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Ramos v. Carolina Motor Club, Inc.

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

June 19, 2018

CARLITA RAMOS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLINA MOTOR CLUB, INC., 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. 26); its Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 27-1); Plaintiff's Response in Opposition, (Doc. No. 28); and Defendant's Reply, (Doc. No. 29). Defendant's Motion is ripe and ready for adjudication. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background.

         On August 31, 2015, Plaintiff Carlita “Jackie” Ramos (“Plaintiff”) was fired from Carolina Motor Club, Inc., also known as AAA Carolinas (“Defendant”). On October 19, 2015, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, which thereafter issued a “right to sue” letter on December 19, 2016. (Doc. No. 2-1 ¶25). This case was removed from Mecklenburg County Superior Court to the Western District of North Carolina on April 19, 2017. (Doc. No. 1). On March 30, 2018, Defendant Carolina Motor Club moved for summary judgment. Oral argument regarding Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment was heard on May 3, 2018.

         B. Factual Background.

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant terminated her employment in discriminatory fashion. Defendant is a North Carolina non-profit known for its emergency roadside assistance and travel planning materials. (Doc. No. 27 at 2). A woman of Dominican descent, Plaintiff began working for Defendant in 2008 as a janitor. (Doc. No. 1-2 ¶11). In October of 2013, Plaintiff was promoted to her first managerial role as “Manager, Auto Touring and Production and Lobby.” (Id. ¶12). In this role, Plaintiff managed a team of Production Specialists preparing various travel materials requested by AAA members. (Id.). In May of 2015, Plaintiff received another promotion, this time managing AAA's new warehouse, which was set to open at the end of that year. (Id. ¶13).

         Around the time of her second managerial promotion, Plaintiff alleges that she was subjected to discriminatory comments. First, Defendant's IT Operations Manager, Rich Sheehan, called Plaintiff's accent ugly and nasty. He stated that he could not understand Plaintiff because she sounded like Sofia Vergara. (Id.). But Plaintiff's claim for discrimination revolves primarily on similar comments from Project Manager Janet Watts, who was charged with overseeing the setup of the new warehouse. (Doc. No. 1-2 ¶14). Watts would ask, “[c]an you do something about your accent, ” or “[c]an you speak English?” (Id. at 59, 63). Watts' actions escalated to screaming at Plaintiff in front of other employees. (Id.). In its most severe form, Watts' actions appeared physically threatening to Plaintiff when Watts came within 12 inches of Plaintiff's face and she wagged her finger. (Id. ¶15). Plaintiff states that two others overheard the comments Watts made regarding Plaintiff: Alven Blue, an African-American employee who also reported to Watts, and Sereatha Harris, the Human Resources Generalist. (Doc. No. 28 at 4). Plaintiff claims that this treatment occurred in every interaction with Watts. (Doc. No. 27-1 at 45, 62).

         Outside of commenting on Plaintiff's accent, Watts told Plaintiff two general derogatory remarks regarding other minorities. On one occasion, Watts told Plaintiff that Hispanic people made bad employees. (Doc. No. 27-1 at 68-69). On another, Watts told Plaintiff that she would not interview a man because he was an ex-veteran and black. (Doc. No. 28-1 at 32). Watts purportedly told Plaintiff that they did not know what would be on his mind. (Id.) Plaintiff attempted to communicate to Watts and Sheehan that their behavior toward Plaintiff was disrespectful and discriminatory, but the pair's behavior continued. (Doc. No. 1-2 ¶15). So, Plaintiff turned to Harris in Human Resources. (Doc. No. 28 at 4). Despite believing Plaintiff that a hostile work environment existed, Harris did nothing regarding Plaintiff's concerns. (Id.). Plaintiff thereafter reported the discriminatory conduct to Human Resources Manager Frank Tatum, on July 9th, who in turn stated that she should talk to Sarah Henshall, the Vice President of Travel. (Doc. Nos. 1-2 ¶16; 28 at 4).

         In August of 2015, Plaintiff reached Henshall directly. (Doc. No. 1-2 ¶19). Plaintiff conveyed to her Watts' behavior and the fact that Watts did not treat Caucasians in a similar manner. (Id.). Plaintiff claims that Henshall immediately denied the allegations against Watts and told Plaintiff that Watts was a difficult person to work with. (Id.).

         While Defendant's Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Complaint Policy required an investigation into Watts' alleged discriminatory behavior, Plaintiff states that Henshall and Tatum did just the opposite; the company began investigating Plaintiff instead. (Doc. No. 1-2 ¶20). This investigation, Plaintiff alleges, was a conspiracy to fire her. (Id.). Tatum interviewed approximately four people on Plaintiff's team, telling her that he merely wanted to check in with the employees since the process of setting up and moving the warehouse was a stressful one. (Id.).

