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Payton v. Stanfill, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

February 23, 2015

JUDY PAYTON, Plaintiff,
v.
STANFILL, INC., et al., Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

J. DANIEL BREEN, Chief District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

The Plaintiff, Judy Payton, brought this action on July 23, 2013 against the Defendants, Stanfill, Inc. d/b/a Stanfill Sonics ("Stanfill Sonics"); Jerry Stanfill; Beverly Stanfill and Kenny Reed, alleging violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ; Section 610 of the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 1161, et seq. and the Tennessee Human Rights Act, Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-21-101, et seq. ("THRA"). She also alleged claims under Tennessee common law. Before the Court is the motion of Defendants Stanfill Sonics, Jerry Stanfill and Beverly Stanfill[1] for partial summary judgment, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as to Plaintiff's claims of sexual harassment (Count I) and retaliation (Count II) under Title VII; sexual harassment (Count IV) and retaliatory discharge (Count V) under the THRA; and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VI), negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count VII) and negligent supervision and retention (Count VIII) under state law. Defendants also seek dismissal of Count IX of the complaint, which alleges an age discrimination claim.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 56 provides in pertinent part that "[t]he 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). The court is to "view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." Marie v. Am. Red Cross, 771 F.3d 344, 351 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). "The burden is initially on the moving party to inform the district court of the basis of its motion, and identify those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)) (internal quotation marks & alterations omitted). "The moving party may make this showing by demonstrating the absence of evidence to support one of the essential elements of the nonmoving party's claim." Id. (citing Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-25). The nonmoving party then "bears the burden of producing in turn evidence which would support a jury verdict." Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted). "[I]f the nonmoving party is unable to present sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to find in its favor, summary judgment is appropriate." Hyland v. HomeServs. of Am., Inc., 771 F.3d 310, 316 (6th Cir. 2014).

FACTS

Following are the material facts of this case viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff. Stanfill Sonics owns and operates multiple drive-in restaurant franchises in Tennessee. According to her declaration, Beverly Stanfill is the company's sole owner and chief executive officer and Jerry Stanfill is its chief operating officer. On or about July 8, 1997, she hired Payton to work as her administrative assistant. During 2011 and 2012, Plaintiff held the position of office manager, with her primary job duties involving payroll. At that time, Plaintiff worked at the corporate office located at 2811 North Highland Avenue in Jackson, Tennessee. She was not involved in the human resources department and investigation of sexual harassment allegations was not part of her job duties.

Sometime in 2010 or 2011, Jerry Stanfill, James Brandon, then director of operations David Williams, Kevin Carter and company bookkeeper Lloyd Russell were in the same area of the office when Brandon presented Payton with a sealed pack of business cards. Mr. Stanfill commented that, if she wore short skirts and "sucked dick, " she could make $100, 000 a year. (D.E. 42-3 at 8.) It is unclear what the cards said. She recalled that the whole office was talking about the incident and some "ribbed" her about it.

Plaintiff testified in her deposition that, in February of 2010 or 2011 - she thought it was 2010 because he left the company in 2011 - Williams made a comment about Payton's pants as he walked through the office conference room where she was getting coffee. He asked if they were velvet and if he could touch them. When she said he could not and walked past him, he reached through her legs from behind and grabbed her crotch. In her affidavit, she stated the incident occurred in December 2010 or early January 2011.

Reed began his employment with Stanfill Sonics in October 2006 and, in 2011, became director of operations, working out of the company's corporate office. He was not Plaintiff's supervisor. In her affidavit, Payton related that he told her he liked it when she wore her long hair down on at least seven occasions from 2011 to 2012.[2] In approximately three of those instances, beginning as early as 2012, he told her the hairstyle turned him on, while giving her a sideways "half-hug." In her deposition, she testified that she was friendly with Reed, joked around with him and, when asked if she ever hugged him, responded "Probably, maybe, I don't know." (D.E. 42-3 at 32-33.) She further testified that she never told Reed to stop the "half-hugs" and, later in her deposition, that she could not recall telling him not to hug her. In an affidavit attached to her responsive brief, Payton averred that "I told Reed I was offended when he put his arm around me and when he would make comments about my hair."[3] (D.E. 43-2 ¶ 14.)

