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White v. Digger Specialties, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

September 21, 2018



          Robert L. Miller, Jr. Judge.

         On February 12, 2015, Digger Specialties, Inc. terminated Christen White's employment as an inventory clerk. Ms. White sues Digger Specialties for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5) for alleged employment discrimination because of Ms. White's sex and religion. Ms. White further claims that she was subject to a hostile work environment and retaliation. Digger Specialties moves for summary judgment on all claims. The court heard argument on September 13, and now grants the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Ms. White started working for Digger Specialties in the spring of 2007 as an inventory control clerk. In May 2014, Ms. White took a medical leave of absence to undergo a hysterectomy. She was absent from work at Digger Specialties for about two weeks after her surgery. Shortly before her hysterectomy, Ms. White and her supervisor, Norm Hochstetler, talked about her surgery. Mr. Hochstetler had originally hired Ms. White and had been her supervisor throughout her entire employment at Digger Specialties.

         Ms. White contends that Mr. Hochstetler told her during this conversation that she would be emotional after her surgery. Ms. White also alleges that once she took her medical leave of absence, Digger Specialties employee Dora Miller told Ms. Miller's sister and co-employee about Ms. White's hysterectomy. Upon her return to work, certain accommodations were made for Ms. White including moving her work station to the ground level and having another Digger Specialties employee gather work orders for her.

         Ms. White had gotten good work reviews up until her termination, but she had difficulties with getting along with other Digger Specialties employees, including Dora Miller. In the summer of 2014 Ms. White received a written warning for an incident with a heat shrink gun. The incident didn't involve Ms. White, and she didn't see it. It was found through an internal investigation that Ms. White had engaged in improper communication with the employee who had been operating the heat shrink gun. The written warning stated that if she didn't refrain from involving herself in the matters of other employees, her employment could be terminated.

         Ms. White involved herself in a number of work related pranks in the winter of 2015. She wasn't the instigator, the target, nor a witness to these pranks. No one directly involved with the pranks reported them. On February 12, 2015 Ms. White was terminated during a meeting with a number of Digger Specialties management team members. The reason given for her termination was that her continued participation in gossip and involvement in work place matters that didn't concern her, which had a disruptive effect on Digger Specialties. Ms. White believes she was fired because of retaliation and for her not being Amish.

         After Digger Specialties fired her, Ms. White filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge for sexual discrimination on August 6, 2015. On May 10, 2016 Ms. White filed suit against Digger Specialties alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5). These allegations include claims of sex discrimination, religious discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation. The court views all alleged facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Ms. White and will address each of her claims in turn.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the pleadings, discovery materials, disclosures, and affidavits demonstrate no genuine issue of material fact.” Protective Life Ins. Co. v. Hansen, 632 F.3d 388, 391-92 (7th Cir. 2011). When no genuine issue of material fact exists, “the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Dunkin v. Appriss, Inc., 266 F.Supp.3d 1103, 1106 (N.D. Ind. July 18, 2017). The movant has the burden of demonstrating to the court the basis for its motion that there exists no genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In demonstrating this burden, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non- moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). When the movant has met its burden, the opposing party can't rely solely on the allegations in their pleadings, but must “point to evidence that can be put in admissible form at trial, and that, if believed by the fact-finder, could support judgment in his favor.” Marr v. Bank of America, N.A., 662 F.3d 963, 966 (7th Cir. 2011); see also Steen v. Myers, 486 F.3d 1017, 1022 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hammel v. Eau Galle Cheese Factory, 407 F.3d 852, 859 (7th Cir. 2005) (summary judgment is “the put up or shut up moment in a lawsuit, when a party must show what evidence it has that would convince a trier of fact to accept its version of the events.”)). The non-moving party can't rely on conclusory allegations. Smith v. Shawnee Library System, 60 F.3d 317, 320 (7th Cir. 1995). Failure to prove an essential element of the alleged activity will render other facts immaterial. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. at 323; Filippo v. Lee Publications, Inc., 485 F.Supp.2d 969, 972 (N.D. Ind. 2007) (the non-moving party “must do more than raise some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts; he must come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.”).

