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Allen v. TV One, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 4, 2017

NIKKI WEBBER ALLEN
v.
TV ONE, LLC

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBORAH K. CHASANOW, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Presently pending and ready for resolution in this employment discrimination case are a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant TV One (“Defendant”) (ECF No. 89), and a cross motion for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Nikki Webber Allen (“Plaintiff”) (ECF No. 90). The issues have been fully briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, the motions for summary judgment will be denied.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background[1]

         A more complete recitation of the factual background can be found in the court's prior memorandum opinion denying Defendant's motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 27, at 1-8). Plaintiff began working as Director of Talent Relations and Casting for Defendant when the television network launched in 2004. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 34, pp. 127-28, 43, p. 164; 90-5, at 4).[2] Among other responsibilities, Plaintiff was charged with booking talent for TV One shows, including TV One-on-One, hosted by TV One's founder, chairperson, and board member Catherine Hughes. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 34, p. 127; 90-6, at 34, p. 127). Ms. Hughes is also the mother of TV One Chief Executive Officer and President Alfred Liggins. (ECF No. 90-5, at 4). Plaintiff asserts that she was subjected to a pervasive pattern of sexual harassment and gender discrimination by Ms. Hughes during the course of her employment at TV One. (ECF No. 90-1, at 7). The crux of Plaintiff's claim is that Ms. Hughes insisted repeatedly that Plaintiff take up a romantic relationship with Mr. Liggins. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 45-46, pp. 173, 175-77). During a business trip to Chicago in October 2004, Ms. Hughes allegedly said to Plaintiff, “I'm going to be your mother one way or another. Either you will marry [Mr. Liggins] or I will marry your father and be your stepmother.” (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 45, p. 173; 90-6, at 45, p. 173). On another occasion, Ms. Hughes sternly questioned why Plaintiff had not married Mr. Liggins yet, stating that Plaintiff was old and “[her] babies would probably be retarded.” (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 49, p. 187; 90-6, at 49, p. 187, 54, p. 207). On various occasions, Ms. Hughes introduced Plaintiff to others as her “future daughter-in-law, ” fueling workplace rumors that Plaintiff and Mr. Liggins were romantically involved. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 46, pp. 176-77; 90-6, at 46, pp. 176-77, 49, pp. 188-89). When Plaintiff complained directly to Mr. Liggins about the rumors, he responded, “at least it makes me look good.” (ECF No. 90-6, at 32, p. 118). Once Ms. Hughes realized that Plaintiff was not going to marry Mr. Liggins, she began to “baselessly attack” Plaintiff's job performance, including publicly berating Plaintiff in front of her co-workers (Id. at 53-54, pp. 205-06); demanding that Plaintiff make requests for talent in a manner contrary to standard industry protocol (Id. at 54-55, pp. 208-13); and chastising Plaintiff for taking time off for her wedding and honeymoon in 2012 (Id. at 56-57, pp. 214-18). At a gathering of TV One employees in January 2014, Mr. Liggins gave a speech about the history of TV One and screened a video demo reel. During his speech, Mr. Liggins falsely stated that Plaintiff joined him in his hotel room to review the video when he was on a business trip in Los Angeles. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 27-28, pp. 101-02; 90-6, at 27-28, pp. 101-02). According to Plaintiff, this statement further fueled rumors that Mr. Liggins and Plaintiff were romantically involved. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 27-28, pp. 101, 104-05, 31, pp. 114-15; 90-6, at 28, pp. 104-05, 31, pp. 114-15).