On one day in April 2012, Plaintiff alleged that Reed made three comments she considered to be offensive: he could only have "straight sex" with his wife, he wanted to "stick a Hall's mentholated cough drop up [Payton's] pussy and eat it out" and there was enough room in the bathroom for him and Plaintiff. (D.E. 43-2 ¶ 16.) The statements were made in the hallway outside several offices and a conference room in the presence of Brandon and Russell. She could not recall how the conversation started and said she might have "walked in on it" or "walked through." (D.E. 42-3 at 17.) She turned around, entered her office and shut the door. She described the bathroom comment as "somewhat" offensive. ( Id. at 22.)

In July 2012, she claimed that Reed told her during a smoke break on the office patio that he had a photograph of an employee's vagina on his cell phone and shoved it toward her face. She pushed the phone away. Also present were Jerry Stanfill, Brandon and Russell. When she got up to leave, Plaintiff alleged that Mr. Stanfill asked Reed to send the photograph to his phone.

Although Payton maintained that Beverly Stanfill was absent from the office for months at a time, it is undisputed that the two were friends and that Plaintiff had Ms. Stanfill's cellphone number. Nonetheless, Plaintiff stated in her deposition that the first complaint she made to the Stanfills about Reed's behavior was to Beverly Stanfill on October 1, 2012 in the company's conference room, several months after the incidents occurred. (D.E. 43-3 at 45-46.) She also testified that she complained of harassment in meetings with the Stanfills on October 31, 2012 and the date of her termination - November 5, 2012. In her affidavit, however, she asserted that she reported Reed's April 2012 comments to Ms. Stanfill in person prior to July 2012.

In September 2012, Payton introduced her boyfriend, now husband, Shawn Andrews, to Jerry Stanfill. Plaintiff maintains that Mr. Stanfill knew prior to meeting Andrews that he was on a sex-offender registry in Florida but had been removed from a similar list in Tennessee. According to the Defendants, Payton failed to disclose that Andrews was her boyfriend or that he was on any sex-offender registry. He was hired as a manager-in-training on or about October 1, 2012. On October 26, 2012, Andrews was terminated for unsatisfactory performance due to numerous complaints of sexual harassment, his arrest at the drive-in location where he worked, and his sex-offender status.

The Stanfills met with Plaintiff on November 5, 2012 to advise her that her employment was being terminated. Payton filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Tennessee Human Rights Commission on November 19, 2012.

ASSERTIONS OF THE PARTIES AND ANALYSIS

Sexual Harassment (Hostile Work Environment)

With respect to her sexual harassment claims, Payton has alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment. Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to "discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to [her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's... sex..." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The THRA likewise prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in connection with one's employment. Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-101(a)(3). The prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex has been extended to proscription of a hostile work environment. See Vance v. Ball State Univ., 133 S.Ct. 2434, 2440-41 (2013). Hostile work environment claims under the state statute are analyzed under the same rubric as those brought pursuant to Title VII. Bailey v. USF Holland, Inc., 526 U.S. 880, 885 n.1 (6th Cir. 2008).

To prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that "(1) she belonged to a protected group, (2) she was subject to unwelcome harassment, (3) the harassment was based on sex, (4) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment, and (5) the employer is liable for the harassment." Blackmon v. Eaton Corp., 587 F.Appx. 925, 930 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Williams v. CSX Transp. Co., Inc., 643 F.3d 502, 511 (6th Cir. 2011)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The parties' assertions focus on the fourth element, which the Court finds the Plaintiff has failed to establish. Thus, it need not address the remaining prongs.

