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Ashley Alford v. Aaron Rents

May 3, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reagan, District Judge:


I. Introduction

On October 2, 2008, Ashley Alford filed an intervenor complaint*fn1 in this United States District Court against Aaron Rents, Inc. ("Aarons"), Richard Moore and Brad Martin*fn2 , alleging sexual discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. Alford also alleged state law claims of negligence, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Alford was an employee of Aarons and was under the direct supervision of Richard Moore, the store's general manager.

Pending before the Court is Aarons' February 11, 2011, summary judgment motion (Doc. 244), Alford's response (Doc. 269), and Aarons' reply (Doc. 278). Analysis begins with an overview of key facts and recitation of the legal standard governing summary judgment motions in this Court.

II. Factual Background

On October 31, 2005, Alford began working as a customer service representative at the Fairview Heights Aarons store, which is located in the Southern District of Illinois. Alford's job consisted of providing customer service in the store and by telephone, and did not require managerial experience or a college degree.

Upon starting work, Alford was given copies of Aarons' policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on sex, prohibiting retaliation and underlining Aarons' commitment to the professional advancement of its employees. These policies instruct employees to report all complaints of discrimination, harassment or denied advancement by calling Aarons' toll-free hotline. Aarons' hotline is staffed by employee relations personnel who are trained in investigating discrimination and harassment complaints.

Shortly after Alford began working at Aarons, beginning in November 2005, Moore began intentionally and inappropriately touching her, making uninvited advances toward her and calling her degrading pet names, such as "Trixie" and "Trix." The inappropriate behavior continued until October 12, 2006, the day Moore's assault on Alford led to his arrest.

Alford testified that the sexual harassment was quid pro quo: Moore sought sexual favors in return for her continued employment, her ability to leave for lunch or take a longer lunch hour and her ability to take a vacation. For example, Alford testified that Moore gave her unsought gifts for which he demanded "sucky-sucky." She testified that in September 2006, Moore grabbed her by her ponytail, unzipped his pants, pulled her head back and hit her in the head with his penis. On October 12, 2006, Moore again grabbed Alford, pulled her head against his pants, pulled out his penis and hit her on the head with it. Alford complained to Customer Accounts Manager Joe Skortz and co-worker Corey Carter about Moore's behavior toward her and told them she was scared of Moore. Moore assaulted Alford a second time on October 12: he grabbed her, threw her to the floor, pulled up her shirt, masturbated and ejaculated on her. Moore's semen and DNA were found on paper towels collected by the police from the store on October 12, 2006.

As a result of the foregoing acts, Alford submits that she had a well-founded fear of imminent peril caused by Moore's unwanted and forceful sexual advances and his size.

Alford asserts that she reasonably took advantage of Aarons' hotline protocol and other preventive and corrective measures provided in Aarons' sexual harassment policy. She attempted to contact Aarons' sexual harassment hotline, but her call was unanswered and she was instructed to leave a message. She also complained to her supervisor, Skortz, about Moore "goosing" her by putting his thumb between her buttocks. Skortz recommended that she call Regional Manager Brad Martin or Aarons' hotline number. He was unwilling to report Moore because he was afraid he would lose his job, but he reported to human resources that Alford and her mother had called Aarons' hotline. Alford's mother, Belynda Woods, called the hotline on April 3, 2006, but could not leave a message because she was asked for a code. Woods received a call after the October 12 attack from Vanessa Adams, Aarons' employee relations specialist, who left a voice message stating that she was returning Woods' April 2006 hotline call. Skortz told Adams that Alford had threatened to sue Aarons and Moore to stop the harassment.

Alford also called the hotline number on April 3, 2006, and left the message, "My name is Ashley Alford and I need help." In order to leave a message, Alford had to leave her store code. She did not leave a callback number, but she was the only female employee in the store. Several months after this call, Regional Manager Martin met with Alford and Moore. Martin asked Alford in Moore's presence if she was being sexually harassed. Alford states that she declined to discuss the issues in Moore's presence because she feared repercussions from what should have been a private and confidential inquiry based on Aarons' policy. Alford submits that Moore retaliated against her by grabbing her by the neck and threatening her. According to Alford, Martin, the regional manager and alter-ego of Aarons, failed to conduct a meaningful investigation into her allegations. Alford maintains that Martin's actions and inactions amounted to willful and wanton misconduct and/or reckless disregard for her health and safety since he knew that she had repeatedly made complaints.

