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Mullens v. Adams County Government

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

January 6, 2020

CHAD ERNST MULLENS, Plaintiff,
v.
ADAMS COUNTY GOVERNMENT and ADAMS COUNTY SOLID WASTE DEPT., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. CONLEY DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pro se plaintiff Chad Mullens is proceeding in this lawsuit against defendants Adams County and the Adams County Solid Waste Department on claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mullens worked for the Adams County Solid Waste Department from 2005 to 2017. He claims that between 2016 and June of 2017, when his employment with the Solid Waste Department ended, he was subjected to harassment on the basis of race and sex, and ultimately terminated in retaliation for engaging in protected conduct. Currently before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. #23.) Because the undisputed evidence does not permit a reasonable fact-finder finding in Mullens' favor on any of his claims, the court will grant defendants' motion.

         UNDISPUTED FACTS[1]

         A. Parties

         Plaintiff Chad Ernst Mullens is a white male who currently resides in Friendship, Wisconsin. The Adams County's Solid Waste Department is a sub-unit of and wholly managed by Adams County (“the County”). The Solid Waste Department has approximately twenty full-time employees, but it also uses temporary employees hired through a temp agency on an as-needed basis. During the relevant time period, all Solid Waste Department employees were white, except for one African American employee who worked in the Solid Waste Department from 2005 until his retirement in August of 2016. Additionally, the majority of the Solid Waste Department employees are male. During the relevant period, the only females were Brenda Quinnell, the Director of the Solid Waste Department, and two or three office staff members.

         B. Mullens' Employment

         Mullens began working for the County's Solid Waste Department on a part-time basis in 2001, and on February 9, 2004, he became a full-time employee. He continued full time employment with the Solid Waste Department until June 1, 2017. Mullens' primary duties included operating heavy machinery, driving routes and performing maintenance.

         During his employment, Mullens periodically received copies of Adams County's Employee Handbook, which contained the County's policies and procedures related to how employees request leave.[2] If a Solid Waste Employees wished to take time off, he or she was required to obtain authorization from Director Quinnell. In addition, certain supervisors were able to allow employees to take time off, but only if authorized by Quinnell.

         In 2017, Mullens had two supervisors, Henry (“Hank”) Strohmeyer and Billy Armstrong.[3] During the relevant time period, Hank Strohmeyer's position was Daily Operations Foreman, meaning that he was second-in-command to the Solid Waste Department Director Quinnell. Armstrong, who is married to Mullens' sister, was Mullens' Shop Supervisor, but was not authorized by Quinnell to grant Solid Waste Employees time off.[4]

         C. Evidence Related to Racial Discrimination Claim

         Mullens claims that the County discriminated against him based on his “racial association, ” by which he means his association as a white man with African Americans. Specifically, he claims that on multiple occasions, Andy Strohmeyer, a co-worker who is also white, called him a racially derogatory name (the “N-word”), and management did nothing to address that name calling. In his deposition, Mullens described Andy's use of the word as follows:

[That's] what I was called multiple times from Andrew Strohmeyer. And that word was also attached to go get this, and that word. And you are my - and so on and so forth. I need this. And yeah, that word he used towards me - as a direction of however he felt he needed to use that. For whatever reason, he felt he needed to use that word.

(Mullens Dep. (dkt. #24) 67:7-14.) Mullens also claims that he heard Andy call Bill Armstrong, also a white male, the N-word as well.

         Although Mullens does not know why Andy called him or others the N-word, Mullens points out that he has African American friends, and he is State certified to provide foster care where there are African Americans in the foster care system. While he testified about this background information in his deposition, however, Mullens neither suggests nor offers evidence that any Adams County employee knew about any of his relationships with African Americans, including Andy. Rather, his discrimination claim in this lawsuit relates only to Andy's offensive use of the N-word.

         At the end of August 2016, an incident occurred between Mullens and Andy. Apparently Andy believed that Mullens was trying to irritate him by moving his chairs and tools, as well as closing the shop door on him. When Andy found a hose sitting on his chair in the shop, he became angry and threw the hose in Mullens' direction. According to Mullens, as Andy walked out, he then said “what the fuck are you going to do about it?” (Mullens Dep. (dkt. #24) 87).) Mullens also claims that on another occasion Andy threw mice pellets at him.

