (Doc. No. 40 at 11). At this meeting, Plaintiff alleges that Ingle advised Plaintiff to stay in her office and that she was the cause of Albert's comments. (Id.). Ells asked Plaintiff if she wanted to transfer to the bankruptcy department. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that Ells told her that Plaintiff was “either with us, or against us.” (Id.). In the end, Ells and Ingle concluded that they would transfer Plaintiff to the firm's bankruptcy practice. (Id.). The group also agreed to meet again in September to discuss a pay increase for Plaintiff. (Id.).

         3. Plaintiff's Job Performance

         Throughout Plaintiff's interactions with Albert, she continued to do her job. Plaintiff states that she often worked more than 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week. (Doc. No. 40 at 6). Defendant, however, states that Plaintiff continually took an excessive number of absences and habitually arrived late to the office. (Doc. No. 25 at 4). Defendant presents emails showing at least 57 instances of attendance issues in Plaintiff's eight months of employment. (Doc. No. 45 at 9). Plaintiff sent these emails notifying Toney that she was either running late for work or had to leave early. See (Doc. No. 25-13 at 1-102). Plaintiff's absence from the office not only resulted from her LLM classes, but also from various doctors' appointments, sick days, and issues with her car.

         4. Plaintiff's Termination

         On September 14, 2015, Defendant terminated Plaintiff-two weeks after her August 31st meeting with Ells and Ingle. (Doc. No. 40 at 11). The decision was made jointly by Ingle, Toney, and Ells. (Id.). Defendant cites Plaintiff's absences and tardiness as the basis for its decision.

         II. DEFENDANT'S MOTION ...


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