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Jackson v. Unidine Corp.

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

May 6, 2019

LAQUISHA JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIDINE CORPORATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT L. MILLER, JR. JUDGE, UNITED

         LaQuisha Jackson, proceeding without a lawyer, sued Unidine Corporation for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5, alleging she was subject to a hostile work environment, was discriminated against based on her protected status, and retaliated against for engaging in protected activity. Unidine moved for summary judgment on Ms. Jackson's claims. [Doc. No. 75]. For the following reasons, the court grants Unidine's motion.

         The evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Ms. Jackson, shows that Unidine managed the dining services at St. Paul's Retirement Community and employed the management staff there. Ms. Jackson worked in dining services for St. Paul's. In 2016, Unidine hired her to work at St. Paul's as a dining room supervisor. In that role, Ms. Jackson was to supervise, train, and discipline dining room staff employed by St. Paul's. A performance evaluation shows that she was meeting Unidine's expectations.

         The St. Paul's employees she supervised were sometimes rude, disrespectful, and insubordinate. For example, when Ms. Jackson was addressing performance issues with her subordinates at St. Paul's in the presence of her supervisor, Brian Black, one of her subordinates, Courtnee Brown, got out of her chair, walked up to Ms. Jackson, pointed her finger in her face, and accused Ms. Jackson of being a liar and a bad manager. Ms. Jackson interpreted this as a threat and told Mr. Black that she couldn't work in a hostile environment. Mr. Black met with Ms. Brown and Ms. Jackson, but nothing in the record suggests that he disciplined Ms. Brown.

         On April 15, 2017, Samuel “Keith” Johnson, a St. Paul's employee and Ms. Jackson's co-worker, made a sexually explicit gesture and comment to Ms. Jackson. Ms. Jackson threw a piece of paper at Mr. Johnson in jest after he made a joke. As Ms. Jackson bent over in front of Mr. Johnson to pick up the paper, Mr. Johnson pointed to his genitals and asked Ms. Jackson “isn't there something else you could be doing while you're down there?” This was the first time Ms. Jackson ever saw Mr. Johnson acting inappropriately and it disturbed her. A St. Paul's employee reported to Unidine that Mr. Johnson made inappropriate sexual jokes and comments at work and that she felt uncomfortable when he rubbed her back.

         Ms. Jackson reported this incident to her supervisor on April 17 and Mr. Johnson was sent home from work. Mr. Johnson returned to work the next day, but Ms. Jackson didn't feel comfortable returning to work and was granted permission to stay home with pay until the investigation was complete. Unidine and St. Paul's jointly investigated the incident.

         On April 24, Unidine told Ms. Jackson that the investigation was complete and she reported to St. Paul's to meet with her supervisor and human resources representatives. They told her that the investigation found that both Mr. Johnson and Ms. Jackson behaved inappropriately. According to Unidine, Mr. Johnson admitted he made an inappropriate, sexually explicit joke and the investigation determined that Ms. Jackson responded to Mr. Johnson's comment with an off-color joke, saying “that's how I got eight kids.” Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Jackson, Unidine was wrong: Ms. Jackson she didn't respond with a joke, and just chuckled a bit out of embarrassment. Based on its version of events, Unidine counseled Mr. Johnson, but didn't otherwise discipline him, and also counseled Ms. Jackson and asked her to return to work. Unsatisfied with the investigation and its conclusion, Ms. Jackson didn't feel safe at returning to work. Unidine allowed her to continue on paid leave.

         A few days later, Ms. Jackson's supervisor asked her when she planned to return to work and asked her to report to St. Paul's on May 1 to meet with the human resources staff. Unidine told Ms. Jackson that St. Paul's had decided it wouldn't allow her to return to work at its facility or any other facility run by its parent company, Trinity. Unidine asked her to return to work at another Unidine location. Ms. Jackson declined to work at another location. Unidine fired her on May 3 because she failed to report back to work.

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, discovery materials, disclosures, and affidavits demonstrate no genuine issue of material fact, such that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Protective Life Ins. Co. v. Hansen, 632 F.3d 388, 391-392 (7th Cir. 2011). The court construes the evidence and all inferences that reasonably can be drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for its motion, together with evidence demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the opposing party can't rest upon the allegations in the 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). A court must enter summary judgment “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 at 322). See also Hammel v. Eau Galle Cheese Factory, 407 F.3d 852, 859 (7th Cir. 2005) (summary judgment is “not a dress rehearsal or practice run; it 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 events”).

         Construing Ms. Jackson's complaint liberally, as the court must do, Parker v. Four Seasons Hotels, Ltd., 845 F.3d 807, 811 (7th Cir. 2017), she appears to raise three claims: that she was subject to a hostile work environment, the she was discriminated against based on her protected status, and that Unidine retaliated against her for reporting a sexually explicit gesture and comment. Unidine moves for summary judgment on all three claims.

         Ms. Jackson's hostile work environment claim is based on the atmosphere created by her subordinates at St. Paul's and a sexually explicit gesture and comment by a St. Paul's employee. “When the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or [pervasive] to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment, Title VII is violated.” Abrego v. Wilkie, 907 F.3d 1004, 1015 (7th Cir. 2018) (quoting Alexander v. Casino Queen, Inc., 739 F.3d 972, 982 (7th Cir. 2014)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “To survive summary judgment on a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must prove four elements: ‘(1) the plaintiff's workplace was both subjectively and objectively offensive; (2) the plaintiff's [membership in a protected class] was the cause of the harassment; (3) the harassment was severe or pervasive; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.' ” Milligan-Grimstad v. Stanley, 877 F.3d 705, 713-714 (7th Cir. 2017) (quoting Lord v. High Voltage Software, Inc., 839 F.3d 556, 561 (7th Cir. 2016)). Ms. Jackson's hostile work environment claim can't succeed because she can't show that her membership in a protected class was the cause of the harassment by her subordinates and can't show that one sexually explicit gesture and comment rises to the level that the law considers “severe or pervasive.”

         Ms. Jackson contends that the St. Paul's employees she supervised created a hostile work environment for her because they were rude, disrespectful, and insubordinate. As an example, she points to the actions of Courtnee Brown, who got up during a meeting Ms. Jackson was leading, put her hand in Ms. Jackson's face, and said she was horrible manager and a liar.

         Ms. Jackson makes a compelling case that her subordinates' actions created a very difficult atmosphere for her as a supervisor, which she described to her supervisor as a hostile work environment. But that phrase has a narrower definition in federal employment discrimination law. To succeed on a Title VII hostile work environment discrimination claim, a plaintiff must “present sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to find that the alleged harassment was based on [her] race or sex.” Abrego v. Wilkie, 907 F.3d 1004, 1016 (7th Cir. 2018). Ms. Jackson doesn't point the court to evidence that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to decide that actions of her subordinates, ...


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