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Ryan v. Town of Highland

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

July 12, 2017

TRACY RYAN, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF HIGHLAND, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN, JUDGE

         This litigation arises out of Plaintiff Tracy Ryan's termination of employment with Defendant Town of Highland. The Plaintiff claims that the Defendant violated Title VII when she was subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of her sex, and was ultimately terminated from employment on the basis of her sex and in retaliation for complaining about discrimination. In addition to naming her employer, the Plaintiff also sued John Bach in his individual capacity and as Public Works Director for the Town of Highland. The claims against Bach were dismissed because there is no Title VII liability for individuals, and the claim against him in his official capacity was duplicative of the claims against the Town of Highland.

         The Town of Highland has moved for summary judgment, which the Plaintiff opposes. For the reasons stated in this Opinion and Order, the Court grants the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 22].

         EXHAUSTION OF ADMINISTRATIVE REMEDIES

         Before filing suit, a Title VII plaintiff must file a charge with the EEOC and receive a right-to-sue letter. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5; Rush v. McDonald's Corp., 966 F.2d 1104, 1110 (7th Cir. 1992). “An aggrieved employee may not complain to the EEOC of only certain instances of discrimination, and then seek judicial relief for different instances of discrimination.” Rush, 966 F.2d at 1110 (explaining that this rule accords with the “principle of primary jurisdiction in the agency”). Title VII's charge requirement serves two primary purposes: “it gives the EEOC and the employer a chance to settle the dispute, and it gives the employer notice of the employee's grievances.” Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Cir. Ct. of Cook Cty., 804 F.3d 826, 831 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Cheek v. W. & S. Life Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 497, 500 (7th Cir. 1994)). Hence, a Title VII claim falls within the scope of the charge so long as “there is a reasonable relationship between the allegations in the charge and the claims in the complaint, and the claim in the complaint can reasonably be expected to grow out of an EEOC investigation of the allegations in the charge.” Cheek, 31 F.3d at 500. At a minimum, the charge and the complaint must both “describe the same conduct and implicate the same individuals.” Moore v. Vital Prods., Inc., 641 F.3d 253, 257 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Cheek, 31 F.3d at 501). Nevertheless, the scope of an EEOC charge should be reviewed liberally. Huri, 804 F.3d at 831 (citing Farrell v. Butler Univ., 421 F.3d 609, 616 (7th Cir. 2005)); see also Rush, 966 F.2d at 1111 (describing the scope of construction as a “lenient standard”).

         The Plaintiff's Charge of Discrimination, filed on March 19, 2015, with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, contains the following allegations:

I worked at the Town of Highland since 2004. My latest position was a Driver B. In 2014 two male coworkers were fired after I and the secretary, Judy Vaughn, complained about how they treated me. On March 3, 2015 I was fired by John Bach, Public Works Director, for allegedly participating in illegal and unethical activity. I believe John fired me because I was the only female, besides the secretary (Judy), that worked for the Public Works Department.
I believe I was fired due to my gender, female, and in retaliation for complaining about male coworkers harassing me in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.

(Charge, ECF No. 23-11.) In the portion of the Charge that indicates the dates of discrimination, the March 3, 2015, termination date is provided as both the earliest and the latest date that discrimination took place.

         The Defendant argues that the Plaintiff failed to exhaust the hostile work environment claim that she is now advancing in this litigation. The only mention of harassment in her Charge was in the context of explaining her retaliation claim: she complained about the treatment she received from two male coworkers (who were fired) but alleges that she was terminated for making the complaints. Moreover, she does not provide any of the underlying factual information for a claim of harassment and, thus, did not present the Defendant with an opportunity to appreciate the claim or for the EEOC to investigate it. The Court agrees.

         A Title VII hostile environment claim is a discrimination claim based on the plaintiff's membership in a protected category, but in contrast to discrete acts of discrimination like termination, failure to promote, refusal to hire, or denial of a transfer, “[a] hostile work environment claim is composed of a series of separate acts that collectively constitute one ‘unlawful employment practice.'” Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 117 (2002) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1)); see also Id. at 115-17 (elaborating on differences between discrete acts and hostile environment claims). “Normally, retaliation, sex discrimination, and sexual harassment charges are not “like or reasonably related” to one another to permit an EEOC charge of one type of wrong to support a subsequent civil suit for another.” Sitar v. Ind. Dep't of Transp., 344 F.3d 720, 726 (7th Cir. 2003) (citing Cheek, 30 F.3d at 501).

         The Plaintiff's allegations regarding the reasons she was fired, as well as the discrete date cited in the Charge that corresponds with her termination date, both suggest that the Plaintiff's claims related to her termination only. Indeed, because the coworkers she complained about were purportedly fired in response to her complaints, the Defendant would not have had a reason to believe that the Plaintiff was relying on that conduct as a basis for holding the Defendant liable. Although unlisted claims may be “so related and intertwined in time, people, and substance that to ignore that relationship for a strict and technical application of the rule would subvert the liberal remedial purposes of the Act, ” Sitar, 344 F.3d at 726 (quoting Kristufek v. Hussmann Foodservice Co., 985 F.2d 364, 368 (7th Cir. 1993)), that link does not exist where the cited claims and the unlisted claims “involve a separate set of incidents, conduct, and people, spanning over a period of time prior to the filing of [the] complaint and . . . months prior to [the plaintiff's] termination, ” id. at 726-27. Here, the Plaintiff has not shown that her allegations of sexual harassment from two coworkers in 2014 are intertwined in time, people, and substance with the March 2015 termination that is the basis of her discrimination and retaliation claims. Accordingly, the Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim is procedurally barred.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         The Plaintiff began working for the Town of Highland in 2004 as a part time meter reader. She received a promotion to senior meter reader. She then transferred to landscaping and became the master gardener. The Plaintiff worked toward getting her Commercial Driver's License (CDL) so she could become a full time driver. In October 2013, the Plaintiff was hired full time as a Driver C. In April 2014, she ...


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