         III. Discussion

         Ms. White argues that Digger Specialties violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5). She argues that while she worked at Digger Specialties, she was subject to sex and religious discrimination, and a hostile work environment. Ms. White also claims that her termination was retaliatory and pretextual because of her religion and the religion on her supervisor.

         A. Sex Discrimination

         Before bringing a claim under Title VII, Ms. White must have first filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. While the statute of limitations for filing an EEOC charge is 180 days, Indiana has increased the time limit to file to 300 days. 42 USCS § 2000e-5(e) (identifying Indiana as a “deferral state”). The time to file the EEOC charge ordinarily begins to run at the time of the alleged discrimination. If the alleged discrimination or its effects aren't readily apparent, a plaintiff can delay filing an EEOC charge “until a series of wrongful acts blossoms into an injury on which suit can be brought.” Limestone Dev. Corp. v. Vill. of Lemont, Ill., 520 F.3d 797, 801 (7th Cir. 2008). These “cumulative violations” arise when it isn't clear at first that the law is being violated. Limestone Dev. Corp. v. Lemont, 520 F.3d at 801. Often times, what begins as offensive behavior builds until there is a tangible negative impact on the plaintiff's employment conditions. Bass v. Joliet Public School. Dist. No 86, 746 F.3d 835, 839 (7th Cir. 2014); Dasgupta v. University of Wisconsin Bd. of Regents, 121 F.3d 1138, 1139 (7th Cir. 1997). Ms. White filed her EEOC charge on August 6, 2015. Unless she can adequately allege a cumulative violation, the statute of limitations bars any claim of discrimination arising before October 10, 2014.

         The conduct relating to the alleged sex discrimination occurred in May 2014. Garrison v. Burke, 165 F.3d 565, 507 (7th Cir. 1999) (remarking that individual, isolated, and non-related acts of discrimination can't be the basis for the use of the cumulative violation doctrine). Ms. White doesn't allege other conduct on or after October 10, 2014 - or any other conduct for that matter - relating to sex discrimination during her employment at Digger Specialties. Ms. White can't use alleged religious discrimination to retroactively legitimize her sex discrimination claim. Ms. White hasn't sufficiently alleged that her sex discrimination claim isn't time-bared by the EEOC's statute of limitations. Ms. White hasn't adequately alleged that Mr. Hoschetetler's comment about post-surgical emotion is “closely related enough” to the creation of a hostile work environment: a statement about Ms. White's hysterectomy isn't closely related to alleged harassment based on her not being Amish.

         Ms. White says she has properly linked her sex discrimination claim to her hostile work environment clam and retaliation claim, and so has adequately alleged a cumulative violation. Ms. White's retaliation claim is based solely on her religious discrimination claim. Her retaliation claim can't serve as an adequate basis for linking cumulative violations because it doesn't relate closely enough to her sex discrimination claim. Koelsch v. Beltone Elecs. Corp., 46 F.3d 705, 707 (7th Cir. 1995) (“the facts alleged to have occurred within the three-hundred-day period must be related closely enough to the previous acts such that they are to be considered one ongoing violation”) (internal quotations omitted). Ms. White hasn't shown that the offensive comment made by her boss Mr. Hochstetler in May 2014 is “related closely enough” to her employment termination.

         Even if Ms. White could overcome the timeliness hurdle, she hasn't pointed to evidence or facts sufficient to establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination under Title VII. Ms. White can try to establish a prima facie case under the direct method or indirect method. Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 845 (7th Cir. 2012). While Ms. White contends that she has provided sufficient evidence under either method; the court disagrees.[1] See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Under the direct method, Ms. White must “must marshal sufficient evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that an adverse employment action was motivated by discriminatory animus.” Porter v. City of Chicago, 700 F.3d 944, 954 (7th Cir. 2012); Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 845 (7th Cir. 2012) (“[u]nder the direct method, the plaintiff may avoid summary judgment by presenting sufficient evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that the employer's discriminatory animus motivated an adverse employment action”) (internal quotations omitted). Under the indirect, or burden-shifting method, the plaintiff carries "the initial burden under the statute of establishing a prima facie case of . . . discrimination." McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). This method requires the plaintiff to ‚Äúdemonstrate that (1) he belongs to a protected class; (2) he performed his job satisfactorily; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) his employer treated ...

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