FOSS v. CIRCUIT CITY STORES, INC.Civil No. 06-153-P-S.
521 F.Supp.2d 99 (2007)
Andrew FOSS, Plaintiff,
CIRCUIT CITY STORES, INC., Defendant.
CIRCUIT CITY STORES, INC., Defendant.
United States District Court, D. Maine.
November 8, 2007.
Guy D. Loranger, Nichols & Webb, P.A., Saco, ME, for Plaintiff.
Brian G. Muse, Susan Childers North, Leclair Ryan, PC, Williamsburg, VA, Richard G. Moon, Anne Birgel, Verrill & Dana, Portland, ME, for Defendant.
GEORGE Z. SINGAL, Chief Judge.
Plaintiff Andrew Foss brought the instant action against his former employer Defendant Circuit City Stores, Inc. ("Circuit City") alleging hostile work environment sexual harassment in violation of Title VII (Count I), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) and retaliation in violation of Title VII (Count II), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). Plaintiff claims that his direct supervisor, John Lounsbury, created a hostile work environment by continuously commenting on women's bodies or discussing topics of a sexually explicit nature for the six weeks that they worked together at the Keene, New Hampshire Circuit City store. Now before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, which asserts that the record does not generate a genuine issue of material fact on either claim. (Docket # 25.) After a thorough review of the affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and other exhibits submitted in connection with the instant motion, the Court concludes that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Count I, but not on Count II.
I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
Summary judgment is appropriate only if the record shows "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Santoni v. Potter,
In determining whether this burden is met, the court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences in its favor. Santoni, 369 F.3d at 598. Once the moving party has made a preliminary showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists, the nonmovant must "produce specific facts, in suitable evidentiary form, to establish the presence of a trialworthy issue." Triangle Trading Co. v. Robroy Indus., Inc.,
The parties' statements of material facts, credited to the extent either admitted or supported by record citations in accordance with Local Rule 56, viewed in the light most favorable to Foss and resolving all reasonable inferences in Foss's favor, reveal the following.
In October 2004, Andrew Foss completed an online employment application for a sales position with Circuit City.
After working at Circuit City for almost a year, in September 2005, Foss requested a transfer to the Circuit City store in Keene, New Hampshire so he could be closer to the college he was attending.
To keep track of their work hours, Circuit City associates either "swipe" their I.D. cards into the computer system, which automatically records the time they begin their shift, or their time is manually entered. (Hopkins Aff. ¶ 15.) After starting at the Manchester store, Foss swiped his I.D. card to automatically sign him into the system and record his time, but the computer system did not recognize him. (Foss Dep. at 88.) Foss spoke to his manager Josh Dean about not being able to automatically punch into the system. (Foss Dep. at 88-89.) Dean told Foss that he probably had not been transferred in the system and then Dean manually entered Foss's arrival on his time record. (Foss Dep. at 88-89.) Within a few weeks, Foss was told he could manually enter the time into the computer on his own time record
Foss started at the Keene store on October 28, 2005. The Director for the Keene store was Kenneth Dionne ("Dionne"). (Foss Dep. at 45; Dionne Aff. ¶ 6.) Dionne remained Foss's store Director throughout Foss's employment at the Keene store. (Dionne Aff. ¶ 5.) John Lounsbury ("Lounsbury") worked as the sales manager of the entertainment department at the Keene store and served as Foss's immediate supervisor.
After starting at the Keene store, Foss continued to manually enter his arrival and departure times on his timesheets. (Foss Dep. at 86-89.) Circuit City's computer system displays the time of the day so associates who manually record their time into the computer will know the exact time when they arrive. (Hopkins Aff. ¶ 16.) However, when working at the Keene store, Foss did not make a practice of immediately entering his arrival time on his timesheet. (Foss Dep. at 96.) Rather, after arriving for a shift, he would check in with his manager — Dionne or Lounsbury — and talk about sales or the other shifts and then at some point in the shift he would enter his arrival time into the system. (Foss Dep. at 96.)
From October 28 through December 17, 2005, Foss worked with Lounsbury on 19 days. (Foss Dep. at 50.) The record is in dispute on Lounsbury's conduct during this time, however, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the record supports the following facts. Lounsbury constantly made sexual comments about female customers and, specifically, commented on their breasts, legs and buttocks. (Foss Dep. 54-55, 70.) Lounsbury would also make jokes to Foss about obese women, saying he felt sorry for their husbands. (Foss Dep. at 54-55.) If an attractive woman came into the department, Lounsbury would talk about his desire to be single or wished he was not married. (Foss Dep. at 83-84.) Lounsbury often described his sexual habits and experiences to Foss. (Foss Dep. at 53, 71.) The sexual comments Lounsbury made spanned the entire six weeks that Foss worked with him at the Keene store. (Foss Dep. at 60.)
