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Aaron v. City of Springdale

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

May 12, 2017

MARCELLA AARON PLAINTIFF
v.
CITY OF SPRINGDALE DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Currently before the Court are Defendant City of Springdale's (“Springdale”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19), Statement of Facts (Doc. 20), and Brief in Support (Doc. 22); Plaintiff Marcella Aaron's Response in Opposition (Doc. 25) and Response to Statement of Facts (Doc. 24); Springdale's Reply (Doc. 26) and Reply to Statement of Facts (Doc. 27); and Mr. Aaron's Sur-Reply (Doc. 29). The Motion is now ripe for decision, and for the reasons stated herein, is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This lawsuit arises from Plaintiff Marcella Aaron's claims of race discrimination in the workplace, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e), et seq., and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993 (“ACRA”), Ark. Code Ann. § 16-123-101, et seq. The Amended Complaint (Doc. 15) states a claim for a hostile work environment due to race-based harassment, and a claim for race discrimination resulting in constructive discharge. Both claims were addressed in the briefing on Springdale's Motion for Summary Judgment, and both will be discussed in this Order. As a preliminary matter, the Court observes that claims made under Title VII and the ACRA are evaluated using the same standards. See McCullough v. Univ. of Ark. for Med. Scis., 559 F.3d 855, 860 (8th Cir. 2009). The Court will therefore analyze the federal claims together with the state claims.

         This case involves a series of incidents that took place in the Public Works Department of Springdale over an approximately two-year period. The timeline begins on June 5, 2012, when Mr. Aaron, an African-American male, was hired as a part-time Maintenance I worker in the Public Works Department. He remained in that position until January 14, 2013, when he was hired on, full-time, as a Maintenance II worker, a job that involved primarily mowing and brush-hogging on a tractor or rotary mower, and working with the concrete crew. His pay increased when he started working full-time. He also received a Personnel and Procedures Manual (“Manual”), which he admits to having read and understood at the time he received it. The Manual discusses, among other topics, the issue of harassment in the workplace and describes several types of disciplinary actions that Springdale could take against an employee who harassed another employee, depending on the severity of the offense and the offending employee's prior history. See Docs. 20-40, 20-41. According to the Manual, “harassment based on race, religion, color, sex, national origin, age, handicap, or status as a veteran or special disabled veteran . . . . WILL NOT BE TOLERATED”; and “[a]n employee should report harassment or suspected harassment to their immediate supervisor, or another supervisor within their department, or the department head, or the Mayor.” (Doc. 20-41, p. 1).

         At all relevant times, Sam Goade served as the Director of Springdale's Public Works Department; Terry Anderson served as supervisor of the General Construction Division of the Public Works Department; and James Carr served as Supervisor of the Street Construction Division of the Public Works Department. As Mr. Aaron was an employee of the Street Construction Division, he reported directly to Mr. Carr, who reported to Mr. Anderson, who reported to Mr. Goade-and Mr. Goade reported directly to the Mayor.

         On or about January 29, 2013, about two weeks after Mr. Aaron started working fulltime, he was standing on a bench outside with his co-worker Troy Flood, who is Caucasian. Another co-worker named Chuck Harris drove up alongside Mr. Aaron and Mr. Flood and said to Mr. Aaron, “Boy, you look good up there . . . the only thing missing is a rope around your neck, ” and then drove away. (Dep. Marcella Aaron, Doc. 24-1, p. 11). Mr. Aaron believed the comment to be racial in nature but did not report it to a supervisor immediately. Instead, Mr. Flood reported the comment to Mr. Anderson, because he believed the comment was racist. Mr. Anderson then reported the incident up the chain of command to Mr. Goade, who advised Mr. Anderson to seek out Mr. Aaron and confirm that the statement was made, and then inquire whether Mr. Aaron found it offensive and wished to discuss it in Mr. Goade's office. Mr. Goade next informed Human Resources Director Loyd Price and Mayor Doug Sprouse of the incident and advised them that he was investigating the issue.

         Mr. Goade eventually sought out Mr. Aaron himself so that he could speak with him directly about the comment. Mr. Goade told Mr. Aaron that he had spoken to Mr. Harris, the person who made the comment, and told Mr. Harris that he was not to speak in that manner again. Mr. Goade further assured Mr. Aaron that he would not tolerate any racism or prejudice from any employee in the Public Works Department, and that Mr. Aaron should come to him if any issues of this nature occurred while he was working for Springdale. The incident was documented in Mr. Harris's personnel file, and Mr. Harris apologized to Mr. Aaron. Mr. Aaron agrees that Mr. Harris never made any other racially-charged comments in the workplace after that.

         Sometime later in 2013, Mr. Aaron was present during a conversation between Mr. Flood, and another co-worker named Tim Burton. The men were pouring concrete at a work site. The mud and concrete had started to harden at one point into small balls, and Mr. Burton commented to Mr. Flood that “back in the day, we called these nigger balls.” Id. at 12. Mr. Aaron told Mr. Burton that he did not appreciate that comment, and Mr. Burton responded by saying that he was “just playing.” Id.

