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Artis v. U.S. Foodservice, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 18, 2014

EYVONNE ARTIS, Plaintiff,
v.
U.S. FOODSERVICE, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ELLEN LIPTON HOLLANDER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Eyvonne Artis, who is self-represented, sued her employer, U.S. Foodservice, Inc. ("USF"), defendant, alleging that she was discriminated against on the basis of sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. See Complaint (ECF 1); Amended Complaint (ECF 10).[1] Artis avers that she "never had problem [sic] with management male or female, except for Mrs[.] Sullivan[, ] who has a problem with the female [sic] in the warehouse...." Amended Complaint, ECF 10 at 2. According to Artis, Sullivan "treated the male [sic] different" and "never wrote one up" until after Artis filed her charge with the EEOC. Id. at 2; see Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 3. Further, plaintiff alleges that "about 200 males" work in the warehouse, but she is "the only [female] left." Id. at 2-3. Artis also alleges that she has "been personally attacked, harass [sic] and false accuse [sic] by this supervisor for years." Amended Complaint, ECF 10 at 3. For relief, plaintiff seeks one day's back pay, injunctive relief, monetary damages in an unspecified amount, as well as costs and attorney's fees. Id. at 4.

At the conclusion of discovery, defendant moved for summary judgment ("Motion, " ECF 63), supported by a legal memorandum ("Memo., " ECF 63-1) as well as exhibits.[2] Plaintiff filed an Opposition to the Motion ("Opp., " ECF 67), supported by exhibits, [3] to which defendant replied ("Reply, " ECF 69). No hearing is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6. Because plaintiff is self-represented, her filings have been "liberally construed'" and "held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citation omitted). Nevertheless, for the reasons that follow, I will grant the Motion.

I. Factual Background[4]

Plaintiff, a female, began work as a "loader" at USF's Baltimore Division in September 2000. Pla. Dep. at 26:13-20. As a loader, plaintiff's job was to load pallets from the warehouse onto trucks in the loading dock. Id. at 27:7-13. Each loader was assigned to certain empty trucks, which were located at numbered bays. See id. at 27-28.

Nadine Sullivan, a female, became plaintiff's supervisor in 2005. Id. at 31:3-8. According to Artis, it was the supervisor's job to close the truck door and bay doors of the vehicles for which she was responsible. Id. at 28:2-17. However, Artis testified that it became the loader's job to close the doors when Sullivan injured her back in 2009. Id. Nevertheless, Artis claimed that Sullivan continued "to close the doors for male loader[s]." Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 1.

On February 14, 2010, Sullivan located Artis in the break room and asked her to close the doors at bays 37 and 40. Pla. Dep. at 43:12-14; Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 1. Artis responded that she was on her lunch break, Pla. Dep. at 43:14-15, and did not get up to close the doors at that time. Id. at 43:19-21. On deposition, plaintiff recalled that Sullivan then radioed other employees, known as "jockeys, " and said: "Fellas, go to lunch. You'll get those doors when you return."[5] Id. at 43:16-18.

After lunch, Artis went back to the loading dock. Pla. Dep. at 44:2; Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 2. Rather than closing the doors at bays 37 and 40, plaintiff began loading the truck at bay 38. Pla. Dep. at 44:6-8; Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 2. Sullivan arrived at the loading dock and once again asked plaintiff to close the doors at bays 37 and 40. Pla. Dep. at 44:15-16, 46:16-21; Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 2. In response to Sullivan's second request, plaintiff recalled saying: "Nadine shorts[6] is [sic] coming up. I just put them on 37, and you told the jockeys to go to lunch, and they'll be gone to lunch for a whole hour." Pla. Dep. at 44:16-19; see also Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 2. According to plaintiff, Sullivan responded: "They said they're not going to lunch until they get these doors." Pla. Dep. at 44:21-22. When Artis asked Sullivan to clarify this statement, Sullivan apparently stated: "They said they're not going until they get these doors. Now I need these doors closed." Id. at 44:22-45:1-2.