In addition to this generalized conduct, Foss recounts specific instances of Lounsbury's inappropriate conversations. Indeed, Foss recalls that Lounsbury's vulgar commentary began immediately after he started working at the Keene store. For example, at the "friends and family night" celebrating the grand opening of the Keene store, Lounsbury made inappropriate comments to other employees about a woman he thought was Foss's girlfriend. (Foss Dep. at 51.) After Foss showed Lounsbury a picture of his girlfriend, Lounsbury commented that she looked very Irish and stated that Irish women were whores, that "he dated Irish women and that they were just as bad as dating crazy black Jamaican women." (Foss Dep. at 56.) On another occasion, Lounsbury picked up a piece of product wrap and
Foss repeatedly made it clear to Lounsbury that he found the comments disgusting, and he did not want to hear it. (Foss Dep. at 53.) Despite making his position clear to Lounsbury, Foss found it difficult to avoid being subjected to the harassment. (Foss Dep. at 52-53, 71.) Foss was not alone in having to listen to Lounsbury's crude remarks. Laura Mann was present for Lounsbury's vulgar commentary. (Foss Dep. at 52; Plaintiffs Response to Defendant's First Set of Interrogatories at Nos. 15, 16, and 17.) Other associates may have also been exposed to Lounsbury's conduct. (Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's First Set of Interrogatories at Nos. 15 and 17.)
The record is also in dispute on this point, however, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the record supports the following facts. Foss first told Dionne that he was uncomfortable working with Lounsbury because of Lounsbury's sexual commentary in late November or early December 2005. (Foss Dep. at 61-62.) Dionne replied: "You know, John is John, and that's how he is."
In early December 2005, Foss asked Dionne for a transfer back to the South
Later that day, Dionne went looking for Foss in the store to tell him his transfer request was approved but was unable to locate him despite the fact that Foss was scheduled to be working. (Dionne Dep. at 30-31; Dionne Aff. ¶ 27.) Dionne then asked Lounsbury to find Foss. (Dionne Aff. ¶ 28; Lounsbury Aff. ¶ 11.) Lounsbury was also unable to find Foss, so he checked the computer and determined that Foss had not clocked into work yet. (Lounsbury Aff. ¶¶ 12, 13.) A short time later, Lounsbury found Foss on the sales floor. (Lounsbury Aff. ¶ 13.) Lounsbury checked Foss's time record again and, at that time, Foss's time sheet indicated that he was working during the time Dionne and Lounsbury were looking for him. (Dionne Aff. ¶¶ 29-30; Lounsbury Aff. ¶ 13.)
The Keene Circuit City store has surveillance cameras located at the entrance of the store and at each computer terminal. (Hopkins Aff. ¶ 21.) In order to determine whether Foss had recorded an accurate time for his arrival at the store that day, Lounsbury checked the video surveillance tape. (Lounsbury Dep. at 21-22.) After watching the tape, Lounsbury concluded that Foss had arrived at work at a time later than Foss had recorded on his time sheet. (Lounsbury Dep. at 21-22.) Lounsbury then notified Dionne and Hopkins of his conclusion. (Lounsbury Dep. at 22.) Dionne then asked Hopkins to investigate Foss's time sheets to determine the existence of, and the cause for, this potential discrepancy in Foss's time sheets. (Dionne Aff. ¶ 30; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 19.)
Hopkins compared some of the times Foss entered on his time sheets from November 24 through December 14, 2005 with the store's videotape surveillance for those same days.
Circuit City's Associate's Handbook contains a specific policy requiring associates to accurately record their hours worked. (Associate Handbook at 10.) Circuit City pays an associate based on the hours and minutes recorded by the associate on his or her time sheet. (Dionne Aff. ¶ 19; Tobolski Aff. ¶ 26; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 17.) Circuit City considers the misrepresentation or falsification of time sheet records to be a theft issue and an integrity issue. (Dionne Aff. ¶ 34; Tobolski Aff. ¶ 28; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 27; Associate Handbook at 7 (setting forth Circuit City's policy requiring all associates to display the utmost integrity).)