A court's determination in connection with the fourth factor "is not susceptible to a mathematically precise test." Id. at 930-31. Rather, courts are to consider a range of factors, "including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance." Id. (quoting Barrett v. Whirlpool Corp., 556 F.3d 502, 515 (6th Cir. 2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The harassing conduct "must be extreme to amount to a change in the terms and conditions of employment." Nicholson v. City of Clarksville, Tenn., 530 F.Appx. 434, 442 (6th Cir. 2013). "[C]onduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment - an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive - is beyond Title VII's purview." Berryman v. SuperValu Holdings, Inc., 669 F.3d 714, 717 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Harris v. Forklift Sys, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993)), reh'g & reh'g en banc denied (Apr. 11, 2012). "Likewise, if the victim does not subjectively perceive the environment to be abusive, the conduct has not actually altered the conditions of the victim's employment, and there is no Title VII violation." Id. (quoting Harris, 510 U.S. at 21-22). "Simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment." Cleveland v. S. Disposal Waste Connections, 491 F.Appx. 698, 708 (6th Cir. 2012). Nor will the "sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing." Clark v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 400 F.3d 341, 352 (6th Cir. 2005) (quoting Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 788 (1998)). To interfere with an employee's work performance, the harassment must "ma[k]e it more difficult to do the job." Snyder v. Pierre's French Ice Cream Co., 589 F.Appx. 767, 773 (6th Cir. 2014).

"The issue is not whether each incident of harassment standing alone is sufficient to sustain the cause of action in a hostile environment case, but whether - taken together - the reported incidents make out such a case." Blackmon, 587 F.Appx. at 931 (quoting Williams v. Gen. Motors Corp., 187 F.3d 553, 562 (6th Cir. 1999)); see also Stevens v. St. Elizabeth Med. Ctr., Inc., 533 F.Appx. 624, 629-30 (6th Cir. 2013) (in determining whether a work environment is hostile, courts in this circuit consider the totality of the circumstances). The court is to consider "harassment by all perpetrators combined when analyzing whether a plaintiff has alleged the existence of a hostile work environment." Williams v. CSX Transp. Co., Inc., 533 F.Appx. 637, 641 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Williams v. Gen. Motors Corp., 187 F.3d at 562). Courts are cautioned, however, that "Title VII is not a general civility code for the American workplace." Burnett v. Tyco Corp., 203 F.3d 980, 982 (6th Cir. 2000) (quoting Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Serv., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 80 (1998)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The statute is "not designed to purge the workplace of vulgarity." Black v. Zaring Homes, Inc., 104 F.3d 822, 826 (6th Cir. 1997).

Although Defendants contend that the Court should not consider actions that occurred prior to those involving Reed, even considering the business card and crotch-grabbing incidents, the Plaintiff has failed to establish that she was subjected to a hostile work environment. "While there is no bright line rule as to what constitutes a hostile work environment, the plaintiff's allegations must depict conduct that could be construed as pervasive enough to alter the conditions of her employment and to create an abusive situation." Clark, 400 F.3d at 351. "Summary judgment is improper if plaintiff advances evidence of harassment that is ongoing, ' commonplace, ' and continuing.'" Berryman, 669 F.3d at 717 (internal quotation marks omitted).

The comments complained of by Plaintiff, while offensive, were not threatening or particularly serious. Instead, they fall into the category of "mere offensive utterances." See Reed v. Proctor & Gamble Mfg. Co., 556 F.Appx. 421, 433 (6th Cir.) (comments regarding fried chicken and watermelon, while offensive to black employee, were not threatening or serious, and, thus, fell under umbrella of mere "offensive utterances"), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 84 (2014). Further, three of the comments occurred on the same day. See Williams v. CSX Transp. Co., Inc., 643 F.3d at 513 (fact that several comments were made over a two-day period militated against finding of pervasive hostile work environment).

