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Rhodes v. Comcast Cable Communcations Management, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 17, 2016



          George L. Russell, III United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant’s, Comcast Cable Communications Management, LLC (“Comcast”), Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 48) and Motion in Limine to Exclude the Affidavits of Karen Davis and Kirby Duffy (ECF No. 49). The Motions are ripe for disposition. Having reviewed the Motions and supporting documents, the Court finds no hearing necessary pursuant to Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2014). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will deny the Motion in Limine and deny in part and grant in part the Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Comcast employed Plaintiff Rylinda Rhodes, a female, from May 2007 to August 1, 2012. At all times relevant to this matter, Rhodes was employed as a dispatch representative (also referred to as “dispatcher”). In 2009, Rhodes began working in Comcast’s Network Operations Center (“NOC”) in Silver Spring, Maryland. Upon her arrival, she noticed that the male dispatchers on her team used vulgar language, including profanity, and described various sexual acts and women’s body parts. Some male dispatchers took pictures of her and other female employees’ breasts and used a smartphone application to manipulate the size of the breasts in the photos. Rhodes repeatedly complained to her supervisor, Tim Glass, about the vulgar language, but he assured her that her male coworkers’ unprofessional language would stop. Despite Rhodes’s complaints, the behavior continued.

         In 2010, Comcast consolidated its regional NOCs and created two NOCs for its mid-Atlantic operations, one in Millersville, Maryland and the other in Richmond, Virginia. Around April 2010, Comcast transferred Rhodes and the other dispatchers on her team to the Millersville NOC. Rhodes noticed that the male dispatchers’ behavior persisted and she continued to complain to her supervisors about their vulgar language, which included describing sexual acts and calling female customers “bitches.” Despite her complaints, the language continued. In May 2010, Rhodes began applying for different jobs at Comcast.

         From June 18, 2010 to October 17, 2010, Rhodes left work on short-term disability leave. On June 23, 2010, Rhodes was admitted into Washington Adventist Hospital, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and began an intensive outpatient program on June 24, 2010. On October 13, 2010, Rhodes’s physician permitted her to return to work part-time with possible discharge from the outpatient program.

         In March or April 2011, Rhodes complained to Glass about her coworkers’ behavior, and Glass merely stated “what do you want me to do? They are set in their ways.” (Rhodes Dep. at 168, ECF No. 54-2). Rhodes obtained intermittent FMLA leave from April 10, 2011 to April 9, 2012. On June 14, 2011, Rhodes applied for a supervisor position in the Millersville NOC, but was rejected for the position. Rick O’Leary, a supervisor in the Millersville NOC, informed Rhodes that she would not be considered for the position because she was on FMLA leave.

         In summer 2011, Rhodes informed her supervisor Laura Kelley that she had bipolar disorder and had weekly meetings with Kelley regarding her male coworkers’ use of vulgar language. In August 2011, Rhodes emailed Quentin Sa’Lay in Comcast’s human resources department, stating she made several complaints about unprofessional behavior. Also, in or around August 2011, one of Rhodes’s coworkers, Michael Davis, grabbed her breasts. Rhodes did not immediately report this incident.

         Due to the stress and anxiety caused by her working environment, Rhodes obtained short-term disability leave from September 21, 2011 to January 1, 2012. When she returned to work, she confronted Davis and told him never to touch her again. Rhodes was then absent from work on January 8, 9, 22, 23, 26, 29, and 31, 2012. In late January or early February 2012, Davis stated to Rhodes, while looking at her breasts, “I missed them girls.” (Rhodes Dep. at 212-13). Rhodes was then absent from work on February 15, 16, 18, and 21, 2012.

         On February 22, 2012, Kelley sent out an email to Rhodes and her coworkers requesting that they refrain from using profanity at work because the human resources department was alerted to the subject matter of their conversations. Rhodes’s last day of work was February 29, 2012, when she went on short-term disability leave from March 1 to May 19, 2012.

         On May 22, 2012, Rhodes’s insurance company informed her that her medical records confirmed that was no longer considered unable to perform her job and she was released to return to work effective May 20, 2012. On May 22, 2012, Rhodes contacted Lori Llewellyn, a leave of absence consultant at Comcast, stating she would submit a certification from her healthcare provider substantiating her need for medical leave from May 20, 2012.

