This matter is before the Court upon Defendants' three motions for summary judgment.
(1) Defendant Hopkinsville/Christian County Emergency Communications Center ("ECC") has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (DN 35.) Plaintiff has responded, (DN 52), and the ECC has replied. (DN 61.)
(2) Those named individually as Defendants ("Individual Defendants") have filed a separate Motion for Summary Judgment. (DN 36.) Plaintiff has responded, (DN 57), and the Individual Defendants have replied. (DN 62.)
(3) Defendants Christian County, Kentucky ("Christian County"), and Sheriff Livy Leavell, Jr. ("Sheriff Leavell"), have renewed their Motion to Dismiss and also move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's remaining claims. (DN 41.) Plaintiff has responded, (DN 56), and Defendants have replied. (DN 58.)
These matters are now ripe for adjudication. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motions are GRANTED.
Plaintiff Sonia Graham ("Graham" or "Plaintiff") was hired as a telecommunications officer for the ECC in July of 2009. Sometime in the fall of 2009, Graham began experiencing difficulty on her shift, due in large part to conflicts with her supervisor, Stephanie Noel. Graham frequently questioned Noel regarding shift procedures that Graham believed were at odds with her recent training. While Graham viewed these questions as clarifying correct procedure, Noel viewed them as undermining her authority. Graham, who considers herself an optimistic and "happy-go-lucky" person, would also take issue with her co-workers' negative comments about fellow dispatchers or those who called in requesting assistance. Tensions escalated, sometimes leading to heated exchanges with Noel, after which Graham would call Assistant Director Joann Cowherd requesting to go home. After one such call, Cowherd came to the office to counsel Noel and Graham. The counseling session ended with the two women agreeing to move forward with a "clean slate."
Unfortunately, Graham's struggles with her shift continued. Fellow dispatchers began treating her coldly. When Graham questioned two of her co-workers, they informed her that they thought she was a "know-it-all" and that they had heard she had complained about the way they performed their dispatching duties. During this time period, Graham also learned that Noel and another dispatcher had started a rumor that Graham had gone to a strip club with some of the police officers, which embarrassed Graham. Graham began staying after her shift ended to converse with the midnight shift. Members of that shift began asking her why her shift did not include her and seemed to dislike her. Sometime after this, Noel accused Graham of staying after to complain about her to the midnight shift, which she viewed as insubordinate. After a particularly heated incident between the two that ended with both Noel and Graham raising their voices and Graham again requesting to go home, Graham was moved to a different shift.
Graham began working under Captain Danny Comperry in February 2010, and her problems at the ECC abated for a period of time. However, sometime in March, Graham began having conflicts with a senior dispatcher, Charis Ford. During a two- or three-week period from the end of April through beginning of May, Graham met with Sheriff Livy Leavell, an ECC board member, on three separate occasions to inform him about her experiences. The meetings involved her supervisors' and co-workers' breaches of protocol, favoritism, and Graham's mistreatment.
In May, tensions with Ford escalated. On May 1, 2010, while left in charge, Ford requested that Graham go home to change because her skirt violated the ECC's dress code. Graham changed and returned to work. Later that same evening, Graham reported witnessing what she believed to be inappropriate conduct between Ford and a police officer. Thereafter, Ford was unfriendly to Graham. Graham recalls one incident during this time period where Ford referred to black youths as "little niglets," which Graham found highly offensive and inappropriate. Also in mid-May, Graham overheard a conversation between Ford and Cowherd in which they were discussing what to order for dinner. During the exchange, Ford asked Cowherd, a "known lesbian," if she had "eaten a Mexican lately." Being the only Hispanic employee at the ECC, Graham was offended by this remark. Additionally, a series of conflicts took place between Ford and Graham regarding calls placed and proper procedure, and Graham spoke with both ECC Director Judy Toombs and Supervisor Comperry about the conflicts. Comperry held a meeting for all shift personnel in which he reminded dispatchers to be professional over the radio and set aside any personal issues they may have with a co-worker.
During this meeting, Ford indicated she disliked Graham because Graham was a "liar." Following the meeting, Graham turned in a complaint to Director Toombs detailing her conflicts with Ford.
A few days later, on May 27, 2010, Graham was fired from the ECC. Graham filed a grievance with the ECC Board. On July 9, 2010, the Board reinstated Graham indicating that, although it agreed that Graham had "clearly violated ECC personnel policies on several occasions," the Board hoped that all ECC staff could move forward with a clean slate. The letter, signed by Hopkinsville Police Department Chief Guy Howie, also indicated that Graham would be placed on probation for six months following her reinstatement and reminded Graham to "make a concerted effort to cooperate" with her fellow workers, be respectful of her supervisors, and follow all ECC personnel policies.
