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Ballinger v. Board of Education for Prince George's County

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

December 29, 2017




         Plaintiff Crystal Ballinger sued Defendant Board of Education of Prince George's County. Maryland, alleging that she had been unlawfully sexually harassed and retaliated against in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. 1681, et seq. ('Title IX"). ECF No. 1. Presently pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 28. In support of its Motion, Defendant attaches the affidavit of Defendant's Equal Employment Opportunity Advisor, Amana T. Simmons, who investigated Plaintiffs allegations. ECF No. 28-6; Defendant's relevant administrative policies, which it relied on, ECF No. 28-2. ECF No. 28-3, ECF No. 28-4, ECF No. 28-6 at 5-13; correspondence between Plaintiff and Defendant regarding the alleged harassment, ECF No. 28-6 at 14-18, 35-57, ECF No. 28-5; and. a number of statements made by individuals who witnessed the alleged harassment, ECF No. 28-6 at 20-34. In opposition. Plaintiff attaches her own affidavit, ECF No. 29-1; another teacher's affidavit, ECF No. 29-2; and, the same witness statements that were attached to Defendant's Motion, ECF No. 29-3. The Court held a motions hearing on December 7, 2017. ECF No. 34. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff is an employee of Prince George's County Public Schools, and in 2014 was working at Oxon Hill Middle School ("OHMS"). ECF No. 29-1 ¶¶ 1-2 (Plaintiffs Affidavit).[2]On September 19. 2014, Plaintiff attended an OHMS staff retreat in Oakland, Maryland. Id. ¶ 4. Jeffrey Pearson, a math teacher at OHMS, was also at the retreat. Id. ¶ 8. That evening. Plaintiff attended a party with other OHMS staff, where alcohol was being consumed, loud music was playing, and staff members were dancing. Id. ¶ 14. Based on Plaintiffs recollection, Pearson's recollection and witness statements, it is clear that at some point in the evening Plaintiff and Pearson fell to the ground together. Id. ¶ 14; e.g., ECF No. 28-6 at 20 (witness statement). The exact cause of their falling and subsequent conduct is disputed. Plaintiff recalls that at approximately 10:30 PM, Pearson "grabbed [her] waist, " and that she pulled away and informed him that she did not want to dance. ECF No. 29-1 ¶ 16-17. She recalls that she was "slammed into the floor, " and that Pearson was "on top of [her] and proceeded to give forceful thrusts into [her] pelvic region." ECF No. 28-6 at 16 (Plaintiffs "Statement of the Facts"). Pearson, on the other hand, recalls that he and Plaintiff began "dancing together' when she walked past him. and that they began dancing "closer and closer'' with "no sign of hesitation"' from Plaintiff. Id. at 34 (Pearson's Statement). He recalls that they "danced lower till we fell to the floor" at which point he "began to grind on top of her for a few minutes." Id. Multiple witnesses remember Plaintiff making a joke that Pearson "could [have] bought [her] dinner first" once they stood back up. Id. at 22; see also Id. at 20. 24.

         Plaintiff returned to the building where the female employees were staying and asked another employee to call OHMS Principal Wendell Coleman. Id. at 17. When Coleman arrived. Plaintiff explained what had occurred and informed Coleman that her back was injured; Coleman asked if Plaintiff wanted to go to the hospital, which she declined. Id. Coleman then stated that he was going to "discuss the events'" with Pearson, and left the building. Id. Coleman returned and told Plaintiff that he would discuss the situation with Pearson the next morning. Id. at 38. The next morning, Coleman met with Pearson, Plaintiff and two other staff members about the incident the night before. Id. Plaintiff expressed her discomfort and embarrassment regarding the incident; Pearson explained that he "mean[t] no disrespect to you." Id. Pearson said that "he would like to apologize to the entire retreat for his misconduct, " id, and during a staff breakfast that morning, Pearson "apologized for his actions to the whole staff." Id. at 28. Plaintiff subsequently asked Coleman to send Pearson home; although he refused to do so. Coleman asked Pearson to stay in his house for the remainder of the retreat. Id. at 39. There is no evidence that Pearson sexually harassed Plaintiff after this incident.

