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Jones v. Williamson County Board of Education

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

February 23, 2015

LINDA JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLIAMSON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KEVIN H. SHARP, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Linda Jones filed this action in January 2012 against the Williamson County Board of Education, asserting claims of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C.A. § 623; and Tennessee state law. The plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint (ECF No. 17) on October 9, 2012, which was further amended by the agreement of the parties as noted in an order entered by Magistrate Judge Juliet Griffin on October 15, 2012 (ECF No. 18). In the Amended Complaint, the reference to claims under § 1981 were deleted from Count One; Count Four, which set forth a claim of retaliation for filing charges of discrimination "under either Title VII or the Tennessee Human Rights Act, " was removed in its entirety; and pursuant to the Judge Griffin's order, all references to "common law retaliation" and Tennessee state law were omitted from other sections of the complaint.

Now before the Court is the defendant's motion for summary judgment as to all claims set forth in the Amended Complaint (ECF No. 20), filed along with a supporting memorandum of law, statement of undisputed facts, and various supporting documents (ECF Nos. 21, 22). The plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion, a response to the defendant's statement of undisputed facts, her own statement of facts, and a number of exhibits. (ECF Nos. 30-33.) The defendant responded to the plaintiff's statement of facts and submitted a reply brief. The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review.

For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Specifically, the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of the defendant on (1) the plaintiff's claims under § 1983; (2) the plaintiff's retaliation claims; and (3) the plaintiff's Title VII and ADEA discrimination claims related to the 2010 termination of her employment. In all other respects the defendant's motion will be denied.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The facts set forth herein are undisputed for purposes of the defendant's motion, unless otherwise indicated.

Ms. Jones began her employment with the Williamson County Board of Education in August 1989 as a part-time school cafeteria worker. She was promoted to the position of cafeteria manager in October 1989. In 2005, she was promoted to the position of Field Manager at the Williamson County Schools Child Nutrition Office. Ms. Jones enjoyed her work and was confident that she performed it well. While employed by the defendant, she completed over two hundred hours of training in school nutrition. She was certified to level three with the Tennessee School Food Service Association and was certified to train school cafeteria managers on food handling and safety issues. She was also involved in a number of professional organizations. At one point her former supervisor, James Griffith, sought to have her promoted to the position of Assistant Director of the Child Nutrition Office. She applied for the position but did not receive it. When Mr. Griffith was deployed as a member of the National Guard and the Assistant Director took another job, Ms. Jones functioned as acting director for a period of several months while also performing her own job duties.

James Griffith retired and was replaced by James Remete as Director of the Child Nutrition Office for Williamson County Schools in November 2008. At that time Mr. Remete became Ms. Jones's direct supervisor. He remained her direct supervisor until Ms. Jones was demoted from the position of Field Manager in May 2009. Mr. Remete was the responsible decision-maker for hiring, non-renewal, and discipline decisions related to Ms. Jones's employment during the relevant time period.

In May 2009, Ms. Jones was "non-renewed" for her position as Field Manager and was offered the position of cafeteria worker, which she accepted. This action resulted in a substantial decrease in compensation and hours. Ms. Jones was 47 years old at the time. In his deposition, Mr. Remete testified that his memory of his meeting with Ms. Jones in which he notified her that she was being demoted was somewhat "fuzzy" (Remete Dep. at 39:14[1]), but he recalled that Ms. Jones mentioned to him that "she was thinking about taking a demotion." (Remete Dep. 39:3.) He stated that it "seemed like she made the comment that she just didn't know if she could... change over to the new direction" that the program was heading under his leadership; that was basically all he remembered. (Remete Dep. 42:1-4.) He also testified that, by the time he handed Ms. Jones the non-renewal letter in May 2009, he did not believe that she was still qualified to be a Field Manager, based primarily on his perception that she lacked the skills to communicate effectively with the cafeteria managers who reported to her. (Remete Dep. 43:3-7.) In addition, Mr. Remete testified that Ms. Jones did not communicate effectively with him: "She tended to stay away. She would say she is out in the field, and [he] would not see her all day." (Remete Dep. 44:6-9.) He did not address this with her or ask her why she was avoiding him. He felt that if she "wanted to get better, if she really care[d] about it, " she would bring the issue up with him. (Remete Dep. 44:14-16.)