These comments, along with the remaining events - the business card incident, crotch-grabbing, sideways half-hugs and the vagina photo - over a two-year period fall short of establishing a hostile work environment under the law of this Circuit. The following cases are illustrative. In Blackmon, a manager stared at the plaintiff's breasts "each and every time he was near her" between three and ten times per week and rubbed her back and breathed on her neck "often" when he approached her in her work area. Blackmon, 587 F.Appx. at 927. His attentions caused her to dress differently and be constantly on her guard lest he be nearby. Id. at 927, 931. On these facts, because plaintiff "suffered a continual barrage of offensive stares and touches for the ten months she worked under" the harasser, the defendant's motion for summary judgment was denied. Id. at 931.

In Clark, plaintiff Rhonda Knoop alleged that, over a two-and-a-half-year period, a male supervisor told sexual jokes in front of her at least once a month; twice walked past her in the hallway, placed his vibrating pager against her upper thigh and asked her if it "felt good"; and grabbed the back of her overalls as if to look down them when she told him she was wearing a thong underneath. Clark, 400 F.3d at 344-45, 352. The court found summary judgment appropriate, as her "claims depict[ed] isolated instances rather than an ongoing situation." Id. at 351-52. In doing so, the Sixth Circuit likened her allegations to those presented in Stacy v. Shoney's, Inc., No. 97-5393, 1998 WL 165139 (6th Cir. Mar. 31, 1998) (per curiam). Clark, 400 F.3d at 352. In Stacy, the plaintiff, a hostess at a Shoney's restaurant, alleged that her manager leered at her, called her at home to say that he missed her, touched her breast when he removed and replaced a pen from her front shirt pocket, and told her he liked it when she wore her hair down and that, if he had someone like her at home, he would not let them leave the house. Stacy, 1998 WL 165139, at *1. The court found the supervisor's conduct, while offensive, "not sufficiently frequent, severe, physically threatening, or humiliating to unreasonably interfere with [p]laintiff's work performance to constitute actionable work place harassment." Id. at *3.

In contrast, the Clark court concluded that summary judgment was not warranted as to a co-worker/plaintiff, Sandra Clark. Clark, 400 F.3d at 352. Clark presented seventeen incidents of harassment by the same harasser over the same time period, including encouraging her to take a chip from a bag he held in front of his crotch during a company luncheon, telling her she "did a good job in [his] dream last night, " showing her an email apparently depicting "two cartoons screwing, " suggesting they conduct a business meeting in a storage closet, brushing his shoulder against hers, scratching a wall partition where Clark's breasts were located on the other side in front of her female supervisor, whispering to her that he was jealous of her conversation with the same female supervisor about a shipment of cherries, tossing a vibrating pager into her lap and asking if it felt good while discussing a work-related matter in her cubicle, placing the vibrating pager on her waist/thigh area on another occasion as he passed her in the hall, and leering at her while she stood at a printer, stating that he was enjoying the view. Id. at 345. On several occasions as she was leaving work, he would hold out his hand as if to give her a "high-five" and sometimes grab her palm and scratch it with his finger. Once, she tried to pull her hand away and he grabbed her arm instead, twisted it, and again scratched her palm. Id. Although Clark's allegations were "similar in kind" to Knoop's, the court found that she "present[ed] more of an ongoing pattern of unwanted conduct and attention" by the harasser. Id. at 352. Thus, hers was a "closer case" that should not be disposed of by summary judgment. Id.

In Howington v. Quality Restaurant Concepts, LLC, 298 F.Appx. 436 (6th Cir. 2008), the Sixth Circuit found an ongoing pattern of unwanted conduct similar to that experienced by Clark, citing evidence that the plaintiff's harasser asked her for sex every day she worked with him, asked to perform oral sex on her at an after-work outing, frequently yelled at her in front of customers, slammed a door in her face, texted her multiple times threatening to fire her if she refused to have sex with him and disciplined her twice. Howington, 298 F.Appx. at 444-45. Citing Clark and Stacy, the court found the facts before it equated more with the allegations of Clark than Knoop and denied summary judgment. Id.