         On September 22, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Discrimination or Harassment Incident Report with the Prince George's Public School Equity Assurance office. Id. at 14-15. Prince George's County Public Schools EEO Advisor, Amana T. Simmons, corresponded with Principal Coleman that day and arranged to interview numerous witnesses regarding the incident; these interviews occurred the next day, on September 23. 2014. Id. at 2-3. During her investigation, Simmons instructed Pearson to "avoid contact with [Plaintiff] by not venturing into the area of the school containing [her] designated work space." Id. at 40. Simmons ultimately issued a Letter of Determination, which found that both Plaintiff and Pearson '"engaged in inappropriate conduct, " that the "initial interaction between [Plaintiff] and Mr. Pearson dancing was consensual, " and "recommended that both parties receive a Memorandum of Counsel respecting such behavior." Id. at 46. No such Memorandum of Counsel was ever issued. Following the incident. Plaintiff applied for "Assault Leave"; however, in a letter dated October 23, 2014. Defendant denied her request because she had "failed to consult with a physician or emergency room at a hospital within twenty-four (24) hours of the alleged complaint, " as required under Administrative Procedure 4154. ECF No. 28-5 at 1; see also ECF No. 28-3 (Administrative Procedure 4154).

         Plaintiff also presents evidence that the September 2014 incident was not the first time that Pearson engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior at a work event, and that OHMS Vice Principal Ashanti Foster witnessed the prior alleged misconduct. In her affidavit, Plaintiff recalls that on March 17, 2014, she was in Foster's office with Pearson. ECF No. 29-1 at 3. Plaintiff recalls Pearson inviting Plaintiff to "feel free to touch me at any time .. . you know where I am." Id. at 4. Plaintiff also attaches the affidavit of Elizabeth Tedder, a former employee of OHMS, who recalls another incident involving Pearson behaving inappropriately towards female coworkers at an OHMS event. Tedder recalls that at an OHMS staff event on March 17, 2014, Pearson approached her while she was in a hot tub, and sat next to her. ECF No. 29-2 ¶ 5. He made sexual advances towards her, made sexual comments about her body and invited her to his room; Tedder asked him to stop. Id. ¶¶ 6-7. At one point, Pearson touched Tedder's thigh and buttocks. Id. ¶ 9. Later that evening, Pearson continued to make sexual advances and comments. and again asked Tedder to go to his room. Id. ¶ 13. Tedder felt uncomfortable, and moved next to Vice Principal Ashanti Foster. Id. ¶ 16. Pearson began dancing in front of Tedder and Vice Principal Foster, eventually attempting to give Foster a lap dance. Id. ¶¶ 17-21. Tedder and Foster tried to avoid Pearson, and Foster told him to return to his room. Id. ¶ 23.

         Following her denial of assault leave, and the issuance of Defendant's Letter of Determination, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Defendant in this Court on December 10, 2015. ECF No. I. Plaintiff alleges that (1) she was sexually harassed, and that Defendant is liable for the harassment under Title VII and Title IX because "[s]chool officials condoned Mr. Pearson's harassing behavior and failed to take corrective action, " ECF No. 1 at 10 (Count I), and (2) Defendant retaliated against her in violation of Title VII and Title IX after she filed a Discrimination or Harassment Incident Report. Id. at 12 (Count II). On April 3, 2017, Defendant submitted the pending Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 28, and the Court heard arguments from the parties on December 7. 2017, ECF No. 34.


         ''Under [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 56(c), summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Celotex Corp. v. Cairett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of demonstrating that no genuine dispute exists as to material facts. Pulliam Inv. Co. v. Cameo Props., 810 F.2d 1282, 1286 (4th Cir. 1987). If the moving party demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the non-moving party's case, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to identify specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. Importantly, at the summary judgment stage, it is not the Court's function to weigh the evidence but simply to decide if there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505 (1986). A dispute of material fact is genuine if the contlicting evidence creates "fair doubt." Cox v. Cnty. Of Prince William, 249 F.3d 295, 299 (4th Cir. 2001), such that "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, All U.S. at 248.

         When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, "ft]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Id. at 255. Nevertheless, a "mere scintilla of proof is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Peters v. Jenney, 327 F.3d 307, 314 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252). To defeat the motion, the party opposing summary judgment must submit evidentiary materials showing facts on the basis of which the finder of fact could reasonably decide the case in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. If a party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an essential element on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment is proper. Id.


         The Court first considers whether Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff s sexual harassment claim, and then turns to whether it is entitled to summary judgment on her retaliation claim.

         A. ...

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