         On another occasion in 2013, the same men were standing outside the break room. Mr. Flood lit a cigarette for Mr. Burton, and after it was passed to Mr. Burton, he examined the cigarette and said that Mr. Flood had “nigger lipped” it. Id. Mr. Aaron again confronted Mr. Burton, asking him, “What did you say?” Id. at 13. And Mr. Burton replied that he didn't know Mr. Aaron had been standing there. Id.

         The next incident involved comments made by both Mr. Flood and Mr. Burton, which Mr. Aaron overheard as he was coming up the stairs to the break room. On that day, a truck carrying an African-American woman and a Hispanic man pulled into the Public Works yard. The men observed the truck, and Mr. Aaron heard Mr. Burton say, “what is that beaner doing with that nigger, ” and Mr. Flood laughed. Id. Then Mr. Flood asked, “what would you rather have in your yard? A beaner or a dog turd?” and then answered his own question, stating, “well, a dog turd eventually turns white and stops stinking.” Id. Mr. Burton then commented that “these immigrants were driving better trucks than the white man.” Id. After this last comment, Mr. Aaron asked Mr. Burton what he meant by it, but Mr. Burton did not respond.

         Some time passed, and in 2014, Mr. Aaron, Mr. Burton, and Mr. Flood were all sitting in the break room playing dominoes with several other Public Works employees. Mr. Flood began speaking about his new, white pitbull, who only liked to kill black things, like black squirrels and blackbirds. Mr. Burton then asked Mr. Flood, “well, was the black squirrel named Marcella?”-referring to Mr. Aaron. Id. at 14. At that point, Mr. Aaron turned to Mr. Burton and told him he had “one more time to disrespect [him] like that, ” and then Mr. Aaron would “have to find some kind of way to get him addressed.” Id. Supervisors Carr and Anderson were in the break room at the time, and Mr. Anderson was seated at the table directly behind Mr. Aaron; however, Mr. Aaron was not sure whether either supervisor heard the entire exchange. See Id. at 15.[1] Mr. Aaron testified that he and Mr. Burton “confronted each other right then and there” after that and “had words.” Id. at 14. But Mr. Aaron admits that he did not report the incident to a supervisor. See Id. at 15.[2]

         On April 2, 2014, Mr. Flood agreed to drive Mr. Aaron back to the Public Works yard so that Mr. Aaron could meet a family member for lunch. After pulling into the yard, Mr. Burton and his brother, who was also an employee of the Department, stopped Mr. Flood and asked him where he was going. Mr. Flood responded, “I was supposed to be going to eat, but I got to go drop this Negro off first.” Id. at 15. Mr. Aaron reached up to punch Mr. Flood, but then thought better of it and simply got out of the truck. He said to Mr. Burton, “enough is enough. I think I've took too much of this shit without acting violent or doing anything stupid, but I'm tired of asking all you guys to be civil. I'm going to handle this my way.” Id. Then Mr. Aaron went to his supervisor, Mr. Carr, and asked him if he could take the rest of the day off, as well as the following day. Mr. Carr agreed, but asked Mr. Aaron why he wanted to leave, and Mr. Aaron responded that he was “tired of being called a nigger.” (Doc. 20-17). Mr. Carr asked who had called him that word, and Mr. Aaron refused to answer. Mr. Carr then suspected that the guilty party might be Mr. Flood, so Mr. Carr confronted him directly and asked about the incident. The undisputed testimony is that Mr. Flood then “blew up” at Mr. Carr and denied that he had called Mr. Aaron “nigger, ” but admitted he had instead called him “Negro.” Id. Mr. Carr instructed Mr. Flood to stop the comments, or he could be fired.

         Immediately after the “Negro comment” incident took place, Mr. Carr reported it to Mr. Goade, who in turn reported it to Human Resources Director Gina Lewis.[3] The following day, April 3, 2014, Mr. Goade asked Mr. Aaron to participate in a meeting involving himself, Mr. Carr, Mr. Anderson, and Ms. Lewis, to discuss the “Negro comment.” At the meeting, Mr. Aaron also mentioned Mr. Burton's and Mr. Flood's comments and jokes about the African-American woman and Hispanic man. Mr. Goade reminded Mr. Aaron that he would not tolerate those sorts of comments and instructed Mr. Aaron to let him or the other supervisors know immediately if there were any more problems. Ms. Lewis also told Mr. Aaron that she was sorry he was having to go through all of this and advised him that she was going to come up with a plan to keep it from happening again.

         After meeting with Mr. Aaron on April 3, the three supervisors and Ms. Lewis met with Mr. Flood, who confirmed that he had called Mr. Aaron “this Negro” at one point, and also that he had made racially-charged comments and jokes in Mr. Aaron's presence about an African-American woman and a Hispanic man. Mr. Goade and Ms. Lewis explained to Mr. Flood that this type of joking was inappropriate and a violation of Springdale's harassment policy, and further, that they would be in touch regarding disciplinary action. The next day, April 4, 2014, Mr. Goade drafted a disciplinary notice, which was approved by Ms. Lewis, and issued in writing to Mr. Flood.

