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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Indi's Fast Food Restaurant, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

October 26, 2017

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF
v.
INDI'S FAST FOOD RESTAURANT, INC., and EVANCZYK BROTHERS, LLC, DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH H. McKINLEY, JR., CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [DN 74] and Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [DN 73]. Fully briefed, this matter is ripe for decision. For the following reasons, the Plaintiff's motion is DENIED and Defendants' motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. Background

         Prior to the institution of this action, Rickesha Jones filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC” or “Plaintiff”) alleging sexual harassment by her employer, Defendant Indi's Fast Food Restaurant, Inc. (“Indi's”). (Second Am. Comp. [DN 29] ¶ 8.) After Indi's refused to participate in conciliation with the EEOC, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court originally against Defendant Indi's alleging claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Compl. [DN 1] ¶¶ 1-10.) Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint [DN 29] adding Defendant Evanczyk Brothers, LLC (“Evanczyk Brothers”) and asserting similar claims against both Defendants. (Second Am. Comp. [DN 29] at 1.) Plaintiff alleges that, beginning at the latest in 2011, Indi's “has engaged in unlawful employment practices at its Louisville, Kentucky restaurants in violation of Section 703(a)(1) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e)-2(a)(1), by subjecting Jones and a class of similarly situated female employees to a hostile work environment created by male managers.” (Id. ¶ 14.) The male managers, while in positions of authority, allegedly subjected female employees to sexual touching, sexual comments, and requests for sexual favors. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-16.)

         Plaintiff further states that Defendants knew or should have known about these unlawful employment practices that occurred on a frequent and routine basis. (Id. ¶ 17.) According to the Complaint, Jones and other similarly situated female employees complained about the hostile work environment to Indi's owner Thomas Murchison and still Defendants allowed the alleged harassment to persist. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.) Plaintiff additionally alleges that this conduct deprived Jones and other similarly situated female employees of equal employment opportunities, adversely affected their status as employees, was intentional, and was done with malice or reckless indifference. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         Plaintiff further alleges that Indi's Fast Food Restaurant, Inc. and Evanczyk Brothers, LLC “have operated as a single employer and/or integrated enterprise.” (Id. ¶ 6.) On September 29, 2016, Defendants filed a joint Motion to Dismiss denying these contentions and maintaining that each operated distinct business entities and did not function as a single employer or integrated enterprise. (Mot. Dismiss [DN 35] ¶¶ 13-14.) This Court denied Defendants' Motion to Dismiss finding that Plaintiff had pled “plausible facts sufficient to support Plaintiff's ‘single employer' or ‘integrated enterprise' theory in order to survive Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.” (Mem. Op. and Order [DN 56] at 8.)

         On April 17, 2017, both Plaintiff and Defendants filed motions for partial summary judgment. Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on the following three issues: (1) that Defendants are liable for the sexual harassment of ten employees - Latasheeana “Tasha” Dyre, Ruqayya Abdullah, Lyneisha Taylor, Aaris Bell Humphreys, Danarra Yarbrough, Jacqulyn Moore, Rickesha Jones, Sherice Franks, Melyssa Fox, and Denisha Glover; (2) that Defendants cannot avail themselves to the Ellerth/Faragher affirmative defense in defending against the claims of those same ten employees; and (3) that Indi's Fast Food Restaurant, Inc. and Evanczyk Brothers, LLC operate as an integrated enterprise. (Pl.'s Mot. for Partial Summ. J. [DN 74] at 1- 2.) Defendants' motion requests that the Court grant summary judgment against the claims of eleven plaintiffs - Marietta Williams, Shannon Dalton, Tiffany Trice, Donita Wilson, Danarra Yarbrough, Aaris Bell Humphreys, Jewell Sowell, Cynthia Davis, Denisha Glover, Lyneisha Taylor, and Sherice Franks. (Def.'s Mot. for Partial Summ. J [DN 73] at 1-3.)

         II. Standard of Review

         Before the Court may grant a motion for summary judgment, it must find that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of specifying the basis for its motion and identifying that portion of the record that demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies this burden, the non-moving party thereafter must produce specific facts demonstrating a genuine issue of fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

         Although the Court must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the non-moving party must do more than merely show that there is some “metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Instead, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require the non-moving party to present specific facts showing that a genuine factual issue exists by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

         III. Discussion

         A. Hostile Work Environment

         1. Applicable Law

         To prevail in a Title VII sexual harassment suit where there has been no adverse employment action, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment; (3) the harassment was based on her sex; (4) the harassment was so severe and pervasive that it created a hostile work environment; and (5) the employer is vicariously liable. Williams v. GMC, 187 F.3d 553, 560-61 (6th Cir. 1999).

         The disagreement between the parties in this case surrounds the fourth element of a sexual harassment claim - whether the harassment experienced by plaintiffs was sufficiently severe and pervasive to create a hostile work environment. In deciding whether an environment is hostile or abusive, the Supreme Court instructs that courts should analyze the totality of the circumstances. Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993). A court should look at (1) the frequency of discriminatory conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. Id. Further, there is both an objective and a subjective component of this analysis. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 787 (1998) (citing Harris, 510 U.S. at 21-22.) (“[I]n order to be actionable under the statute, a sexually objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively objectionable, one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, and one that the victim in fact did perceive to be so.”) And while the Court will view each plaintiff's claim individually, “courts need not myopically focus on only harassment directed at the individual plaintiffs, but may consider the harassment that each plaintiff experienced, witnessed, and knew about because all three could contribute to a hostile work environment.” EEOC v. East Columbus Hosts, LLC, No. 2:14-CV-1696, 2016 WL 45947247, at *5 (S.D. Ohio Sept. 2, 2016) (citing Berryman v. SuperValu Holdings, Inc., 669 F.3d 714, 718 (6th Cir. 2012)).

         Despite these guidelines, the analysis used in determining whether sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment remains rather difficult as there is no “mathematically precise test” to follow. Harris, 510 U.S. at 22. The Sixth Circuit has turned several decisions on whether the harassment was an “ongoing pattern of unwanted conduct and attention.” Clark v. UPS, 400 F.3d 341, 352 (6th Cir. 2005).

         The Court has also made clear that “verbal conduct alone can be the basis of a successful hostile work environment claim.” Black v. Zaring Homes Inc., 104 F.3d 822, 826 (6th Cir. 1997). In Black, the Court deemed that sexually harassing comments made at bi-weekly meetings were “insufficient to support a finding that they were severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile work environment.” Id. Yet, in Abeita v. TransAmerica Mailings, Inc., a harassment claim based on verbal conduct did survive summary judgment since the sexually harassing comments were more “commonplace, ongoing, and continual” than the ones made in Black. 159 F.3d 246, 252 (6th Cir. 1998).

         In other cases, a single incident can be so severe that it alone can be the basis for a hostile work environment claim, especially when the harassment involves a physical invasion. Hawkins v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc, 517 F.3d. 321, 334 (“This court has also made clear that harassment involving an ‘element of physical invasion' is more severe than harassing comments alone.”) (citing Williams, 187 F.3d at 563). In Ault, a female employee was placing items in a walk-in cooler when her supervisor walked in and stood directly behind her so that she could feel his penis, trapping her in this position and remaining there despite the employee's request for him to remove himself. Ault v. Oberlin Coll., 620 Fed.Appx. 395, 401 (6th Cir. 2015). The Court denied summary ...


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