Mr. Remete gave three examples of specific situations that he addressed with Ms. Jones that he believed demonstrated her unfitness for the position of Field Manager. In the first, Mr. Remete states that he had "discussed" with Ms. Jones the complaints he had received from "[s]everal cafeteria managers" about her treatment of them. (Remete Aff. (ECF No. 36-3) at ¶ 3.) He alleges that he did not reveal to Ms. Jones the identity of the individuals who had complained about her behavior because he was "concerned that Ms. Jones would retaliate against them." (Remete Aff. ¶ 4.) Mr. Remete also stated that it was his perception that Ms. Jones was "not interested in wanting to improve herself" with respect to her interactions with the managers under her supervision. (Remete Dep. 34:11-20.) For her part, Ms. Jones recalls that Mr. Remete called and told her to "stop screaming at cafeteria managers." (Jones Dep. 171:7-8.[2]) Ms. Jones was perplexed and said to him, "Please tell me who they are, I need to spend time with them because they misunderstood me." (Jones Dep. 171:11-12.) Mr. Remete responded, "just don't do it any more" and "[s]lammed the phone down." (Jones Dep. 171:13-14.) Ms. Jones testified that it "would surprise [her]" that any of the managers under her supervision would complain about her management style. (Jones Dep. 171:21-25.) She considered this to be an instance when she was falsely accused of misconduct. (Jones Dep. 174:5-16.)

Mr. Remete also testified that he believed that Ms. Jones was not as knowledgeable about food regulations as she should have been, citing, as an example, that she was incorrectly informing cafeteria managers that precooked chicken nuggets needed to be reheated to 165 degrees, when in fact they only needed to be reheated to 140 degrees. (Remete Dep. 27:11-14.) Ms. Jones disputes the suggestion that she was not knowledgeable about food regulations and points out that she had completed two hundred hours of training in school nutrition. (Jones Dep. 158:17-24; Pl.'s Ans. to Interrog. No. 2 (ECF No. 33-7).)

Third, Mr. Remete testified that he had a "conversation" with Ms. Jones about her engaging in inappropriate work conduct when she went to cafeteria managers directly to try to get an employee transferred from one school to another, without going through Mr. Remete or the Assistant Director, Jim Rose. (Remete Dep. 21:19-24, 35:20-36:19.) Ms. Jones disputes Mr. Remete's version of this event as well, stating that she was in fact working under the direction and at the behest of Mr. Rose, but that Mr. Remete called her on the telephone, berated her for engaging in personnel issues that Mr. Rose was in charge of, and then hung up without giving her an opportunity to explain. (Jones Dep. 159:25-164:4.) Ms. Jones characterized this as another instance when she was falsely accused of misconduct. (Jones Dep. 174:5-16.)

Mr. Remete testified that after demoting Ms. Jones, he did not fill the position of Field Manager for a year. He stated:

I was thinking we could run just with one supervisor. Another part of my role in here was to look at the department financially to see if there was places we could save money or look at the overall operation. And at the time I felt with an assistant and with another area supervisor and me getting out to the schools as much, I thought we could run it with one.

(Remete Dep. 45:11-22.) He conceded that he knew the school district was expanding and building schools rapidly, but asserted that he still believed initially that they would be able to operate with one Field Manager. In an affidavit prepared in support of the defendant's motion for summary judgment, Mr. Remete clarified that he did not remove Ms. Jones from the position of Field Manager as a result of deciding to eliminate a Field Manager position; rather, Ms. Jones was removed "due to her poor job performance, " and it was only after he removed her that he decided to try to operate going forward with only one Field Manager. (Remete Aff. ¶¶ 5-7.)

The one Field Manager who remained after Ms. Jones's demotion was Brian Parkhurst, a younger male.[3] Mr. Parkhurst had been hired as Field Manager in 2006 or 2007 by James Griffith, Mr. Remete's predecessor. Mr. Parkhurst did not have an extensive background in the school nutrition field. He operated as the sole Field Manager after Ms. Jones's demotion until Ms. Jones was officially replaced in July 2010 by Libby Poteete, a woman over age 40 who was only two and a half years younger than Ms. Jones. Mr. Parkhurst voluntarily left his position in March 2011, at which time he was replaced by another male employee. Ms. Poteete remains in the Field Manager position previously occupied by Ms. Jones.