Sometime in mid-December, Hopkins contacted Tobolski with the results of her investigation. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 25; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 30.) Hopkins sent Tobolski the print out of Foss's time sheets from November 24, 2005 through December 7, 2005 and her notes regarding what she viewed on the videotape surveillance footage, which Hopkins had reviewed as part of her investigation. (Hopkins Aff. ¶ 30-31.) Tobolski instructed Hopkins to place Foss on administrative leave while Tobolski, as district human resources manager, completed her review on the investigation of Foss's time sheets. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 29; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 31.) Tobolski also instructed Hopkins to obtain a written statement from Foss containing his account of the inaccurate time he entered on his time sheets. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 30; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 32.)
On December 15, Foss arrived at the store at 4:20 and Lounsbury told him to report to Hopkins. (Foss Aff. ¶ 6.) Hopkins informed Foss of her investigation into discrepancies in his time sheets and in the presence of another manager, Eric Jerman, Hopkins interviewed Foss. (Hopkins Aff. ¶ 33.) Hopkins asked Foss if he wanted to view the video surveillance, but Foss declined. (Foss Dep. at 107; First
Tobolski reviewed Hopkins's notes from the surveillance video and Foss's timesheets. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 31.) Based on this review, Tobolski concluded that Foss had falsified his time sheets. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 35.) Both Hopkins and Tobolski considered Foss's falsification of time sheets to be a violation of Company policy and theft from the company. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 27-28; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 27.) Based on the investigation into the accuracy of Foss's timesheets, Tobolski and the managers of the Keene store made the decision to terminate Foss. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 36; Tobolski Dep. at 12.) Tobolski had previously terminated sales associates for falsifying time records. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 39.) Dionne and Richard James, store director for the South Portland store where Foss initially worked, had previously recommended the termination of sales associates for falsifying time sheets. (Dionne Aff. ¶ 36; Deposition. of Richard James at 11-12.) Lounsbury did not participate in the decision to terminate Foss's employment. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 38; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 37; Lounsbury Aff. ¶ 16.)
Tobolski instructed Hopkins to inform Foss of the decision to terminate his employment with Circuit City. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 40; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 35.) On December 17, 2005, Hopkins terminated Foss's employment with Circuit City. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 36; Hopkins Aff. ¶ 38; Foss Dep. 103-04.)
A. Sexual Harassment — Hostile Work Environment
Plaintiff contends that Lounsbury created a hostile work environment by continuously commenting on women's bodies or discussing topics of a sexually explicit nature for the six weeks that they worked together at the Keene Circuit City store. Lounsbury denies, or cannot recall, directing any sexually inappropriate comments about women to Foss. A genuine material issue of fact exists as to whether Lounsbury engaged in an offensive dialogue while working with Foss at Circuit City, however, for purposes of the instant motion, the Court will credit Foss's version of the events. That is, Lounsbury constantly directed at Foss sexual or sexually suggestive comments about women. Such commentary generally related to the breasts, legs and buttocks of female customers. (Foss Dep. 54-55, 70.) Lounsbury's vulgar commentaries began immediately after Foss started working at the Keene store. In addition to this generalized commentary, Foss recounted specific instances of Lounsbury's inappropriate conversations with him. Foss described six specific instances of Lounsbury's vulgar harassment.
Title VII prohibits "an employer" from discriminating "against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of . . . sex." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Discrimination based on sex which creates a hostile or abusive working environment violates Title VII. Meritor Say. Bank, FSB v. Vinson,
1. Whether Lounsbury's Harassment Was Based Upon Foss's Sex
Same-sex harassment claims differ from those between males and females because the latter "typically involve explicit or implicit proposals of sexual activity," which create a presumption that the underlying conduct was based on sex. Oncale v. Sundaumer Offshore Servs., Inc.,
It is clear that harassment is not necessarily discrimination "because of sex," merely because the words used have sexual content or connotations. Id. at 80, 118 S.Ct. 998. Instead, the critical issue for a Title VII claim "is whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed." Id. (quoting Harris, 510 U.S. at 25, 114 S.Ct. 367). Oncale also emphasizes that "whatever evidentiary route the plaintiff chooses to follow, he or she must always prove that the conduct at issue was not merely tinged with offensive sexual connotations, but actually constituted `discrimina[tion] . . . because of . . . sex.'" Id. at 81, 118 S.Ct. 998 (emphasis and alteration in original) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1)).
In this case it is not alleged that Lounsbury is homosexual and motivated by sexual desire toward Foss. Nor is there evidence that Lounsbury was motivated by a general hostility to the presence of males in the workplace. To support his claim that Lounsbury's conduct was based on sex, Foss argues that Lounsbury treated males and females differently. Relying on his deposition testimony, Foss argues that "Lounsbury exposed males to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which women employees were not exposed."
