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Maxwell v. Brennan

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

May 3, 2018

SHEKITA T. MAXWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
MEGAN J. BRENNAN, Postmaster General of the U.S. Postal Service, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MARC T. TREADWELL, JUDGE

         Defendant Megan J. Brennan, Postmaster General of the U.S. Postal Service, has moved for summary judgment. Doc. 17. The motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 27, 2016, Plaintiff Shekita T. Maxwell, proceeding pro se, filed this complaint against Defendant Megan J. Brennan, in her capacity as Postmaster General of the U.S. Postal Service, alleging Maxwell suffered discrimination, disparate treatment, and a hostile work environment based on both her race and gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.[1] See generally Doc. 1. The Postal Service moved for summary judgment on December 13, 2017. Doc. 17.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         A 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (citation omitted). A material fact is any fact relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit. Id. at 248. And a factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non[-]moving party.” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, “the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party.” Johnson v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Ga., 263 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir. 2001) (citation and punctuation marks omitted).

         The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden to show that there is no issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant may make this showing by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” or by showing that the non-movant cannot produce admissible evidence to support the issue of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). If the movant meets this burden, the non-moving party must produce evidence showing that an issue of material fact does exist. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324. To do so, the non-moving party must “go beyond the pleadings” and identify “specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.” Id.; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2)-(3). However, “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (citation omitted).

         A. Facts[2]

         Drawing all inferences in favor of Maxwell where possible, the facts of this case are as follows. On April 4, 2015, Maxwell, an African-American female, began working with the United States Postal Service as a postal support employee (PSE) sales, services, and distribution associate. Doc. 9 at 51, 355. Maxwell's employment was only temporary with her appointment scheduled to end on March 28, 2016. Id. Moreover, her employment included a three-month probationary period, which, for Maxwell, would have ended on July 3, 2016. Id. However, her temporary employment proved to be much shorter, and more tumultuous, than expected, lasting only until May 7, 2015. Id. at 348.

         Maxwell first worked at her assigned worksite location, the Zebulon Road Post Office in Macon, Georgia, on April 8, 2015 after completing orientation. Docs. 9 at 364; 19 at 15:3-16. Soon after this, Maxwell started having issues with two of her coworkers, Bonnie Hester and Jacqueline Epps, both of whom were white. Docs. 9 at 227-231; 19 at 32:6-14. Epps and Hester, who, according to Maxwell, had a history of treating other African-American employees poorly, allegedly harassed Maxwell by “fussing” at her, “arguing” with her, “jumping in [her] face, ” and saying discriminatory comments, including Hester telling Maxwell she did not like “her kind, ” meaning African-Americans, and Epps telling Maxwell that “White people run this!” Docs. 1 at 11; 19 at 32:9-11, 34:21-35:2, 51:24-53:5. The relationship between Maxwell and her coworkers continued to sour, and Maxwell complained about the harassment to her supervisor, Marcus Daniels. Docs. 1 at 4; 19 at 95:10-16. Maxwell claims that Daniels, who is also African American, told her he “did not like black females” and that he would not side with her against Hester because people would think he favored African-American employees. Docs. 1 at 4; 9 at 38; 19 at 95:4-7, 95:10-16. In addition to her issues with coworkers, two weeks into her nearly one-month employment with the Postal Service, Maxwell learned she was pregnant. Docs. 9 at 100; 19 at 88:15-18. And, after notifying the Postal Service of this, she was placed on work restrictions, although Maxwell claims those restrictions were not sufficient. Doc. 19 at 89:8-25.

         On April 23, 2015, 15 days after Maxwell began working at the Zebulon Road facility, Maxwell and Hester had a disagreement related to mail sorting activities, and, in response, management met with the two, along with a union representative, to resolve the dispute in accordance with the Postal Service's standard operating procedures. Doc. 17-2 ¶¶ 9-10. The issue was resolved, but then, on April 25, Maxwell and Epps engaged in a heated altercation because Maxwell was upset that Hester moved a work-related item in Maxwell's workspace; co-workers had to physically separate Maxwell and Epps as a result. Docs. 9 at 227-231, 347; 17-2 ¶¶ 3, 12, 14. Once separated, Maxwell, Hester, and Epps were brought into a conference room to discuss the incident with two supervisors and a union representative. Doc. 17-2 ¶¶ 15-16. After Epps entered the room, she made a “gesture” toward Maxwell who then “assumed a ‘defensive yet aggressive posture.'” Id. ¶ 16 (quoting Doc. 9 at 227-231). Daniels then sent all three women home for the day. Docs. 9 at 245; 17-2 ¶ 17. After this altercation, Maxwell was placed on emergency leave. Doc. 9 at 227-231, 347. Management then requested that the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Employee Assistance Program send a Threat Assessment Team to investigate the situation. Doc. 17-2 ¶ 18.