According to Ms. Jones, her problems with Mr. Remete began immediately upon his being hired. Upon their first meeting, she perceived his tone with her to be "gruffer" than it was with the other members of the office staff. (Jones Dep. 28: 11.) The others in the office staff included two other women (both secretaries), one of whom was older than Ms. Jones, and two men, one of whom, Mr. Rose, was in his 60s, but Mr. Remete was cordial when speaking with these individuals. (Jones Dep. 28:17-29:14.)

Ms. Jones testified that, during the approximately six months that Mr. Remete was her direct supervisor, in addition to the incidents addressed above, Mr. Remete routinely belittled her, telling her he did not like the way her face looked (Jones Dep. 182:25), that she was "old" (Jones Dep. 183:20), that she was "stupid" or "an idiot" (Jones Dep. 127: 16-19), that he wanted "more males" or "pretty young girls" to work for him (Pl.'s Interrog. Answer No. 7). He stated repeatedly that the place needed "new blood" or younger workers (Jones Dep. 121:2-24, 125:14-25); on at least one occasion he told Ms. Jones that they could hire two people for what he paid her (Jones Dep. 98:11-14), and another time told her he could "hire younger workers for so much less." (Jones Dep. 123:2-6.) On one occasion when Ms. Jones and Mr. Rose were engaged in setting up serving lines, Mr. Remete came in and yelled at them for not cleaning up the stock room. When Ms. Jones went to assist him with that, Mr. Remete told her that this was "man's work" and to "get out of my damn way." (Jones Dep. 126:16-127:4.) According to Ms. Jones, however, Mr. Remete called other people "stupid" as well, including Brian Pankhurst, the other Field Manager (Jones Dep. 128:5-7), and would "scream" at cafeteria managers during meetings. (Jones Dep. 118:2-10.) Mr. Remete disputes all these allegations.

Another time, following a monthly managers meeting, Mr. Remete told Ms. Jones to "take her fat, stupid, old ass home." (Jones Dep. 22:3-12.) Judith Fitzgerald, cafeteria manager at Franklin High School and Ms. Jones's friend, overheard this statement. (Fitzgerald Dep. (ECF No. 33-6) at 34:14-35:7.) In March 2009, Mr. Remete called Ms. Jones into her office and "screamed" at her for something that actually was Mr. Parkhurst's responsibility. (Jones Dep. 92:2-16.)

In the course of this same conversation, Mr. Remete asked why they did not have labels on their products, and Ms. Jones said, "those are the boxes that you went around to all the schools and threw away." (Jones Dep. 94:7-11.) He called her into his office because of this comment. Jim Rose was also present. Mr. Remete yelled at Ms. Jones that he was "sick and tired of [her] running [her] mouth and repeating things that were said in the office." (Jones Dep. 95:17-20.) Ms. Jones attempted to defend herself, denying that she had behaved inappropriately and stating that she was "tired of being blamed for everything." (Jones Dep. 96:1-2.) According to Ms. Jones, during the course of this heated exchange, Ms. Jones said something like, "if I'm so bad, why don't you just transfer me back to a school where I can be a manager?" and Mr. Remete responded that she did not have "the integrity to be a manager." (Jones Dep. 96:11-15.) Ms. Jones said, "well, I guess I need to start looking for a job, " but Mr. Remete told her, "no, Linda, you always have a job with me." (Jones Dep. 97:18-20.) Ms. Jones recalled that, during the course of the same conversation, Mr. Remete repeated again that he needed "new blood, just God give me new blood in here." (Jones Dep. 99:2-4.) At some point he also said: "I guess you're going to cry, that's what women do. You're going to cry now." (Jones Dep. 99:9-11.) Mr. Remete denies these allegations as well.

Ms. Jones states that in December 2008, Mr. Remete bought Mr. Parkhurst, the other Field Manager, a chef's shirt embroidered with his position. He did not offer Ms. Jones a similar shirt. In addition, he asked another male manager if he wanted a chef's jacket, but he did not offer one to any of the female managers. (Jones Dep. 118:21-119:6.)

Mr. Remete repeatedly "screamed" at Ms. Jones if she referred to him as "sir" when responding to his questions, telling her that she was older than he and should not refer to him as "sir." (Jones Dep. 128:24-129:1.) He commented in front of Ms. Jones that he was disgruntled about attending a "stupid reception that was for the losers that had done nothing but show up every day for twenty years to get their certificates, " when he knew that Ms. Jones was the only employee in her department being recognized for twenty years of service at that reception. (Jones Dep. 129:17-130:4.) On another occasion, in response to a question about how he liked working for the Williamson County schools, Mr. Remete stated that it would be fine if he did not have to work with Ms. Jones. He made this statement in Ms. Jones's presence and he did smile or laugh to indicate that he was joking, and the employees who witnessed the event did not appear to think he was joking. (Jones Dep. 172:11-173:7.)