Sullivan then contacted Kenneth Goins, the Night Warehouse Manager, and asked him to come to the loading dock. Id. at 47:2. Upon hearing Sullivan call Goins, plaintiff closed the door at bay 37. Id. at 45:8-10, 47:5-6; see Sullivan Decl. ¶ 3. Artis was in the process of closing the door at bay 40 when Goins arrived at the loading dock. Pla. Dep. at 45:10-11; see Goins Decl. at ¶ 4.[7]

Plaintiff recalled in her written statement that, at this point, she asked Sullivan: "[W]hy do you come down and close the guy[s' doors] when they are not here and you wont [sic] close mine." Pla. Statement, ECF 1-2 at 2. According to plaintiff, Sullivan asserted again that "it isn't her job." Id.

On deposition, Artis recounted that she complained to Goins that Sullivan would close the doors of the male employees, but would not close her doors. Pla. Dep. at 45:15-18. According to Artis, Sullivan once again replied, "It's not my job." Id. at 45:18-20. Plaintiff recalled that she then pointed out that Sullivan had told the jockeys to go to lunch, and the jockeys replied that they were not going until they "got" doors 37 and 40. Id. at 45:22-46:1-2. At this point, Sullivan left the dock. Id. at 46:4.

Sullivan went to the "cooler office" after the incident at the loading dock. Sullivan Decl. ¶ 4. According to Sullivan, she saw Artis "standing about ten feet away, leaning on the handle of her pallet jack and looking at [her] through the window." Id. at ¶ 4. Sullivan also recounted that she later saw plaintiff coasting back and forth on a pallet jack outside of the office. Id. at ¶ 4. According to Sullivan, when she left the cooler office, plaintiff rode by on the pallet jack, leaned over, and said to Sullivan, "your ass is mine." Id. at ¶ 4; see Goins Decl. at ¶ 5. Sullivan reported the threat to Goins. Sullivan Decl. ¶ 6; Goins Decl. at ¶ 5. Plaintiff denies that she threatened Sullivan, and also appears to deny that she coasted back and forth on the pallet jack outside of her office. See Opp., ECF 67 at 3, 5; Ex. E, ECF 67-5 at 4; Ex. G, ECF 67-7 at 2, 4.

That evening, Goins met with plaintiff and Union Steward Joe Schwabline regarding what had transpired between Artis and Sullivan. Goins Decl. at ¶ 6. According to Goins, Artis did not deny that she had a disagreement with Sullivan over closing the truck doors and that she did not shut the truck doors until after Sullivan twice told her to do so and called Goins to the dock. Id. at ¶ 7. However, Artis denied that she had threatened Sullivan. Id. Goins recalled that Artis claimed that she was singing while driving around on the pallet jack. Id. Plaintiff, on the other hand, maintains that she responded: "No. I haven't seen her, " when questioned during the meeting about whether she had threatened Sullivan. Ex. E, ECF 67-5 at 4; see Ex. G, ECF 67-7 at 5.

That same day, Goins suspended Artis, pending investigation, for improper conduct, violation of company policy/work rules, abusive language to employees/customers/supervisor, and creating a hostile work environment/threats. Pla. Dep. at 56:1-7; Pla. Dep. Ex. 9; see Goins Decl. at ¶ 7. On the Employee Disciplinary Report, Goins included the following remarks: "On 2/14, Eyvonne created a hostile work environment for a suspension. As she was passing N. Sullivan, Eyvonne said, Your ass is mine.' This comes after the two had a disagreement on the dry dock. This type of behavior won't be tolerated. As a result, Ms. Artis will be suspended pending investigation." Pla. Dep. Ex. 9. In connection with Goins's investigation, he reviewed Artis's personnel file, which revealed that she was disciplined in early 2009 for acting disrespectfully towards Sullivan and threatening her on another occasion. Goins Decl. at ¶ 8.

On or about February 16, 2010, [8] Goins met with plaintiff, along with Schwabline and a representative from human resources. Goins Decl. at ¶ 9. As in the previous meeting, plaintiff did not refute that she had a disagreement with Sullivan about closing the truck doors, or that she failed to shut the truck doors until Sullivan twice directed her to do so and called Goins to the dock. Id. at ¶ 9. Based on his review of the incident, Goins concluded that Artis did say "your ass is mine' while riding by [Sullivan] on her pallet jack on February 14, 2010." Id. at ¶ 10. Goins averred: "In light of all of this, I decided to suspend Eyvonne for five days regarding her conduct on February 14, 2010." Id. at ¶ 11.