         Plaintiff's employment was terminated in late June 2014 following a dispute with Ms. Hughes regarding the Essence Music Festival (the “Festival”). (ECF No. 90-19, at 2-3). Earlier in the month, Plaintiff's supervisor informed Plaintiff that Ayiko Broyard, an advertising agency executive and personal friend of Ms. Hughes, wanted the R&B Divas to perform on the McDonald's stage at the Festival. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 129-30, pp. 367-71; 90-6, at 129-30, pp. 367-71). However, the R&B Divas were already booked for a performance on Walmart's stage. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 127, p. 366; 90-6, at 131, pp. 377-78, 132, p. 382). Concerned about jeopardizing TV One's relationship with Walmart, Plaintiff communicated with Denise Bennett, the talent manager and TV One's account representative handling the Walmart account. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 132, pp. 383-86; 90-6 at 131, pp. 376-77). After being told by Ms. Bennett that Walmart expected exclusivity with the R&B Divas, Plaintiff issued instructions to notify Ms. Broyard that TV One was unable to accommodate her request because of an existing agreement with Walmart. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 131, p. 382, 359-60; 90-6, at 128, p. 366, 136, pp. 396-97). On June 22, Ms. Broyard informed Ms. Hughes that her request had been denied, and Ms. Hughes called Plaintiff's supervisor regarding the matter. (ECF No. 89-11, at 66, pp. 254-55, 67, p. 257). That afternoon, Plaintiff's supervisor emailed Plaintiff, asking her to call Ms. Hughes. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 137, pp. 403-04, 362; 89-12, at 38, p. 141; 90-6, at 138, pp. 403-04).

         Most of the remaining facts are in dispute. According to Plaintiff, when she called Ms. Hughes in the afternoon on June 22, Ms. Hughes “immediately started telling [her] off” and yelled and cursed at her for not speaking with Ms. Broyard directly regarding her request. (ECF No. 90-6, at 138, p. 405). While Plaintiff tried to speak calmly with Ms. Hughes “to diffuse the situation, ” Ms. Hughes “ke[pt] jumping in and yelling at [Plaintiff].” (Id. at 138, p. 406). When Ms. Hughes demanded that Plaintiff participate on a conference call the following day, Plaintiff informed Ms. Hughes that she would be unavailable and on approved leave out of town visiting her husband's family. In response, Ms. Hughes told Plaintiff, “I don't give a damn about your husband's family.” (Id.). Believing that she hung up the phone on Plaintiff, Ms. Hughes began speaking to others in her company, referring to Plaintiff as “arrogant” and “incompetent, ” and stating in reference to Plaintiff, “I don't know who the hell this girl thinks she is, but I am writing her ass up.” (ECF No. 90-6, at 139, pp. 408-10). According to Defendant, Ms. Hughes never yelled at Plaintiff during the conversation. Rather, Plaintiff yelled so loudly at Ms. Hughes that Plaintiff's voice could be overheard by others through the phone. (ECF Nos. 89-8, at 49, pp. 190-92, 63, pp. 246-48, 75, p. 294; 89-11, at 68, pp. 263-64; 89-13, at 2; 89-14, at 2-3). According to Ms. Hughes, she told Plaintiff, “calm down, ” “[w]e only need five minutes of your time, ” and attempted to schedule a time for the conference call. (ECF No. 89-11, at 68, pp. 263-64). After Plaintiff refused, Ms. Hughes hung up the phone on Plaintiff. (Id. at 68, p. 264)

         At about 9:30 a.m. on June 23, Plaintiff called TV One's Human Resources Vice President Sharon Alston and left a voice message stating:

“I am making a complaint against Ms. Hughes for harassment. . . . [S]he cursed me out in a phone conversation yesterday when I told her that I was with my husband's family in Minnesota . . . I think she wants me fired because I told her previously that I wouldn't marry her son. Please call me as soon as possible so I can give you more details about my complaint.”

(ECF No. 90-11, at 2-3). Plaintiff also e-mailed Ms. Alton, directing Ms. Alston to her voice message. (Id. at 3). Ms. Alston was not available but responded to Plaintiff's e-mail, stating that she was available to speak with Plaintiff in the afternoon. Plaintiff was not available at that time and requested to speak with Ms. Alston the following day (ECF No. 89-4, at 140, pp. 416-18, 366).