Ms. Jones testified that Mr. Remete continually "harassed" her, such as by asking her why she had gone to the bathroom, why her face was red, and why she looked at him "like that." (Jones Dep. 107:1-7.) Mr. Remete asked her on at least one occasion if she wanted to "ride with the boys" or "hang out with the boys." (Jones Dep. 130:22-131:16.) The first few times Mr. Remete made offensive age- or gender-related comments to her, Ms. Jones told him that she was offended, but he responded by telling her to "get over it." (Jones Dep. 132:18-24.) Generally speaking, Ms. Jones felt that Mr. Remete abused her continuously, about everything she did, and made her feel that everything she did was wrong. (Jones Dep. 44:18-2-5.) She said: "I always felt as though Mr. Remete would never let me explain anything. He was too busy yelling, getting upset, he had no patience with anything I had to say. I rarely finished a complete sentence." (Jones Dep. 164:21-25.)

After Mr. Remete was hired, he trained Mr. Parkhurst on a new computer program, while Ms. Jones was in the field. Mr. Parkhurst later trained Ms. Jones on the same program, but Ms. Jones felt that Mr. Remete should have trained her as well as Mr. Parkhurst. Ms. Jones asserts that, over time, Mr. Parkhurst was given virtually all of Ms. Jones's job duties, except for making site visits and filling in for absent managers. (Jones Dep. 165:6-22.)

Ms. Jones went to the defendant's Human Resources ("HR") office on several occasions to complain about Mr. Remete, but she never actually lodged a formal complaint. (Pl.'s Answer. to Interr. No. 8.) Instead, the plaintiff states that she told HR secretary Costa Morgan in December 2008 that she wanted to file a complaint against Mr. Remete because, as Ms. Jones stated: "he was always making fun of my face and the way I spoke and yelling at me and calling me stupid and making women statements." (Jones Dep. 177:8-11.) Ms. Morgan advised her not to file a complaint but instead to "let this go for a little while longer and just see if... it settles down." (Jones Dep. 177:14-16.) According to Ms. Morgan, Ms. Jones told her she had "personality conflicts" with James Remete but did not complain of age or gender discrimination or harassment. (Morgan Aff. (ECF No. 36-2) at ¶¶ 2-3.) Ms. Jones insists, to the contrary, she told Ms. Morgan that the harassment was age- and gender-related. (Jones Dep. 232:4-13.) In January 2009, Ms. Jones left a phone message and a post-it note for Eugene Wade in the HR office asking him to call her on an "urgent matter, " but he did not respond. (Pl.'s Ans. to Interrog. No. 8; Jones Dep. 101:17-21.) In mid-March 2009, she tried to contact Mr. Wade again, unsuccessfully. (Pl.'s Ans. to Interrog. No. 8.) In mid-April 2009, she told Judith Looney that she "needed to file a complaint against James Remete for his behavior toward [her]" but was told that "no one was available to help [her]." (Id. ) According to the plaintiff, she told Ms. Looney that she was "tired of being called stupid, ... tired of his woman remarks, [and] tired of being told how old [she was]." (Jones Dep. 102:12-14.)

Ms. Jones testified that, approximately a month after she had spoken with Ms. Looney about filing a complaint, Mr. Remete called her into his office and told her she was not the "right fit" for the position of Field Manager. (Jones Dep. 148:7-13.) At the same time he handed her a letter dated May 15, 2009, signed by Judith Looney, advising her that her appointment as Field Manager was not being renewed after June 30, 2009 and that she was instead being offered the position of full-time cafeteria worker for the 2009-2010 academic year. (Jones Dep. 148:17; Jones Dep. Ex. 5 (ECF No. 22-12).) Ms. Jones accepted this reassignment, which entailed a substantial reduction in the number of hours worked and in Ms. Jones's hourly rate of pay. (Pl.'s Ans. to Interrog. No. 14; EEOC Charge (ECF No. 22-21).) There is no dispute that Mr. Remete ...


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