United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville
L. COLLIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
the Court is Defendant Anderson County, Tennessee's
motion for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff Gail
Harness's claims in this employment discrimination case.
(Doc. 33.) Plaintiff responded in opposition (Doc. 38), and
Defendant replied (Doc. 40). The Court will
DENY Defendant's motion for summary
judgment (Doc. 33).
T. Jones was elected as the Clerk of the Anderson County
Circuit Court Clerk's Office on September 2, 2014, and
took office shortly after that. (Doc. 38-1 at 1, 3 [Jones
Decl. ¶¶ 2, 12].) He did not receive any training
about work-place harassment when he took office.
(Id. at 3 [Jones Decl. ¶ 12].) Jones had final
authority over personnel decisions for the Clerk's
Office, including hiring, firing, and establishing job
duties. (Id. at 2 [Jones Decl. ¶ 5].) Employees
of the Clerk's Office were, nevertheless, employees of
Defendant. (Id. [Jones Decl. ¶ 6].)
included harassment policies in its employee handbooks dated
May 1, 2011, and March 20, 2017. (Doc. 40-1 at 1 [Kim
Jeffers-Whitaker Aff. ¶¶ 3, 4]; Doc. 40-2 at
17-18 [2011 Handbook at 16-17]; Doc. 40-3 at 17-22 [2017
Handbook at 16-21].) Defendant was responsible for training
Clerk's Office employees on personnel policies. (Doc.
38-1 at 3 [Jones Decl. ¶ 9].)
Previous Complaints to Defendant About Jones
November 2014, Clerk's Office employee Nichole Lucas made
a written and oral complaint to Defendant's Human
Resources (“HR”) Director, Cathy Best, about
Jones. (Doc. 38-2 at 3 [Letter from Lucas to Jeffers-Whitaker
(Mar. 5, 2018)].) Lucas alleged Jones made sexually
explicit comments and jokes in the office; asked Lucas
whether she had campaigned for, dated, performed favors for,
or had sex with Jones's predecessor; told her to smile
because he wanted his ladies to look beautiful for the
camera; threatened her with losing her job; and repeatedly
stood behind her chair in her cubicle with his hands on her
shoulders, watching her work. (Id. at 1-2.) HR
Director Best did not make Jones aware of Lucas's
complaint or of any investigation at the time. (Doc. 38-1 at
3 [Jones Decl. ¶ 13].) Instead, Best told Lucas there
would be an opening in HR shortly. (Doc. 38-2 at 3 [Lucas
Letter at 3].) Lucas applied for the job and was hired.
(Id.) Lucas received other complaints about Jones
during her time with HR. (Id. at 4.) Lucas, who no
longer works in HR, has now been told her original complaint
is not in her personnel file. (Id.)
2015, Angela Brown made a written complaint about Jones to
Russell Bearden, who had succeeded Best as Defendant's HR
Director. (Doc. 38-3 at 1 [Email from Brown to Bearden (May
5, 2015)].) Brown had been employed at the Clerk's Office
for a few days in March 2015. (Doc. 38-4 at 1 [Bearden
Aff.].) Brown complained that Jones asked
inappropriate questions during her interview, including her
age, her religion, whether she had a boyfriend, and,
indirectly, whether she was pregnant. (Doc. 38-3 at 1 [Brown
Email].) She wrote that he told her to smile because she
looked prettier when she smiled. (Id.) She also
wrote that after she started the job, and after she told
Jones she did not think the job was right for her, he told
her to come into his office and eat her lunch, which happened
to be yogurt. (Id.) Jones watched her eat, and he
told her he had a fetish for women eating yogurt.
(Id.) Brown wrote that she quit by text message
because she was too uncomfortable to go into the office to
quit in person. (Id.)
Director Bearden talked to Jones about Brown's complaint
and asked Jones to respond in writing, which Jones did. (Doc.
38-4 at 1 [Bearden Aff.].) When Bearden counseled Jones about
the seriousness of Brown's complaint, Jones laughed,
saying he did not report to anyone, and that “I could
sit in my office butt naked with the door open and masturbate
and there's nothing you can do about it.”
(Id.) Bearden told Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank
about Brown's complaint and Jones's response.
(Id.) Mayor Frank said Jones was new and might need
some training, but she could not force him to do it because
he was an elected official. (Id.) Bearden arranged
sexual harassment training for Jones with a law firm, but
Jones told Bearden he had completed an on-line course and
gave Bearden a certificate. (Id.) When Bearden
discussed the situation further with Mayor Franks, she said
she could not do anything about it, because “that's
just the way it is in Local Government.” (Id.
at 2.) Bearden closed the investigation because he was not
able to reach Brown to discuss the discrepancies between her
complaint and Jones's response. (Id.)
recollection of the investigation of Brown's complaint
differs, in that he claims Bearden told him he could make
Brown's complaint “go away” if Jones would go
to anti-harassment training. (Doc. 38-1 at 3-4 [Jones Decl.