In September 2006, Alford complained about Moore's harassment to Sales Manager John Peterson. Peterson told her that she should call Martin or Corporate. That same month, Alford complained to Peterson and to Sales Manager Dave Grater that the lock on the security room door needed to be fixed because Moore had locked her in and assaulted her. The door was not fixed prior to the October 12 assault.

Within hours after the second assault on October 12, Vanessa Adams traveled from Atlanta to investigate Alford's allegations. Assisted by Martin, Adams interviewed store staff. She also analyzed security tapes, reviewed inventory reports and discussed the incident with the police. Moore was immediately suspended and did not return to work for Aarons. Alford resumed her duties.

Alford contends that she had repeatedly expressed an interest in becoming a sales manager. Alford did not submit a written application or otherwise respond to an advertisement seeking applicants for that position. Martin and Matt Pinkerton, Moore's replacement, told Alford that she could not be promoted without meeting the minimum qualifications, but, according to Aarons, there is no evidence that Alford was deterred or prevented from applying for a store manager job.

However, Alford states that after she filed her claim with the EEOC, Pinkerton told her she should not have done that -- despite Aarons' policy that forbids retaliation for reporting. Alford asserts that she was told at that time that she was no longer considered for management positions. She also contends that she was ostracized by her fellow employees and her work environment was made hostile by direct actions of her managers.

III. Summary judgment standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, discovery materials, and any affidavits show that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Turner v. The Saloon, Ltd., 595 F.3d 679, 683 (7th Cir. 2010); Durable Mfg. Co. v. U.S. Department of Labor, 578 F.3d 497, 501 (7th Cir. 2009), citingFED.R.CIV.P.56(c). Accord Alabama v. North Carolina, -- U.S. --, 130 S. Ct. 2295, 2308 (2010); Levy v. Minnesota Life Ins. Co., 517 F.3d 519 (7th Cir. 2008); Breneisen v. Motorola, Inc., 512 F.3d 972 (7th Cir. 2008), citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

In ruling on a summary judgment motion, the district court must construe all facts in the light most favorable to, draw all legitimate inferences in favor of, and resolve all doubts in favor of the non-moving party. National Athletic Sportswear, Inc. v. Westfield Ins. Co., 528 F.3d 508, 512 (7th Cir. 2008). Accord Reget v. City of La Crosse, 595 F.3d 691 (7th Cir. 2010); TAS Distributing Co., Inc. v. Cummins Engine Co., Inc., 491 F.3d 625, 630 (7th Cir. 2007).

What the undersigned may not do In deciding a summary judgment motion is evaluate the weight of the evidence, judge the credibility of witnesses or determine the truth of the matter. The court's only role is to determine whether there is a genuine issue of triable fact. National Athletic, 528 F.3d at 512, citing Doe v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 42 F.3d 439, 443 (7th Cir. 1994).

A factual dispute is genuine "only if a reasonable jury could find for either party," and disputed facts must be outcome-determinative to be "material" and preclude summary judgment. Montgomery v. American Airlines, Inc., 626 F.3d 382, 389 (7th Cir. 2010). See also Van Antwerp v. City of Peoria, Illinois, 627 F.3d 295, 297 (7th Cir. 2010). But, as the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently reiterated, in assessing the record before him, the undersigned Judge bears in mind that "the party opposing the motion gets the benefit of all facts that a reasonable jury might find." Loudermilk v. Best Pallet Co., LLC., -- F.3d --, 2011 WL 563765, *2 (7th Cir. Feb. 18, 2011).

IV. Analysis

A. Claim of Sexual Harassment

To prevail on her Title VII sexual harassment claim, Alford must show: (1) she was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment in the form of sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature; (2) the harassment was based on her sex; (3) the sexual harassment had the effect of unreasonably interfering with her work performance in creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment that seriously affected her psychological well-being; and (4) a basis for employer liability exists. Durkin v. City of Chicago, 341 F.3d 606, 611 (7th Cir. 2003), citing Hall v. Bodine Elec. Co., 276 F.3d 345, 354-55 (7th Cir. 2002).

Generally, employers are vicariously liable for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with authority over the victimized employee. Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 807 (1998); Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 765 (1998); Molnar v. Booth, 229 F.3d 593, 600 (7th Cir. 2000). If the harassment culminated in tangible employment action against the employee, the ...

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