         On May 22, 2012, Rhodes met with Sa’Lay and informed him that she could not return to the Millersville NOC due to the vulgar language and sexual conversations she repeatedly overheard and the incident involving Davis. Sa’Lay put Rhodes in contact with Tyra Franklin, the human resources representative assigned to the Millersville NOC. On May 29, 2012, Rhodes met with Franklin to discuss the vulgar language and incident with Davis. Franklin informed Rhodes that Comcast would investigate her complaints and the workplace environment would improve. Rhodes stated she would not return to the Millersville NOC because the environment was detrimental to her health. Franklin then instructed Rhodes to apply for other positions within Comcast for which she believed she was qualified. Rhodes requested that she be reassigned to another location or placed in another position comparable to her current position as a dispatcher.

         On May 30, 2012, Glass sent an email to various supervisors in the Millersville NOC, including Kelley, stating they must ensure that they maintain a professional environment and keep the employees’ personal conversations minimal and appropriate. He further stated that some of Rhodes’s complaints to the human resources department were accurate. Also, on May 30, 2012, Nanette Winder, an employee engagement advisor at Comcast, instructed Franklin to have Rhodes complete Comcast’s “Interactive ADA process.” (ECF No. 54-24).

         In June 2012, Franklin offered Rhodes a dispatcher position in the Richmond NOC, but Rhodes refused to accept the offer because Comcast would not pay for Rhodes’s relocation expenses.

         Rhodes also refused to return to the Millersville NOC. On June I, 2012, Winder began an investigation into Rhodes’s complaints. On June 4, 2012, Rhodes again complained to Winder about the inappropriate language and touching that she experienced in the Millersville NOC. On June 29, 2012, Llewellyn mailed Rhodes a letter stating that if she did not submit a certification form from her healthcare provider by July 6, 2012, Comcast would assume that she was no longer interested in remaining employed and terminate her.

         On July 3, 2012, Winder concluded that Rhodes’s complaints about Davis could not be substantiated. Winder told Rhodes the results of the investigation and that she was expected to return to work at the Millersville NOC because Comcast was taking steps to improve the office’s environment. Rhodes then stated that she would never return to the Millersville NOC because she did not feel safe there and she would not accept the position in the Richmond NOC because Comcast would not pay for her relocation expenses.

         On July 6, 2012, Rhodes again complained to Winder about the sexual language and misconduct that occurred in the Millersville NOC. On July 9, 2012, Winder again directed Rhodes to return to work at the Millersville NOC immediately. On July, II, 2012, Toni Ekeh, a human resources representative, informed Winder that a termination letter for Rhodes would be drafted.

         On July 13, 2012, the human resources department circulated an office etiquette document in the Millersville NOC addressing its expectations for appropriate office behavior. On August 1, 2012, Comcast terminated Rhodes’s employment because of her health and because she refused to return to work.

         The following aforementioned facts are in dispute: 1) whether Rhodes made any complaints regarding vulgar and sexual language prior to May 2012; 2) whether Comcast terminated Rhodes because of her health; and 3) whether any employees used vulgar or sexual language in the NOCs.

         On June 25, 2012, Rhodes filed a charge of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (ECF No. 1). On March 11, 2014, Rhodes received a right to sue notice from the EEOC. (Id.). On June 6, 2014, Rhodes initiated this action against Comcast, alleging hostile work environment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. (2012) (Counts I-II); discrimination, wrongful discharge, and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (Counts III-V); interference and retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. (2012) (Counts VI-VII); and discrimination, wrongful discharge, and retaliation under the Maryland Human Relations Act, referred to as the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), Md.Code Ann., State Gov’t §§ 20-601 et seq. (West 2016) (Counts VIII-XII). (Id.).

         On August 4, 2014, Comcast filed an Answer. (ECF No. 9). On August 31, 2015, Comcast filed Motions for Summary Judgment and in Limine. (ECF Nos. 48, 49). On September 17, 2015, Rhodes filed Oppositions to the Motions. (ECF Nos. 54, 55). On October 13, 2015, Comcast filed Replies to the Oppositions.[2](ECF Nos. 62, 63).


         A. Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56(a), the Court must grant summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (citing Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the opposing party has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).

         “[T]he 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. A “material fact” is one that might affect the outcome of a party’s case. Id. at 248; see also JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001)). Whether a fact is considered to be “material” is determined by the substantive law, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Hooven-Lewis, 249 F.3d at 265.

         B. Analysis

         1. Title VII[3]

         a. Hostile ...

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