The plaintiff in Stevens presented evidence that her harasser closed an office door at times and said he loved her, put his arms around her and kissed her, and that she sometimes hid from him in the bathroom. Stevens, 533 F.Appx. at 630. These statements of affection and physical contact were "clearly inappropriate" and "unwanted." Id. Nonetheless, the Sixth Circuit concluded that "the working environment was not permeated with discriminatory intimidation or ridicule, nor was it physically threatening such that it would have unreasonably interfered with [plaintiff's] work performance." Id.

In Burnett, in a six-month period, the plaintiff's manager entered the room where a meeting was being held and began telling a story about a woman he had seen. Burnett, 203 F.3d at 981. While doing so, he placed a pack of cigarettes containing a lighter inside Burnett's tank top and bra strap. Id. Two weeks later at another meeting, the plaintiff coughed and the manager gave her a cough drop, stating, "Since you have lost your cherry, here's one to replace the one you lost." Id. Some five months thereafter, Burnett wore a Christmas sweater to work on which was printed, "Deck the Malls." Id. The manager walked past her and said, "Dick the malls, dick the malls, I almost got aroused." Id. The court found that, even though the cigarette incident could have been considered a battery, a single battery coupled with two merely offensive remarks did not a hostile environment make. Id. at 984-85.

While the behavior of some of Stanfill Sonics' male employees was unquestionably boorish, it did not, in the Court's view, rise to the level of ongoing, pervasive and severe activity found by the Sixth Circuit to create a hostile work environment. Nor is there evidence that the alleged harassment interfered with Payton's work performance. Summary judgment is, therefore, GRANTED on the Plaintiff's claims of hostile work environment under federal and state law.

Retaliation

Title VII prohibits discrimination against an employee "because [s]he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII], or because [s]he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [Title VII]." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). The THRA also proscribes retaliation against employees who have opposed discriminatory practices or who have made a charge of discrimination. Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-301(a)(1). Plaintiff's claims arise from the statutes' "opposition" clauses.

Absent direct evidence of retaliation, the familiar McDonnell Douglas paradigm is applied to claims based on circumstantial evidence. Samuels v. Corr. Med. Servs., Inc., ___ F.Appx. ___, 2015 WL 327615, at *8 (6th Cir. Jan. 26, 2015). "To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, [a plaintiff] must demonstrate: (1) that she engaged in a protected activity; (2) that [her employer] had knowledge of her protected conduct; (3) that [her employer] took an adverse employment action against her; and (4) that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action." Id. Retaliation claims "must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation, which requires proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer." Weeks v. Mich., Dep't of Cmty. Health, 587 F.Appx. 850, 858 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2533 (2013)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

If Payton offers sufficient evidence to support a prima facie case of retaliation, the burden of production shifts to the Defendants to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her termination. See Samuels, 2015 WL 327615, at *8. Plaintiff must then show that the stated reason was merely a pretext for retaliation. Herrera v. Churchill McGee, LLC, 545 F.Appx. 499, 501 (6th Cir. 2013). "A plaintiff can demonstrate pretext by showing that the proffered reason (1) has no basis in fact, (2) did not actually motivate the defendant's challenged conduct, or (3) was insufficient to warrant the challenged conduct." Samuels, 2015 WL 327615, at *8 (quoting Mickey v. Zeidler Tool & Die Co., 516 F.3d 516, 526 (6th Cir. 2008)). "Regardless of which option is used, the plaintiff retains the ultimate burden of producing sufficient evidence from which the jury could reasonably reject the defendant's explanation and infer that the defendant intentionally retaliated against her." Morris v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, ___ F.Appx. ___, 2015 WL 263979, at *4 (6th Cir. Jan. 21, 2015). The court must "bear in mind that pretext is a commonsense inquiry: did the employer fire the employee for the stated reason or not?" Montell v. Diversified Clinical Servs., Inc., 757 F.3d 497, 508 (6th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted), reh'g en banc denied (Aug. 13, 2014). The burden of persuasion in the McDonnell Douglas analysis always remains with the plaintiff. Samuels, 2015 WL 327615, at *8. The same analysis is applied to retaliation claims under Tennessee law. Willoughby v. Allstate Ins. Co., 104 F.Appx. 528, 530 n.2 (6th Cir. 2004).

