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Barcus v. Sears, Roebuck and Co.

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

August 28, 2013



Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Sandra Lee Barcus[1] brings this suit against defendant Sears, Roebuck and Co. (“Sears”), her former employer, for alleged quid pro quo sexual harassment by Charles Billups, another Sears employee. Sears now moves for summary judgment. The parties have fully briefed the issues, and no oral argument is necessary. See Local R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.


Sears does not dispute Barcus’s basic account of what transpired, including the sequence of events that gave rise to her claim for sexual harassment. All reasonable inferences are drawn in Barcus’s favor.

Barcus first became affiliated with Sears when she began part-time work at its Gaithersburg, Maryland, store in August 2007. After promoting Barcus and subsequently transferring her to Kmart, a Sears affiliate, Sears assigned Barcus in August 2010 to supervise temporary workers tasked with remodeling several departments in the Sears store in Silver Spring, Maryland. Barcus opposed the assignment, however, because her prior professional experience had been in the clothing departments, and Sears evidently had assured Barcus that she would work as a lead in one of those departments. She asked the general manager of the Silver Spring store, Shannon Evans, to transfer her to a clothing department, but Evans told Barcus that no other positions were available at that time.

The objectionable assignment proved short-lived because the remodel project was slated to last just ninety days. In October 2010 Sears reassigned Barcus as a visual specialist in the Home Fashions department—an assignment to which Barcus also objected. She continued to seek an assignment in a clothing department, and she believed the new position to be a demotion. Her dissatisfaction with her new role led to the exacerbation of an already contentious relationship with Evans. Barcus testified that Evans would yell at her and call her “dumb and stupid.” (Barcus Dep. 52:3–20, ECF No. 19-4.) Soon after Sears reassigned Barcus as a visual specialist, Barcus sought to be transferred to the Sears store in Frederick, Maryland. The human resources representative at the Frederick store initially expressed interest in hiring Barcus, but after that representative spoke with Evans, she informed Barcus that there were no positions available at that store.

As Barcus’s relationship with Evans continued to deteriorate, she became acquainted with another Sears employee named Charles Billups. Billups joined the Silver Spring store in October 2010—the same month Barcus became a visual specialist—as a member of the Manager in Training program, which Sears created to provide candidates for general manager positions in its stores with tutelage as well as opportunities to learn about its products and operations. In that capacity Billups worked closely with Evans, and at times he would “discharge . . . Evans’s managerial functions” when she was absent. (Barcus Aff. ¶ 3, ECF No. 22-1.)

Billups often witnessed the antagonistic interactions between Barcus and Evans. One day Billups noticed that Barcus was “trembling and in tears, ” (ECF No. 19-7 at 3), and when Billups saw her in the store warehouse later that afternoon, the two of them discussed Evans’s purported desire to fire Barcus. Barcus expressed trepidation about losing her job, and Billups sought to console her. Billups assured Barcus that he would soon manage his own Sears store and that he would hire Barcus as a lead in that store. Although Billups was not sure when he would be promoted to general manager, Barcus was grateful for his offer and gave her phone number to Billups.

Barcus maintained a collegial relationship with Billups for a few weeks after that encounter, but soon thereafter Billups’s sexual interests became apparent. Billups began to make suggestive comments about Barcus’s physical appearance, including her breasts and lips, and “would touch [Barcus] on the back with his pen.” (ECF No. 19-8 at 6.) Barcus did not welcome or sanction the contact, but she never reported the conduct and did not object because she did not want to jeopardize Billups’s assurance of future employment.

The nature of the relationship between Barcus and Billups changed on November 15, 2010. On that date Billups led Barcus through a back door into a vacant H&R Block office annexed to the Sears store, and he said to Barcus, “Take care of me, I’ll take care of you.” (Barcus Dep. 113:18–22.) Barcus understood this comment to be a solicitation for oral sex in exchange for a guarantee of future employment if and when Sears promoted Billups to general manager of one of its stores. Billups then removed his penis from his pants and placed his hands on her shoulders, and Barcus performed oral sex. Barcus performed oral sex on Billups on three other occasions in November 2010, and on one of those occasions Billups and Barcus also engaged in sexual intercourse. Billups initiated the encounter each time via text message, and on each occasion Barcus met Billups in the vacant H&R Block office. Barcus never told anyone about her sexual encounters with Billups while she was employed at Sears, and no one witnessed those encounters.

In December 2010 Billups transferred to the Sears store in Hyattsville, Maryland, and his sexual relationship with Barcus ended. Billups nevertheless remained in contact with Barcus and met with her at the Hyattsville store. Billups subsequently arranged for her to interview with the general manager of that store on December 29 for a lead position in the men’s department. Billups provided Barcus with the store’s address, and after the interview he advised Barcus to submit a letter to Evans requesting a transfer to the Hyattsville store. Barcus prepared the request, handed a copy to a human resources representative in the Silver Spring store, and left another copy on Evans’s chair on December 30. Barcus never discussed the request with Evans.

On January 7, 2011, Evans confronted Barcus after Barcus changed the bedding on four display beds in the store. When Evans asked Barcus, in the presence of the Home Fashions department manager, why Barcus had changed the display, Barcus informed Evans that her manager had instructed her to change the bedding. The manager corroborated this account to Evans, but Evans informed Barcus that she should not have changed the bedding, and Evans fired Barcus on the spot. Barcus immediately left Evans’s office to call a Sears telephone hotline to lodge a complaint. After a security guard escorted Barcus from the store, she explained to the Sears hotline representative that she had been fired for changing the bedding, despite her compliance with her manager’s directive.

Sears administratively closed Barcus’s claim on January 24, 2011, without taking any action. Barcus subsequently sought and obtained unemployment benefits, and in August 2011 Barcus filed a formal claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). In November 2011 the EEOC informed Barcus that the EEOC would not pursue her claim. The EEOC dismissed the claim ...

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