         Frustrated, Plaintiff then attempted to set up a meeting between herself, Henshall, and Watts to discern the discrimination issues and resolve the investigation Tatum was conducting. (Id. ¶21). Henshall scheduled Plaintiff's requested meeting only to cancel it and schedule a new meeting on August 31, 2015, between herself, Plaintiff, and Tatum. In this new meeting, Henshall informed Plaintiff that she was no longer a manager because she could not get along with Watts. (Id. ¶22). Henshall then told Plaintiff to interview for a position as a commissioned saleswoman. This new position was not salaried and required weekend shifts, and there was no guarantee that Plaintiff, who had worked for Defendant for approximately seven years, would even get it. (Id.); see also (Doc. No. 27-3 at 20) (“You didn't actually offer this job to Jackie, did you? You set up an interview for her … correct? [Henshall]: Correct”).

         Plaintiff filed a claim with the EEOC after her termination and now brings an action stating that her termination was a result of discrimination and constituted an act of retaliation for registering her complaints against Watts. (Id. ¶¶23, 24). Plaintiff claims that her position was later filled by Sheryl Fontaine, a Caucasian whose performance scores were lower than Plaintiff's. (Doc. No. 28 at 2, 10). Over a year after Fontaine assumed Plaintiff's former role, AAA promoted Kelly Lancaster- also Caucasian-to take part in the responsibilities that Plaintiff held. (Id.).

         In its Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant claims that this case boils down to “an employee who could not handle new managerial responsibilities but, instead, became fixated on the authority and ‘respect' that she thought should accompany her ‘Manager' title.” (Doc. No. 27 at 1). While Defendant admits that Plaintiff enjoyed positive reviews while performing her first managerial role, it was after her second managerial promotion that the company noted problems with Plaintiff's performance. (Id. at 2, 3). Defendant states that from the start of her new duties, Plaintiff failed to prepare her team for the move into the warehouse. (Id. at 3). Defendant required its “Auto Touring” department to prepare for the move by first completing a thorough inventory. (Id.). However, due to Plaintiff's struggles in leading the effort, the resulting inventory was inaccurate and contained outdated materials. (Id. at 4). Once the date of the move to the new warehouse arrived, the Auto Touring department was not done packing. (Id.).

         After the move, Defendant states that the problems with Plaintiff continued. Plaintiff failed to master the new inventory system despite receiving several training sessions. (Id.). The result, Defendant states, was embarrassing as it had to issue “out of stock” notices to its members. (Id.). Defendant claims a second reason for Plaintiff's termination: her behavior. Plaintiff's performance issues created friction between Plaintiff and Watts. While Watts focused her attention on critical issues, Plaintiff focused on miniscule tasks, such as hanging pictures or stocking hand sanitizer. (Id.). Plaintiff would then become frustrated with Watts when these miniscule problems were not directly addressed due to more pressing concerns on Watts' plate. (Id.). Plaintiff began complaining to other employees despite Henshall's instructions that all complaints go through Watts first. (Id. at 5-6).

         It was in the wake of the botched warehouse transition that Plaintiff approached HR. (Id.). Defendant states that Plaintiff complained of Watts' disrespect of her role as a manager-not necessarily that she was discriminated against. (Id.). Tatum referred Plaintiff to Henshall since both Plaintiff and Watts were supervisors. Tatum also arranged for another HR partner to provide coaching to Watts. (Id. at 6-7). While Plaintiff met with Henshall, Tatum conducted interviews with Plaintiff's direct reports. Tatum, Defendant states, relayed unanimous results from the interview: “the Auto Touring employees complained of stress relating to Plaintiff's performance inadequacies and were fed up with hearing Plaintiff complain about Ms. Watts and trivial building issues.” (Id. at 7). In the wake of Tatum's review, Henshall met again with Plaintiff on August 19, 2015. (Id.).

         At this meeting, Henshall counseled Plaintiff to focus less on trivial matters and to not instigate concerns with Watts.[1] (Id.).

         Despite the meetings and reviews between Plaintiff, HR, and Henshall, another employee, Alvin Blue, came to Henshall stating that Plaintiff continued to create friction with her direct reports and Watts.[2] (Id. at 8). It was at that point, “in light of Plaintiff's performance deficiencies, her inability to work cohesively with her coworkers, and her failure to follow Ms. Henshall's directives on all of these matters, the Company relieved Plaintiff of her position as manager of Auto Touring, effective August 31, 2015.” (Id.). After this decision, Henshall and Tatum arranged for Plaintiff to interview for a travel agent position in a location that was close to Plaintiff's residence. (Id.).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment shall be granted “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A factual dispute 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). A fact is material only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Id. The movant has the “initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal citations omitted). “The burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing' . . . an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 325.

         Once this initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party. The nonmoving party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in his pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324. The nonmoving party must present sufficient evidence from which “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Sylvia Dev. Corp. v. Calvert Cty., Md., 48 F.3d 810, 818 (4th Cir. 1995).