         Following this particular incident, Director Quinnell talked to Andy and Mullens separately. Quinnell then gave Andy a “verbal warning” for his physical and verbal outburst, also indicating that she would consult with a human resources employee about it. While none of the contemporaneous documentation related to this incident and warning suggests that Mullens reported Andy's use of any derogatory names, including the “N-word, ” Mullens testified in his deposition that at some point, he told his Shop Supervisor Hank Strohmeyer about Andy's use of the N-word and other names Andy called him, to which Hank replied Mullens that Andy was just having “a bad day.” (Mullens Dep. (dkt. #24) 69.) On one occasion, Mullens responded by demanding not to work around Andy anymore.

         Mullens also claims that in 2016, possibly in September or October, Hank twice threatened to fire Mullens. Mullens testified that he did not know why Hank threatened to fire him and does not provide specific details about those interactions. Hank apparently changed his mind, however, since Mullens was not only not fired, but was no longer required to work near Andy.

         D. Evidence Related to Sex Discrimination Claim

         Almost ten months later, on May 18, 2017, Mullens got into another verbal dispute with a co-worker, this time with John Marlowe, who Mullens had known for twenty years. Almost a year before this incident, Mullens had found two pairs of novelty handcuffs, and he suspected that Marlowe took one of the pairs because they were metal and, therefore, Marlowe believed illegal. On May 18, Mullens confronted Marlowe about the handcuffs, telling Marlowe to return them. According to Mullens, Marlowe then responded, “I don't have them. Why don't you go use them on those kids.” (Mullens Dep. (dkt. #24) 153, 163.) When Mullens asked Marlowe who he was talking about, Marlowe responded, “Take the boy upstairs, and use the cuffs on him.” (Id. at 153, 164.) The two proceeded to exchange heated words, calling each other “fucking sick” in the process. (Id. at 168.)

         Before this happened, Mullens and Marlowe had apparently had no animosity for each other. While Mullens still does not know exactly to what Marlowe was referring when he made the statements about kids, Mullens believes that Marlowe's comments were sexually suggestive. This is the only incident Mullens cites as evidence that he was discriminated against on the basis of his sex.

         Mullens' Shop Supervisor, Armstrong, was present for the incident between Mullens and Marlow, but Armstrong avers that he did not pay close attention to what they were saying to each other as he was working on a hose. Mullens disputes this fact, pointing to Marlowe's description of this event, in which he recounts that Armstrong apparently looked like he could not believe what Mullens was saying. (Marlowe Decl. (dkt. #24) ¶ 4, Ex. 1.) Of course, this statement does not directly dispute Armstrong's averment that, while he was aware of the dispute and perhaps looked befuddled by it, he may still not have heard what Marlowe and Mullens were saying to each other.

         Following the incident, Quinnell asked Marlowe to prepare a written statement, in which he admitted exchanging vulgarities with Mullens, writing: “The ‘vulgar' statements I made on May 18, 2017 to Chad Mullens were the first things that came to my head in the heat of the moment. I did not mean anything sexual by it. They were toy handcuffs.” (Marlowe Decl. (dkt. #27) ¶ 9.)

         Mullens claims that immediately after their argument, he asked Armstrong if he could leave work. Mullens claims that Armstrong responded “Yeah go ahead, I don't blame you.” (Mullens Dep (dkt. #24) 153, 171.) Armstrong believes that Mullens did not actually ask him permission to leave, but rather simply stated that he was leaving. (Armstrong Decl. (dkt. #25) ¶ 14.) Before leaving that day, however, Mullens attempted to contact Director Quinnell as well, but because she was busy, the two did not talk that day.

         Mullens later sent Quinnell a text message telling her that he had left work at 10:30 and reporting that Armstrong said it was okay for him to leave. Mullens added that he wanted to file a harassment charge against Marlowe. That same day, Quinnell responded in a text, writing ...


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