Through her union, Artis filed a grievance regarding the five-day unpaid suspension, Ex. A, 67-1 at 4, and the grievance went through arbitration. Pla. Dep. at 64:21-22-65:1-4. The arbitrator credited Sullivan's version of events. Ex. B, ECF 67-2 at 10. However, the arbitrator concluded that Goins had improperly relied on the 2009 misconduct because, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, it could not be considered in issuing discipline with respect to the February 2010 incident. Ex. B, ECF 67-2 at 11-12. Therefore, the arbitrator reduced the unpaid suspension to one day. Pla. Dep. at 65:5-8; Ex. B, ECF 67-2 at 12.

On May 12, 2010, plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations ("MCHR"). Pla. Dep. Ex. 15, ECF 63-2 at 49.[9] In her charge, Artis alleged, inter alia: "Nadine Sullivan[] treats the male employees more favorably and I have had numerous disputes with her as a result of that fact." She also maintained that Goins suspended her "following a related incident where males were given preferential treatment by Sullivan and she accused [plaintiff] of creating a hostile work environment." Id. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission ("EEOC")[10] issued Artis a Dismissal and Notice of Right To Sue on August 24, 2011. Pla. Dep. Ex. 16, ECF 63-2 at 50. Plaintiff timely filed suit in this Court.

At her deposition, plaintiff recalled two incidents of misconduct by male employees to support her allegations of discrimination based on gender. First, plaintiff recounted an incident involving Sullivan and Eugene Harris, known as "Bubbles." Pla. Dep. at 142:14-16. Although it is not entirely clear, it seems that Sullivan supervised Harris, who held a position as a "selector." See id. at 142:XX-XX-XXX:16-19. Plaintiff said that she witnessed Sullivan and Bubbles standing face-to-face shouting at each other, and Sullivan was pointing her finger at him. Id. at 142:9-22-143:1-10. Plaintiff was uncertain of the date, but she estimated 2010 or 2011. Id. at 144:14-17. But, she recalled that the incident "was something about what he didn't do at work." Id. at 144:1-2. Yet, according to plaintiff, no disciplinary action was taken against Bubbles. Id. at 143:18-19.

The second incident involved a man identified only as "Hank, " who was supervised by Sullivan and held a position as a "receiver." Id. at 154:7, 157:17-20. According to plaintiff, in March 2011, id. at 154:5-6, Sullivan threw out Hank's lunch when she was cleaning the refrigerator. Id. at 154:11-15. In response, "he verbally cursed her out." Id. at 154:14-15. Plaintiff contends that Hank was "suspended for the day with pay, " and was required "to come back and apologize to Ms. Sullivan and that was it." Id. at 154:17-19. Plaintiff admitted that she did not witness the interaction between Hank and Sullivan, but recalled that "everyone talked about it, " id. at 154:20-22, and she learned about Hank's discipline through a shop steward. Id. at 155:15-17.

Notably, at her deposition, plaintiff was unable to identify any male employees who had threatened Sullivan. And, plaintiff admitted in her Opposition: "I have never hear [sic] anyone threat [sic] Ms. Sullivan." ECF 67 at 5.

Additional facts are included in the Discussion.

Standard of Review

Summary judgment is governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It provides, in part: "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986). A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

In response to a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must demonstrate that there are disputes of material fact so as to preclude the award of summary judgment as a matter of law. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The Supreme Court has clarified that this does not mean that any factual dispute will defeat the motion. "By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48 (emphasis in original).

"A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleadings, ' but rather must set forth specific facts'" showing that there is a triable issue. Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1042 (2004). In resolving a summary judgment motion, the court must view all of the facts, including reasonable inferences to be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 587; see also FDIC v. Cashion, 720 F.3d 169, 173 (4th Cir. 2013); Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 645 (4th Cir. 2002).

In considering a summary judgment motion, a judge must determine "whether there is [evidence] upon which a jury can properly proceed to find a verdict for the party producing it, upon whom the onus of proof is imposed.'" Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252 (quoting Schuylkill & Dauphin Imp. Co. v. Munson, 81 U.S. 442, 448 (1871) (emphasis in Munson ). The "judge's function" in reviewing a motion for summary judgment is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249. If "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, " there is a dispute of material fact that precludes summary judgment. Id. at 248. Conversely, if the evidence on the record would not support a verdict for the nonmoving party, it is "the affirmative obligation of the trial judge to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial" and to grant summary judgment for the moving party. Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778 (4th ...


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