         When ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must view the evidence and any inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (internal citations omitted). The mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment is appropriate. Id. at 249-50.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff's claims include violations of Title VII for hostile work environment, discrimination, and retaliation; violations of Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act; and wrongful discharge in violation of public policy pursuant to North Carolina's the Equal Employment Practices Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-422.1, et seq., and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, N.C. Gen Stat. § 95-151. (Doc. No. 1-2).

         A. Plaintiff's Hostile Work Environment Claim

         The protections of Title VII extend to situations where employees are required to work in a discriminatorily or abusively hostile environment. Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). To succeed on a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must show: “(1) [she] experienced unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on [her] race, color, religion, national origin, or age; (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [her] employment and to create an abusive atmosphere; and (4) there is some basis for imposing liability on the employer.” Baqir v. Principi, 434 F.3d 733, 745-46 (4th Cir. 2006); see also, Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp., 786 F.3d 264, 277 (4th Cir. 2015). Defendant attacks Plaintiff's ability to establish the third and fourth elements.

         1. Severity and pervasiveness

         The Fourth Circuit has long held that evaluating the severity and pervasiveness of harassment is “quintessentially a question of fact.” Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Invs., LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 227 (4th Cir. 2016). However, at the summary judgment stage, the Fourth Circuit interprets the severe/pervasive element as a high bar for plaintiffs to meet. Not just any offensive conduct will suffice since Title VII is not a “general civility code.” Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 788 (1998).

         “The ‘severe or pervasive' element of a hostile work environment claim has both subjective and objective components.” EEOC v. Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 521 F.3d 306, 315 (4th Cir.2008) (internal quotations and citations omitted). “First, the plaintiff must show that [s]he subjectively perceived the environment to be abusive. Next, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the conduct was such that a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position would have found the environment objectively hostile or abusive.” Id. When assessing the reasonable person standard, plaintiffs must identify “instances where the environment was pervaded with discriminatory conduct aimed to humiliate, ridicule, or intimidate, thereby creating an abusive atmosphere.” Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., 521 F.3d at 316 (internal quotations omitted). Defendant claims that Plaintiff admitted three times in her deposition that she received only four comments about her accent-one comment made by Sheehan and three comments made by Watts. (Doc. No. 27-1 at 44, 69, 82, 88). However, other portions of the Plaintiff's deposition allude to more pervasive behavior. In that same deposition, Plaintiff testified that, “anytime [she would] have to deal with [Watts], she made a racist comment …, like, ‘Speak-speak English. Can you speak English?'” (Doc. No. 27-1 at 45) (emphasis added). Plaintiff also testified that, “every time that [Plaintiff and Watts were by themselves], [Watts] always mention[s] [Plaintiff's] accent.” (Id. at 63) (emphasis added).

         “Credibility of conflicting testimony is not, on a summary judgment motion, an issue to be decided by the trial judge.” Summerlin v. Edgar, 809 F.2d 1034, 1039 (4th Cir. 1987). Rather, “[t]he [Court's] job in deciding a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56(c) is not to decide issues of fact, but to determine whether there is any genuine issue of material fact to be decided.” Id. The Court cannot turn a blind eye to the contradictions in Plaintiff's deposition.[3] These inconsistencies, and the concomitant credibility issues they raise, are for the jury to determine.

         Courts must also look to the severity of comments. “[T]he required showing of severity … of the harassing conduct varies inversely with the pervasiveness … of the conduct.” Glorioso v. Aireco Supply Inc., 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7071, 1995 WL 442203, *3 (D. Md. 1995) (quoting Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872, 878 (9th Cir. 1991)). Therefore, “an isolated incident[ ] of harassment can amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment, if that incident is extremely serious.” Fontainebleau, 786 F.3d at 277 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Again, Defendant points to Plaintiff's admission that Watts yelled at her on two of the three times she commented on Plaintiff's accent. (Doc. No. 27-1 at 68-69). On one of those instances, Watts came within inches of Plaintiff's face. (Id. at 67, 80). Plaintiff maintains that all of these incidents were humiliating, one of which was physically threatening. (Doc. No. 28 at 17).

         Courts have found sufficiently severe comments when defendants used particularly derogatory terms or made threats toward the plaintiff. See, e.g. Fontainebleau, 786 F.3d at 279-80 (finding a manager's use of the term “damn porch monkey” to an employee and his multiple threats “to get her” or “make her sorry” was properly considered extremely serious for a harassment claim); see also Hoyle v. Freightliner, LLC, 650 F.3d 321, 334 (4th Cir. 2011) (finding physically threatening conduct probative, but not determinative, of the severe/pervasive element); Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 185 (4th Cir. 2001) (finding that repeated insults using derogatory terms sufficiently severe and pervasive). Courts also have looked to the status of the harasser. Fontainebleau, 786 ...


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