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Williams v. V&J Employment Service Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 17, 2016

CHARLOTTE S. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
V&J EMPLOYMENT SERVICE, Inc., and V&J FOODS, Inc., Defendants.

DECISION AND ORDER

HON. RUDOLPH T. RANDA U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

Charlotte Williams alleges that she was sexually harassed and subjected to a hostile work environment while working as a crew member at two different Milwaukee-area Burger King restaurants in the summer of 2013. Williams also alleges that she was transferred, had her hours reduced, and was eventually fired in retaliation for complaining about the alleged harassment. The defendants, V&J Employment Service and V&J Foods, move for summary judgment. Williams moves for partial summary judgment on V&J’s affirmative defenses. Both of these motions are denied.

I. Background

In May 2013, Williams was hired to work as a cashier at the Burger King located at 5120 West Capitol Drive. Williams worked with Michaelina Blake. According to Williams, Blake stared at her, called her sexy, and hugged her on at least one occasion. Blake also told Williams that Williams was going to be her girlfriend, grabbed Williams’s buttocks, pressed her breasts against Williams, and frequently looked up and down Williams’s body. Blake’s harassment began on June 15, 2013. Williams rejected Blake’s advances. According to Williams, Blake retaliated by reducing Williams’s working hours.

Williams complained to the store manager, Ernest Wallace, about Blake’s harassment and about her hours being reduced. Wallace relayed this complaint to Robert Postorino, V&J’s Director of Operations. Postorino directed Wallace to change the shift that Blake was assigned to work and proceeded to investigate Williams’s complaint. Postorino interviewed Blake, Shift Leader Tessie Harrell, Williams, and several crew members. None of the various crew members interviewed by Postorino observed any of the conduct alleged by Williams. Blake stated that she had only worked with Williams on a few occasions and denied making any comments of a sexual nature, attempting to hug Williams, or taking any other inappropriate action. Harrell stated her belief that Williams, not Blake, was acting inappropriately. According to Postorino, Williams requested a transfer. Williams denies requesting a transfer.

A few weeks later, on a day that Williams was not scheduled to work, Williams came to the store and walked to the back where Blake was working. Fearing a confrontation, Blake asked her store manager to call Postorino. Soon thereafter, Postorino informed Williams that she was being reassigned to the Burger King at 3880 North 124th Street, 124th and Capital Drive. Postorino called Rashida Landrum, store manager at 124th and Capital, to inform her that a crew member was being transferred to her store. Without disclosing the details of his investigation or the nature of the issue, Postorino told Landrum that her crew needed to be very professional around Williams. At a meeting, Landrum told her employees to stay away from Williams because she had complained about sexual harassment.

Williams claims that at some point during the 2 to 3 weeks that she worked at the 124th and Capital location, Martin Stennis, the assistant store manager, gestured as if he were going to give Williams a hug (but didn’t hug her), rubbed her hand on one occasion, and invited her to his home (which she declined). At her deposition, Williams testified that Stennis said “we can go to my house and play cards, we can have a couple of drinks, play some cards and just chill, you know, like, you know, nothing to it.” In her subsequent declaration, Williams asserts that Stennis told her he was having marital problems and invited her over for sex.

Williams filed a complaint with the Equal Rights Division on August 12, 2013. Williams claims that she was fired on August 23, 2013. On that date, Williams came into work and found that her name had been removed from the schedule. An employee told Williams that Stennis had fired her. Williams tried to talk with Stennis about the firing, but Stennis refused to talk to her. On August 26, 2013, Williams was arrested and incarcerated for aggravated assault and felony battery. V&J claims that Williams was fired only after she failed to appear to work due to her incarceration. Williams never received a notice of termination.

II. Analysis

Summary judgment should 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 “material fact” is one identified by the substantive law as affecting the outcome of the suit. Bunn v. Khoury Enters., Inc., 753 F.3d 676, 681 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A “genuine issue” exists with respect to any such material fact when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 681-82. Thus, the plain language of the rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

A. Hostile work environment

To survive summary judgment on a hostile work environment claim, the plaintiff “must first produce evidence that the alleged harassment was severe or pervasive. This requirement is disjunctive - ‘one extremely serious act of harassment could rise to an actionable level as could a series of less severe acts.’” Hall v. City of Chi., 713 F.3d 325, 330 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting Haugerud v. Amery Sch. Dist., 259 F.3d 678, 693 (7th Cir. 2001)). The hostility must be subjectively and objectively hostile - in other words, the plaintiff “must have actually felt harassed and that feeling must be reasonable.” Id. Second, the hostile conditions must be connected to the plaintiff’s race or, in this instance, gender. “Title VII is not a general prophylactic against workplace animus. It is only concerned with animus motivated by certain protected characteristics.” Id. Finally, there must be a basis for employer liability.

Courts consider the totality of the circumstances, including “the severity of the allegedly discriminatory conduct, its frequency, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating or merely offensive, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.” Porter v. City of Chi., 700 F.3d 944, 955-56 (7th Cir. 2012). In this context, the distinction between legally hostile and merely disagreeable is often difficult to discern.

Drawing the line is not always easy. On one side lie sexual assaults; other physical contact, whether amorous or hostile, for which there is no consent express or implied; uninvited sexual solicitations; intimidating words or acts; obscene language or gestures; pornographic pictures. On the other side lies the occasional vulgar banter, tinged with sexual innuendo, of coarse or boorish workers. … It is not a bright line, obviously, this line between ...

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