Foss principally relies on his own deposition testimony to support his position that men and women were treated differently by Lounsbury. The Court does not find Foss's deposition testimony to clearly state that men were treated differently or support the conclusion that men and women were treated differently. On the contrary, when asked if he believed that the allegations against Lounsbury have anything to do with being a male, Foss responded stating:
(Foss Dep. at 129-30 (emphasis added).) This statement does not support Foss's unqualified claim that Lounsbury made such comments only in the presence of men. Moreover, the statement does not preclude other evidence that women were present for Lounsbury's obnoxious comments.
The Court's review of the undisputed factual record reveals that of the nineteen days that Foss and Lounsbury worked together, Foss recalled three instances that Laura Mann was present for Lounsbury's vulgar comments. The first instance, Foss described as follows: "Lounsbury picked up a piece of product wrap and walked up to a female employee, Laura Mann, saying Foss's girlfriend has lips like the product wrap. Lounsbury then gestured toward his crotch." (Foss Dep. at 52; Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's First Set of Interrogatories at No. 16.) Plaintiffs answers to interrogatories reveals two additional instances when it is likely that Laura Mann was in Lounsbury's presence when sexually explicit comments were made. Foss indicated that Laura Mann may have been present when Lounsbury discussed the sexual habits of a woman that Foss was taking a bartending class with, and, on another occasion, Lounsbury said something to Mann that caused her to exclaim "that is gross" and then Lounsbury told Foss that: "You're never going to have a chance with her now." (Complaint ¶¶ 11, 14; Plaintiffs Response to Defendant's First Set of Interrogatories at Nos. 15 and 17.)
Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Foss, the Keene store was undoubtedly an unpleasant place to work during this time in the fall of 2005. In determining what is actionable under Title VII, however, the Supreme Court stresses the importance of distinguishing between harassment and discriminatory harassment in order to "ensure that Title VII does not become a `general civility code.'" Faragher, 524 U.S. at 788, 118 S.Ct. 2275 (quoting Oncale, 523 U.S. at 80, 118 S.Ct. 998). The evidence in this case demonstrates that Lounsbury did not treat men
Foss also contends that Circuit City retaliated against him for complaining about Lounsbury's offensive conduct. Foss need not prevail on the underlying claim of discrimination in order to pursue his retaliation claim. Soileau v. Guilford of Maine, Inc.,
1. Prima Facie Case
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, Plaintiff must show: (1) he engaged in protected activity under Title VII; (2) he was subjected to adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. See Gu v. Boston Police Dep't.,
a. Protected Activity
Title VII prohibits retaliation against an employee because he or she "has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by" Title VII. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). Foss contends that he engaged in protected activity when he complained to Dionne and Tobolski about Lounsbury's conduct. Defendant responds arguing that Foss never explicitly complained of a hostile work environment or that he was the victim of sexual harassment. The record is in dispute on this point. However, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the record supports the following facts.
Foss first told Dionne that he was uncomfortable working with Lounsbury because of Lounsbury's sexual commentary in late November or early December 2005. (Foss Dept at 61-62.) Dionne replied: "You know, John is John, and that's how he is." (Foss Dep. at 62.) A short time later, Foss gave Dionne his two week notice explaining that he did not feel comfortable
Defendant also contends that Foss's complaints about Lounsbury's conduct are not protected activity because a reasonable person, similarly situated, could not reasonably believe that Lounsbury's conduct was unlawful. Clark County School Dist. v. Breeden,
In Jordan, the plaintiff complained to his employer about a coworker's singular racist statement and, after the plaintiff was fired, he brought suit claiming that he was fired for making the complaint about the coworker's statement. In discussing Jordan's retaliation claim, the Court stated the issue as "whether Jordan complained about an actual hostile work environment or, if there was not one, whether Jordan could reasonably have believed there was one." Id. at 340. After concluding that the isolated racial comment did not create a hostile work environment, the Court addressed the question of whether Jordan reasonably believed that the work environment was hostile. On this point, Jordan argued that he had an objectively reasonable belief that Title VII was about to be violated because the coworker's conduct would have at some point ripened into a racially hostile work environment. The Court found that "no objectively reasonable person could have believed that [Defendant's] office was in the grips of a hostile work environment or that one was taking shape." Id. at 340-41. Jordan is distinguishable from the instant case because, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Foss, Lounsbury's sexual commentary occurred every time they worked together whereas in Jordan only one racist statement was ever made to the plaintiff. On these facts, it is objectively reasonable to conclude that Lounsbury's conduct was unlawful.
