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Louis Walton v. Van Ru Credit Corp

December 2, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason


Michael T. Mason, United States Magistrate Judge:

On January 19, 2010, plaintiff Louis Walton ("plaintiff" or "Walton") filed a two-count complaint [1] against his former employer Van Ru Credit Corporation ("Van Ru") alleging (1) a hostile work environment as a result of sexual harassment; and (2) retaliation. Van Ru now moves for summary judgment on both counts of Walton's complaint.For the reasons set forth below, Van Ru's motion for summary judgment [39] is granted.*fn1

I. Background

A. Van Ru's Policies and Guidelines

Van Ru is in the business of collecting debts on behalf of governmental and private entities and falls under the purview ofthe Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692 et seq. (Def.'s LR 56.1 Statement of Facts ("SOF")[40] ¶1.) Van Ru hired Walton as a "collector" in July of 2003.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 2; Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 2 -"Application for Employment.") During his employment with Van Ru, Walton reported to various supervisors and managers due to a number of reassignments to different departments and client accounts. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 25.)

At all relevant times, Van Ru had in effect a "Sexual Harassment Policy" (set forth in the employee manual), which includes, among other things, a "Statement of Prohibited Conduct," a "Schedule of Penalties for Misconduct," and "Procedures for Making, Investigat[ing] and Resolving Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Complaints." (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 9.) Walton acknowledged his receipt and understanding of the employee handbook, as well as the sexual harassment policy on July 7, 2003. (Pl.'s Dep. Exs. 10,

12.) Van Ru also showed its employees a video educating them about sexual harassment in the workplace. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 15.) On July 7, 2003, Walton signed a form acknowledging that he viewed that video.*fn3 (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 13.)

Van Ru also had in effect certain rules and guidelines regarding conduct in the workplace. (See Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 11 - "Building Guidelines" & Ex. 14 - "Rules for Professional Conduct.") In particular, Van Ru prohibited "unprofessional communication," including "profanity, slurs, swearing, unprofessional remarks/gestures or disruptive communication." (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 11.) With respect to interactions with clients and debtors, Van Ru expected employees to abide by an inclusive, but not exhaustive list of requirements set forth in the FDCPA. (Greco Aff. ¶ 7; Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 14.) Among many other things, Van Ru prohibited "the use of [a] less than business like approach with any debtor." (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 14.) An employee who violates these rules and guidelines was subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination. (Pl.'s Dep. Exs. 11 & 14.) Walton acknowledged receipt and understanding of both the Building Guidelines and the Rules for Professional Conduct on July 7, 2003. (Id.)

B. Walton's Disciplinary History

Despite Walton's allegations that he was "never reprimanded in writing, suspended, or demoted for any reason" (see Compl. ¶ 3), Walton's personnel file reveals a different story. In December 2003, Donna Haffey, Van Ru's "Litigation Manager," spoke to Walton regarding his alleged habit of "punching in early for work and then going outside to smoke." (Pl.'s Dep. Tr. 41; Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 15.) Shortly thereafter, on February 16, 2004, Walton was the subject of an "Incident Summary Report" regarding his relationship with Haffey. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 16; Greco Aff. ¶ 12.) That report reflects Haffey and Walton's complaints to Van Ru's General Manager (and Walton's cousin) Shaun Crumble. Haffey complained about Walton's "negative attitude" and continued to state that he arrives early, clocks in, and returns to the parking lot to smoke. (Pl.'s Dep. Exs. 16, 17.) She also complained that Walton extended his fifteen minute break periods and made sporadic personal phone calls. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 16.) Walton on the other hand reported that Haffey singled him out, did not apply the rules consistently to all employees, and spoke disrespectfully to him on the collection floor. (Id.) As a possible solution to the conflict, Walton was offered the option to transfer to a different department. (Id.) Walton declined that offer. (Id.) At his deposition, Walton denied the behavior Haffey complained of, but remembered that a conference was held regarding their troubled relationship. (Pl.'s Dep. Tr. 41-42.)

An "Employee Discipline Report" dated April 5, 2004 indicates that Walton received a written warning and a one day suspension for "unprofessional conduct." (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 18; Greco Aff. ¶ 13.) According to the report, Walton called co-worker Lisa Zudis an "asshole bitch" for not giving him five dollars for his birthday even though he recently contributed five dollars for her birthday balloons. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 18.) The report also indicates that Walton understood that future violations may result in further disciplinary action, including termination. (Id.) Walton purportedly "refused to sign" the report. (Id.) At his deposition, Walton denied calling Zudis an "asshole bitch," seeing the written report or receiving a suspension. (Pl.'s Dep. Tr. 50-52.) Walton did admit that he called Zudis a "jerk" and that he was sent home for the remainder of the day without pay. (Id. at 52-53.)

On October 18, 2004, Walton received a written warning for violation of the FDCPA. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 20; Greco Aff. ¶ 15.) According to the Employee Discipline Report, Walton improperly advised a medical debtor that "he was going to report her outstanding debt to her credit report." (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 20.) At his deposition, Walton admitted that he made the threat, that he was spoken to about the incident, and that he signed the report. (Pl.'s Dep. Tr. 56-60.) Also on October 18, 2004, Walton received a written warning for failing to properly document his accounts. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 21; Greco Aff. ¶ 16.) Approximately a year later, on September 30, 2005, Walton received another written warning for misrepresenting himself as the "Escalation Manager" in violation of the FDCPA. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 22; Pl.'s Dep. Tr. 62-63.)

C. The January 17, 2007 Incident and Subsequent Investigation

On January 17, 2007, an incident took place between Walton, "dialer manager" Alex Sosa, and collector Draper Hugan. On that date, Sosa approached Walton and Hugan and said words to the effect of "[Hugan] looked nice wearing a suit like he owned the company." (Pl.'s Dep. Exs. 23 & 24.) Sosa then walked in between Walton and Hugan's desk, got on his knees, made a sexual gesture, and stated: "If that camera was not behind us, I would suck [Hugan's] dick." (Id.) Walton purportedly told his immediate supervisor Tim Teague about Sosa's statements.*fn4 (Id.)

The following day, Walton submitted a written complaint detailing Sosa's comments and actions to Van Ru's General Manager Tricia McFarland. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 23; McFarland Aff. ¶ 4; Pl.'s Dep. Tr. 64-65.) In that statement, he described Sosa's comments as "a joke as usual." (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 23.) When asked at his deposition what he meant by this characterization, Walton testified that Sosa "always makes homosexual jokes. They're not just regular jokes, they're all men-on-men jokes." (Pl.'s Dep. Tr. 69.) Hugan also submitted a written statement containing a similar description of Sosa's comments and actions to Human Resources Director Kathy Greco, who immediately forwarded the statement to McFarland. (Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 24; Greco Aff. ¶ 17.)

McFarland commenced an investigation of the incident on January 18, 2007 and took contemporaneous notes documenting that investigation. (McFarland Aff. ¶ 6; Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 25.) She started by interviewing Walton, Hugan, Sosa, manager Dehurtis Bryant, manager Herb Orengo, and Steve Anderson about their knowledge of the incident. (McFarland Aff. ¶ 7; Pl.'s Dep. Ex. 25.) Although Sosa denied having met with

McFarland one-on-one, he did admit to having spoken to her along with Greco and Vice President Dan ...

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