The Defendants take issue only with the fourth element of the prima facie case - causation.[4] In response to the dispositive motion, Payton points to her deposition testimony, to-wit:

Q: Did Beverly tell you that you were being terminated because of your complaints of sexual harassment involving Kenny Reed?
A: She told me I was on a witch hunt after Kenny Reed.
Q: Did she tell you you were being terminated for -
A: No, let me rephrase that. Jerry said I was on a witch hunt after -
Q: Did Beverly tell you - did Beverly tell you you were being terminated because of your complaint of - your complaints of sexual harassment against Kenny Reed?
A: No. She used the term witch hunt.
Q: Okay. Did Jerry tell you that he - that you were being terminated because of your complaints of sexual harassment involving Kenny Reed?
A: He said that I was making up things against Kenny Reed and I was on a witch hunt is why I was being terminated.
Q: Okay. Did Jerry say you were making up sexual harassment complaints about Kenny Reed?
A: No, he didn't. They didn't address the sexual harassment complaint.
Q: Then what were they -
A: They said I was making up things.
Q: Okay. Then what did Jerry tell you you were making up about Kenny Reed?
A: That's what he said, you are on a witch hunt against Kenny Reed. You are fabricating, you are making up things. He didn't elaborate on them.
Q: Okay. Well, what do you think they were taking [sic] about then?
A: I can't testify to what I think they thought. You would have to talk to them.
Q: They just called you in and told you you were being fired because you were on a witch hunt?
A: Yes.
Q: There was no other detail on that meeting they offered you?
A: No, there were more details.
Q: Okay. Well, give me those other details.
A: Basically the gist of it was that.... I was on a witch hunt after Kenny.

(D.E. 43-3 at 47-48, D.E. 42-3 at 42.) In her deposition, she also related that, about a week after the crotch-grabbing incident, Beverly Stanfill called a meeting in Jerry's office. The attendees included Payton, Williams and Russell. Williams stood[5] and conducted the meeting, in which he told Plaintiff she had been very "unwelcoming" to him.[6] (D.E. 43-3 at 21.) Plaintiff viewed the meeting as retaliation for her complaint about Williams' behavior. She also refers to the deposition testimony of Russell, in which he stated that he had been told by the Stanfills that Payton was terminated because she was talking to other employees about alleged sexual harassment by Reed.

The Defendants argue that the temporal proximity between the complaint of harassment and the termination alone is not sufficient to establish causation. In doing so, they ignore the evidence cited to by Payton, which, viewed in the light most favorable to her, creates a genuine issue of material fact as to the causation element of the prima facie case.

The burden of production now shifts to the Defendants to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Plaintiff's termination. It is their position that she was discharged for a "loss of trust" by Beverly Stanfill based on multiple incidents. Plaintiff's lies, false and malicious accusations against other employees and interference with operations, Defendants submit, led to her firing. Specifically, the movants point to the following occurrences that prompted her discharge:[7] (1) Beverly Stanfill lost trust in Plaintiff after Andrews was hired and terminated; (2) Jody Pierce told Ms. Stanfill that Payton said Reed was a snake in the grass and a two-faced liar, warned him that Reed was out to get him, and that she would ruin the company; (3) Ms. Stanfill believed, after receiving reports from two managers, that Payton revealed confidential information about manager Eric Cagle to Andrews; (4) former employee Will Riddle told Ms. Stanfill that Payton called him when Plaintiff told Stanfill that Riddle initiated contact with her; and (5) before informing Ms. Stanfill of a report of sexual ...


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