b. Adverse Employment Action
Next, Foss must show he was the victim of an adverse employment action constituting "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." Burlington Indus., Inc., v. Ellerth,
c. Causal Connection
Foss must further show a causal connection existed between the protected activity
The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has held that "[a] showing of discharge soon after the employee engages in an activity specifically protected by . . . Title VII . . . is indirect proof of a causal connection between the firing and the activity because it is strongly suggestive of retaliation." Oliver v. Digital Equip. Corp.,
In Soileau plaintiff principally relied on the timing of the events"his termination occurred within one month of giving employer notice of his disability and requesting accommodation — to support his retaliation claim. Id. The First Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer on plaintiffs retaliation claim. In reaching its conclusion, the Court noted that the plaintiff was disciplined and warned of discharge if his performance did not improve and if he did not submit a performance plan and such discipline and warning occurred before the employer ever knew that plaintiff was asserting that he was disabled or before plaintiff requested an accommodation. The Court stated that plaintiffs "narrow focus ignore[ed] the larger sequence of events," which "undercuts any claim of causation." Id. Likewise, in Ramirez Rodriguez v. Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals,
There is no evidence in the record that Circuit City was investigating Foss's time records until after he complained about Lounsbury's conduct. The evidence that Circuit City did not start to investigate Foss's time records until after he complained about Lounsbury's conduct and that Foss was terminated within two weeks of complaining about Lounsbury's
2. Facially Nondiscriminatory Justification
Since Foss has established his prima facie case, the burden shifts to Defendant to proffer a non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Circuit City has met this burden here by the evidence presented in the summary judgment record that Foss was terminated because he falsified his time sheets in order to conceal being late for work on numerous days.
Sometime in mid-December, after being notified by Dionne that Foss may be inaccurately recording his arrival time on his time records, Hopkins compared some of the times Foss entered on his time sheets from November 24 through December 14, 2005 with the store's videotape surveillance for those same days. (First Hopkins Aff. ¶¶ 20, 21; Second Hopkins Aff. ¶ 9.) Hopkins determined that on at least six of the eleven days Foss worked during this timeframe, the time listed on Foss's time sheets did not match the time Foss actually entered the Keene store. (First Hopkins Aff. ¶ 22; Second Hopkins Aff. ¶ 10.) Foss's time sheets showed that, on multiple occasions, he walked into the store and clocked in between ten and twenty minutes later than the time he entered on his time sheets. (First Hopkins Aff. ¶ 23.) Hopkins concluded, based on her investigation, that Foss falsified his time sheets in violation of Circuit City's policies and procedures. (First Hopkins Aff. ¶ 26; Hopkins Dep. at 12.) Based on the investigation into the accuracy of Foss's timesheets, Tobolski and the managers of the Keene store made the decision to terminate Foss. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 36; Tobolski Dep. at 12.) Falsification of time records has lead to the termination of other Circuit City sales associates. (Tobolski Aff. ¶ 39; Dionne Aff. ¶ 36; James Dep. at 11-12.)
Since Circuit City has proffered a nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, the burden shifts back to Foss to demonstrate that the reasons given by the Defendant are pretextual and that his discharge was in retaliation for his reports of harassment. Fennell v. First Step Designs, Ltd.,
The evidence in the record indicates that it was approximately two weeks from the time Foss first complained to Dionne and Tobolski about Lounsbury's offensive behavior until he was terminated. In that two-week timeframe, the record supports the conclusion that the decisionmakers — Tobolski and Dionne — became aware that Foss felt harassed by Lounsbury's conduct and refused to take any action to remedy the situation. (Foss Dep. at 62 (When Foss told Dionne of Lounsbury's behavior, Dionne responded "You know, John is John, and that's how he is."); Foss Dep. at 68 (On another occasion that Foss complained to him, Dionne responded: "John is John.").) The fact that the summary judgment record supports the conclusion that the decisionmakers knew about Foss's complaints before terminating him raises an inference of retaliatory animus and distinguishes this case from Bennett v. Saint-Gobain Corp.,
Tobolski and Dionne later agreed to transfer Foss and it was then, when Dionne went looking for Foss to tell him that he could transfer, that ultimately led to Dionne becoming aware from Lounsbury that Foss was falsifying his time records. The "very close" temporal proximity between Foss's complaints and his termination and the fact that the decisionmakers knew about Foss's complaints and took no corrective action, if believed, could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that retaliation motivated Circuit City's conduct. Defendant disputes these facts and inferences. It is precisely this sort of material, factual disagreement which precludes summary judgment as to Foss's claim of retaliation.
Accordingly, the Court
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