When Graham resumed work, she was placed on a new shift under supervisor Sarah Drennan. However, Graham indicates she continued to be ignored by co-workers. Graham began keeping a diary of each time she was ignored and any violation of policy or procedure that she observed. Graham's diary contains a number of instances where she overheard fellow employees use profanity, make sexually suggestive comments to one another, or use racially insensitive terminology. The majority of these incidents did not directly involve Graham and she did not complain about them. The most egregious incident involves fellow dispatcher Mike Deluga, who answered Supervisor Drennan's inquiry about the need to purchase more toilet paper by responding that, because he did not have a "blood hole," he was unaware of the availability of toilet paper. Graham and the other women who were present complained, and Deluga was suspended for two days with a warning that similar infractions could result in his termination.
Also during this time period, Graham was late for work three times between November 5, 2010, and December 9, 2010. On one of those occasions, a deputy sheriff who was dispatched to Graham's home to check on her discovered that she had been asleep. Also during this time, Graham's supervisor documented instances of insubordination, once involving protocol for handling a call and once involving not filling out required paperwork for a shift change. After learning of these infractions and the presence of "explicit" photographs on Graham's Facebook page, the ECC Board voted to terminate Graham on December 29, 2010. This time, Graham's request to file a grievance was denied.
On February 16, 2012, Graham brought suit against the ECC, her
supervisors and co-workers,*fn1 the City of
Hopkinsville, Christian County, and ECC board members.*fn2
Graham seeks compensatory and punitive damages for alleged
violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII")
(42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.), the Kentucky Civil Rights Act ("KCRA")
(K.R.S. § 344.010 et seq.), 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§ 1983"), and 42 U.S.C.
§ 1985 ("§ 1985"). Graham also advances state law claims for
retaliation, wrongful termination, breach of contract, intentional
infliction of emotional distress, defamation, criminal malfeasance,
and the criminal falsification of business records. Graham has since
voluntarily dismissed both the City of Hopkinsville and Christian
County. In its September 28, 2012, Memorandum Opinion and Order, this
Court also granted Sheriff Leavell's Motion to Dismiss Graham's claims
against him for the falsification of business records (Count VI) and
malfeasance (Count X). The remaining Defendants now move for summary
judgment on Graham's remaining claims against them.
Summary judgment is appropriate where "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). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
"[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact." Street v. J. C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of his position; the plaintiff must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonably find for the plaintiff. See id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). Mere speculation will not suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment: "the mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate." Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., Inc., 681 F.3d 312 (6th Cir. 2012).
I.Count I: Discrimination on the Basis of Race
Graham asserts claims for racial discrimination under both Title VII and the KCRA. Because "the general purpose of the [KCRA] is to provide a means for implementing within the state the policies embodied in Title VII," federal courts may look to federal law under Title VII in construing the KCRA. Wathen v. Gen. Elec. Co., 115 F.3d 400, 403 n.5 (6th Cir. 1997).
The Individual Defendants have moved for summary judgment on Graham's racial discrimination claim, noting that they may not be held personally liable under either Title VII or the KCRA because they are not Graham's "employer." Id. at 405. Graham concedes this point. Therefore, the Individual Defendants' Motion*fn4 is granted in this respect.
Because the Court has granted summary judgment for the Individual Defendants, the foregoing analysis applies solely to the ECC. Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer "to . . . discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). In a Title VII action, the burden is on the plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973).
A plaintiff may prove her case through direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination. Talley v. Bravo Pitino Rest., Ltd., 61 F.3d 1241, 1246 (6th Cir. 1995); Henry v. Ohio Dep't of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, 162 F. Supp. 2d 794, 799 (S.D. Ohio 2000). No direct evidence of discrimination exists in the present case. "In the absence of direct evidence . . . Title VII claims are subject to the familiar burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell . . . as subsequently modified in Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, [450 U.S. 248 (1981)]." Risch v. Royal Oak Police Dep't, 581 F.3d 383, 390 (6th Cir. 2009). Under McDonnell, after the plaintiff has established a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden then shifts to the employer "to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for the adverse employment action. 411 U.S. at 802. If the employer demonstrates such a reason, the burden ...