¶ 15].) Jones refused to go to the expensive training
Bearden had arranged, but enrolled instead in a class by the
University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance
Service. (Id.) Jones recalls that there was no
additional training for him or for Clerk's Office staff
after the Brown complaint. (Id. at 4 [Jones Decl.
heard “many rumors around the Courthouse” for the
next two years, but he took no action because no one with
first-hand knowledge approached him until Plaintiff did so in
2017. (Doc. 38-4 at 2 [Bearden Aff.].)
was hired as a part-time file clerk in the Clerk's Office
in February 2016, following a brief internship for her
college coursework. (Doc. 38-5 at 1 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 2].)
Plaintiff was not given a copy of Defendant's employee
handbook, nor did she ever see any information from Defendant
about sexual harassment or how to report it. (Id. at
4 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 22].) In 2016, Defendant approved an
anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy, but Jones
refused to implement the policies in the Clerk's Office.
(Id. at 2 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 7].) Plaintiff believed
that she had to submit to Jones's behavior, as described
below, to keep her job. (Id. at 2, 4 [Pl. Aff.
¶¶ 8, 22].)
Plaintiff's employment, Jones insisted that Plaintiff and
other female employees call him “Daddy.”
(Id. at 1 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 3].) He referred to
certain female employees of the Clerk's Office as
“Daddy's Bitch, ” or “Daddy's
Prissy Bitch.” (Id.) He told Plaintiff he did
not have a boss. (Doc. 33-2 at 1 [Pl. Sworn Statement at
Beginning when she was an intern, he would corner Plaintiff
in a file room and “make suggestive comments about
[her] appearance, encourage [her] to wear more provocative
clothing, and compliment [her] on [her] breasts and . . .
‘cleavage.'” (Doc. 38-5 at 1-2 [Pl. Aff.
¶¶ 4, 9].) He continued making comments of a sexual
nature throughout her employment. (Id. at 2 [Pl.
Aff. ¶ 10].) He also made such comments to Plaintiff
using the instant-messaging app Snapchat, which automatically
deletes messages unless they are saved. (Id. at 2-3
[Pl. Aff. ¶¶ 11, 12].)
touched Plaintiff in a sexual manner throughout her
employment. (Id. at 2 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 10].) He
would approach Plaintiff from behind while she was making
copies and place his hands on her hips. (Id.) He
would rub her back while she was working. (Id.) He
would sit on her desk and make her work around him.
(Id.) He would pull a chair next to her, rest his
head on her shoulder, and sometimes stare down her shirt.
April or May 2016, a full-time position became available in
the Clerk's Office. (Id. at 3 [Pl. Aff. ¶
12].) Plaintiff told Jones she was interested in the
position, as she was nearing her college graduation and
needed full-time work. (Id.) Jones's Snapchat
messages then turned sexually explicit. (Id. [Pl.
Aff. ¶ 13].) Plaintiff asked Jones to stop because they
were both married. (Id. [Pl. Aff. ¶ 14].)
in March, April, or May 2016, Jones asked Plaintiff to send
him a picture of her breasts, and Plaintiff did so. (Doc.
33-1 at 15 [Pl. Dep. at 54].) Jones sent a message in
response, of which Plaintiff does not remember the exact
wording. (Id.) It did not include any pictures of
Jones, nor did Jones ever send Plaintiff pictures of his
body. (Id. at 25 [Pl. Dep. at 93].)
2016, Jones told Plaintiff his wife had found out about his
Snapchat messages. (Doc. 38-5 at 3 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 15].) He
accused Plaintiff of telling his wife, and he said Plaintiff
could forget about the full-time position and she was
“going to pay for it.” (Id.) He stopped
sending Plaintiff Snapchat messages, but he continued his
sexually harassing conduct in the office. (Id. at 4
[Pl. Aff. ¶ 19].)
July 2016, Plaintiff's then-husband called Mayor Frank
and told her Jones was discriminating against Plaintiff by
refusing to hire her for the full-time position.
(Id. at 3 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 16].) Plaintiff is not
aware of any corrective action or investigation, but Jones
hired her for the full-time position in August 2016.
(Id. at 4 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 18].)
avers he was not informed about Plaintiff's husband's
complaint until after this lawsuit was filed. (Doc. 38-1 at 4
[Jones Decl. ¶ 18].) Plaintiff avers, however, that in
the fall of 2016, Jones told Plaintiff that her husband had
almost gotten her fired by calling Mayor Frank. (Doc. 38-5 at
4 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 20].)
issued Plaintiff disciplinary warnings on February 9, 2017,
and March 30, 2017. (Id.) The first was for
insubordination, for arguing with Jones about office
procedures. (Doc. 33-1 at 19 [Pl. Dep. at 72].) Plaintiff
admits she had a conversation with Jones, but denies they had
an argument. (Id.) The second was for failing to
write a receipt for a customer and for her drawer being over
by six dollars. (Id. at 20 [Pl. Dep. at 73-74].)