         In the afternoon on June 23, Ms. Hughes contacted Jackie Kindall, Radio One's Senior Vice President of Human Resources, and told her about the call with Plaintiff. (ECF Nos. 89-8, at 29, pp. 110-11, 40, p. 155; 89-11, at 68-69, pp. 264-65). Ms. Hughes stated that she “wants [Plaintiff] out, ” “didn't want [Plaintiff] back in the building” and “Kimberly Dawkins can help fill in on the talent side for TV One when we fire [Plaintiff].” (ECF No. 89-8, at 36-37, pp. 140-43, 38, pp. 145-47). Ms. Kindall then contacted Ms. Alston, who “handle[s] TV One HR issues, ” and told her that, “[Ms. Hughes] wants [Plaintiff] on administrative leave, ” and instructed Ms. Alston to tell Plaintiff not to report to Los Angeles for a planned photo shoot because she is on administrative leave. (Id. at 73, pp. 286-87). According to Defendant, Ms. Alston and Ms. Kindall agreed during their conversation that they would investigate the matter between Plaintiff and Ms. Hughes. Ms. Alston would speak with Plaintiff regarding the dispute and Ms. Kindall would speak with Tony Washington and Jody Williams who were “witnesses to the conversation with [Plaintiff] and Ms. H[ughes].” (ECF No. 89-8, at 47-49, pp. 182-90). Ms. Alston then called Mr. Washington and Ms. Williams, who corroborated Ms. Hughes' account of the June 22 phone conversation with Plaintiff. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, this investigation was a cover-up for Ms. Hughes' instructions to Ms. Kindall the day before to fire Plaintiff. (ECF No. 90-13, at 38, pp. 146-47).

         When Plaintiff spoke with Ms. Alston on the morning of June 24 regarding her voice message and e-mail sent on June 23, Plaintiff recounted the phone conversation with Ms. Hughes on June 22 and provided a full history of her treatment by Ms. Hughes at TV One. (ECF No. 90-15, at 2-4). In response, Ms. Alston informed Plaintiff that she was being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 141, p. 420; 90-6, at 145, pp. 431-32).

         In the afternoon on June 24, Ms. Alston met with Ms. Kindall, Linda Vilardo, Radio One's Chief Administrative Officer, and in-house legal counsel, to discuss her investigation of the dispute between Plaintiff and Ms. Hughes. (ECF No. 89-8, at 64, pp. 250-52). According to Defendant, at that meeting, Ms. Vilardo determined that Plaintiff's employment should be terminated for insubordination. (ECF Nos. 89-8, at 80, pp. 314-15; 89-15, at 73, p. 283; 89-16, at 34, p. 131). Plaintiff was not notified of the decision to terminate her employment on June 24 because, on June 25, Ms. Kindall was preparing a severance package to be offered to Plaintiff. (ECF Nos. 89-8, at 91, p. 358, 95, p. 373-74, 160-61; 89-16, at 42, pp. 163-64). On the morning of June 26, Plaintiff sent to Ms. Alston a written complaint against Defendant for gender discrimination and harassment. (ECF No. 89-4, at 144, p. 434, 375; 90-18, at 2). Later that day, Plaintiff was informed by letter that her employment had been terminated effective June 24. (ECF Nos. 89-4, at 148, pp. 448-49, 377-389; 90-19, at 2-3).

         B. Procedural Background

         On March 13, 2017, Defendant moved for summary judgment. (ECF No. 89). On March 27, Plaintiff filed an opposition and moved for summary judgment with respect to Defendant's seventh and ninth affirmative defenses asserted in its answer. (ECF No. 90). Defendant replied and filed an opposition to Plaintiff's motion on April 10. (ECF No. 91). Plaintiff filed a reply and amended reply to Defendant's opposition. (ECF Nos. 92; 93).

         II. Standard of Review

         A motion for summary judgment will be granted only if there exists no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2008). To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party generally bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248-50. A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 249. In undertaking this inquiry, a court must view the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)(quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)); see also EEOC v. Navy Fed. Credit Union, 424 F.3d 397, 405 (4th Cir. 2005), but a “party cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact through mere speculation or compilation of inferences.” Shin v. Shalala, 166 F.Supp.2d 373, 375 (D.Md. 2001) (citation omitted).

         When faced with cross motions for summary judgment, the court must consider “each motion separately on its own merits to determine whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law.” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4thCir. 2003) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The court reviews each motion under the familiar standard for summary judgment outlined above. Desmond v. PNGI Charles Town Gaming, L.L.C., 630 F.3d 351, 354 (4th Cir. 2011). The court must deny both motions if there is a genuine dispute of material fact, “[b]ut if there is no genuine issue and one or the other party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law, the court will render judgment.” 10A Charles A. Wright, et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2720 (3d ed. 1998).

         III. Analysis

         1. Gender Discrimination

         Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer “to discriminate against an individual with respect to . . . terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual's . . . sex.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). In Count I, Plaintiff asserts claims of ...


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