         Also on April 3, 2014, Mr. Burton and his brother were interviewed by the same group of supervisors, and Mr. Burton agreed that the comments and jokes about the African-American woman and Hispanic man had been made and were inappropriate. Ms. Lewis advised Mr. Burton that he would receive a written warning in his personnel file, but in the end, she only gave him a verbal warning. After the meeting with Mr. Burton and his brother, Mr. Goade and Ms. Lewis met to discuss the need for diversity training for the Public Works Department, and on that same day, Ms. Lewis began putting together harassment and diversity training materials and identified two possible dates to conduct the training. Mr. Goade selected April 16, 2014, as the day to conduct the training, and Ms. Lewis posted a notice about the training, which would be mandatory for all Public Works employees to attend.[4]

         Mr. Aaron returned to work on Monday, April 7, 2014. Around that time, Mr. Aaron went out to lunch with Mr. Flood, trying to make amends. They went to a Mexican restaurant. When a Hispanic man entered the restaurant, Mr. Aaron mentioned to Mr. Flood that the Hispanic man's car had a number “6" on it, and Mr. Aaron mused that the man “must race”-as in, must race cars. (Doc. 24-1, p. 18). Mr. Flood responded that the man was “barely in the human race.” Id. Mr. Aaron found the comment offensive.

         On April 15, 2014, the day before the scheduled diversity training, Mr. Aaron was sitting in the break room, and an employee named Dennis Sinclair approached him from behind and said, apparently in reference to Mr. Aaron's untucked shirt, “Boy, you need to put your shit in your pants. You look like a fucking thug.” Id. at 17. After this exchange, Mr. Aaron went to his supervisor, Mr. Anderson, who was also present in the break room, and told him that he was quitting. Mr. Anderson denies hearing the specific comment that was said to Mr. Aaron in the break room, as there were approximately ten other people in the room at the same time, talking and making noise. Mr. Anderson then reported to Mr. Carr that Mr. Aaron was quitting, and Mr. Carr immediately ran out to Mr. Aaron's car to catch him before he left and ask him what was wrong. Mr. Aaron informed Mr. Carr that he felt unwanted by the crew he worked with, but mentioned no specific names. Mr. Carr then asked Mr. Aaron to reconsider quitting, but Mr. Aaron refused, stating he had made his decision. Both Mr. Carr and Mr. Anderson then went to Mr. Goade to tell him that Mr. Aaron had quit. The following day, April 16, 2014, Ms. Lewis attempted to call Mr. Aaron, but she dialed the wrong phone number and was unable to reach him. The parties agree that with respect to Mr. Aaron's on-the-job performance, he was an above-average employee, and none of his supervisors wanted him to quit. He was described by Mr. Carr in an October 2013 performance evaluation as a “good worker” who was “willing to learn more.” (Doc. 20-8). Mr. Aaron received a pay increase for his job performance on December 12, 2013, and he was never disciplined during his tenure at the Public Works Department.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Summary Judgment

         The standard of review for summary judgment is well established. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), “[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.” The Court must review the facts in the light most favorable to the opposing party and give that party the benefit of any inferences that logically can be drawn from those facts. Canada v. Union Elec. Co., 135 F.3d 1211, 1212-13 (8th Cir. 1997). The moving party bears the burden of proving the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Nat'l. Bank of Commerce of El Dorado, Ark. v. Dow Chem. Co., 165 F.3d 602 (8th Cir. 1999).

         Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party must “come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). In order for there to be a genuine issue of material fact, the non-moving party must produce evidence “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8thCir. 1994) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “The nonmoving party must do more than rely on allegations or denials in the pleadings, and the court should grant summary judgment if any essential element of the prima facie case is not supported by specific facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial.” Register v. Honeywell Fed. Mfg. & Techs., LLC, 397 F.3d 1130, 1136 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)).

         B. Hostile Work Environment

         “A hostile environment exists when ‘the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.'” Palesch v. Mo. Comm'n on Human Rights, 233 F.3d 560, 566 (8th Cir. 2000) (quoting Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993)). Establishing a prima facie case of hostile work environment requires proof of the following elements: (1) membership in a protected class; (2) unwelcome harassment; (3) a causal connection between the harassment and the protected status; and (4) proof that the harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment. Gordon v. Shafer Contracting Co., 469 F.3d 1191, 1194-95 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing Al-Zubaidy v. TEK Indus., Inc., 406 F.3d 1030, 1038 (8th Cir. 2005)).

         If the above four factors are established, then the court must turn to the question of whether the perpetrators of the harassment were co-workers or supervisors, as liability may depend on the employment status of the harasser. See Vance v. Ball State Univ., 133 S.Ct. 2434, 2439 (2013). An employer is strictly liable for the actions of a supervisor who harasses an employee, if such harassment “culminates in a tangible employment action.” Id. For purposes of this inquiry, a supervisor is defined as someone who is “empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim, ” such as “the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline.” Id. On the other hand, if a victim alleges that a ...


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