This warning was signed by Jessica Williams, not Jones, but
Williams told Plaintiff that Jones was behind it.
(Id.) Plaintiff alleges these warnings were
“bogus” and were meant to intimidate her. (Doc.
38-5 at 4 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 20].) During the summer of 2017,
Jones began threatening to transfer Plaintiff to the Oak
Ridge office, which is referred to as the “clerk's
graveyard.” (Id. [Pl. Aff. ¶ 21].)
August 2017, Plaintiff asked a friend's advice about her
situation, and eventually received HR Director Bearden's
name and telephone number. (Id. at 5 [Pl. Aff.
¶ 23].) That was the first time Plaintiff knew who the
HR Director was. (Id.) Plaintiff told Bearden about
Jones's harassment on or about August 9,
2017. (Id. [Pl. Aff. ¶ 24].)
August 14, 2017, Jones transferred Plaintiff to the Oak Ridge
office. (Id. [Pl. Aff. ¶ 25].) Jones visited
Plaintiff at the Oak Ridge office, asking her if she was
trying to find a new job and bragging about his close
relationship with Defendant's Law Director. (Id.
[Pl. Aff. ¶ 26].)
September 14, 2017, Bearden asked Plaintiff to sit for a
sworn statement. (Doc. 33-2 [Sworn Statement].) The statement
was recorded by a court reporter and consisted of questions
by a representative of the HR Department and answers by
Plaintiff. (Id.) After she gave the statement,
Bearden told Plaintiff to go home and call in sick for a few
days. (Doc. 38-5 at 5 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 27].) Bearden placed
Plaintiff on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act
(“FMLA”) the next week. (Id. [Pl. Aff.
¶ 27].) Plaintiff remained on FMLA leave until on or
around March 18, 2018, when Defendant placed her in a
position at the Anderson County Senior Center. (Id.
[Pl. Aff. ¶ 28].) Plaintiff had no further contact with
Jones after she was placed on leave. (Doc. 33-1 at 24 [Pl.
Dep. at 91].)
February 20, 2018, Defendant's Board of Commissioners
adopted a “Resolution to Admonish and Censure William
T. Jones.” (Doc. 40-1 at 1 [Jeffers-Whitaker Aff.
¶ 6]; Doc. 40-5 [Resolution].) The Resolution asserted
there had been multiple reports of Jones's inappropriate
workplace conduct, namely
unwelcome sexual advances; solicitation of sex; lewd and
vulgar text messages of a sexual nature; unwanted touching in
a provocative manner; unprofessional remarks to employees . .
.; threatening behavior; retaliatory discharge and punishment
for those employees that refuse to participate; unlawful
employment interview questions; all having the combined
cumulative effect of creating a hostile work environment for
(Doc. 40-5 [Resolution] (footnotes omitted).) The Resolution
stated that, “[i]f true, these allegations may
constitute an unlawful employment practice in violation of
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the
Anderson County Comprehensive Personnel
Policy.” (Id. (footnote omitted).) It
recited that HR had been forced to relocate at least one
employee for her protection, and that Jones had refused to
implement training. (Id.) The Resolution concluded
by “Admonish[ing] and Censur[ing] the alleged
deplorable and dishonorable conduct of” Jones and
“respectfully request[ing] that Mr. Jones immediately
cease this disgraceful conduct, resign his office of public
trust, and publicly apologize to these women and men and to
all citizens of our County.” (Id.)
continued to be employed by Defendant until September 1,
2018, when Defendant alleges she left County employment for
the private sector (Doc. 34 at 5), and when Plaintiff alleges
she was fired by the Clerk who defeated Jones in the 2018
primary (Doc. 38 at 12; Doc. 38-5 at 6 [Pl. Aff. ¶ 29]).
Plaintiff's termination is the subject of a separate
lawsuit and is not at issue here. (See Harness v.
Anderson Cty., No. 3:19-cv-340.)
filed her complaint in this action on March 13, 2018,
approximately five days before her transfer to the Senior
Center. (Doc. 1.) She asserts three causes of action against
Defendant: for hostile work environment under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983 in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of
the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for
hostile work environment in violation of the Tennessee Human
Rights Act, Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 4-21-101 et
seq. (the “THRA”), and for retaliation
in violation of the THRA by transferring Plaintiff to Oak
Ridge. Plaintiff served Defendant with process
the next day. (Doc. 8.)
filed its motion for summary judgment on June 24, 2019. (Doc.
33.) Plaintiff responded on July 22, 2019 (Doc. 38), and