         After an investigation and review of the facts, Hester was given a warning letter, and Epps was suspended for 14 days. Docs. 9 at 245; 17-2 ¶ 19. But Daniels determined that, because Maxwell had been “extremely aggressive” towards Daniels and others, it was appropriate to terminate Maxwell's probationary employment; thus, Maxwell was fired for failing to “maintain harmonious working relationships” and for “contribut[ing] to an unpleasant working environment.” Doc. 9 at 347-48. She received a Notice of Termination During Probation on May 7, 2015. Docs. 9 at 348; 17-2 ¶ 21. After her termination, Maxwell unsuccessfully pursued several administrative remedies against her former employer. See Docs. 1 at 10; 17-2 ¶ 5; see generally Doc. 9. Maxwell then filed this action, stating claims under Title VII, specifically that she suffered discrimination, disparate treatment, and a hostile work environment.

         B. Discrimination and Disparate Treatment Claim

         Maxwell alleges that she suffered discrimination and disparate treatment based on both her gender and her race in violation of Title VII. To survive summary judgment on either claim, she may rely on “direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, or [ ] statistical proof.” Rioux v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 520 F.3d 1269, 1274 (11th Cir. 2008). When a plaintiff relies on circumstantial evidence, the court determines the sufficiency of her claim through the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Accordingly, the Court must first determine whether Maxwell presents direct evidence of race or gender-based discrimination.

         1. Direct Evidence

         Direct Evidence is that which, “if believed, proves [the] existence of [a] fact in issue without interference or presumption.” Burrell v. Bd. of Trs. of Ga. Military Coll., 125 F.3d 1390, 1393 (11th Cir. 1997). Direct evidence of employment discrimination shows, without inference, that a decision-maker was motivated by illegal reasons, like racial animus, in doling out an adverse employment decision. Quigg v. Thomas County School Dist., 814 F.3d 1227, 1236 n.5 (11th Cir. 2016); Williamson v. Adventist Health Sys/Sunbelt, Inc., 372 Fed.Appx. 936, 940 (11th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted); Wilson v. B/E Aerospace, Inc., 376 F.3d 1079, 1086 (11th Cir. 2004). Remarks that are isolated and “unrelated to the challenged employment decision” do not constitute direct evidence of discrimination. Rojas v. Florida, 285 F.3d 1339, 1342-43 (11th Cir. 2002). And “[i]f an alleged statement at best merely suggests a discriminatory motive, then it is by definition only circumstantial evidence.” Schoenfeld v. Babbitt, 168 F.3d 1257, 1266 (11th Cir. 1999). Thus, direct evidence is limited to “[o]nly the most blatant remarks” that can only be interpreted to show the decision-maker was motivated to “discriminate on the basis of some impermissible factor.” See Quigg, 814 F.3d 1227, 1242 n.11 (alterations in original) (quoting Wilson, 376 F.3d at 1086) (explaining that a school board member's statement that “it is time we put a man in there” was not direct evidence that a female superintendent was fired for illegal reasons because the statement could be interpreted not to refer to that employment decision and, even so, an inference was still required to reach that conclusion); see also Carter v. Three Springs Residential Treatment, 132 F.3d 635, 642 (11th Cir. 1998) (“We have held that statements that are open to more than one interpretation do not constitute direct evidence of racial discrimination.”).

         There is no direct evidence that Maxwell was discriminated against because of her gender and pregnancy. Doc. 19 at 31:19-23. But, construing her allegations liberally, Maxwell alleges that two statements by her former supervisor, Marcus Daniels, are direct evidence that her employment was terminated for discriminatory reasons.[3] First, Maxwell alleges that Daniels, in explaining why he would not punish Hester in response to Maxwell's complaints, told her, “They (Tim Goodwin[, the local Postmaster at the time] and other white employees) will say Cent (Cynthia Tufts-Supervisor Zebulon Station) and I are playing the race card if we take your side.” Doc. 9 at 38. Maxwell does not say when Daniels made this comment, but she does not contend it was made in connection with her termination. Thus, there is no evidence that Daniels's comment relates directly to Daniels's decision-making in terminating Maxwell's employment. See Doc. 1 at 4; Doc. 19 at 95:12-1. See Jones v. BE&K Eng'g Co., 146 Fed.Appx. 356, 358-59 (11th Cir. 2005) (“In order to constitute direct evidence, the evidence must directly relate in time and subject to the adverse employment action at issue.”). Rather, it is an explanation of why Daniels did not take an employment action against another employee at another time. See Doc. 1 at 4; Doc. 19 at 95:12-1. So, to be probative regarding whether Daniels was influenced by an improper motive when he fired Maxwell, a jury would have to infer from this statement that (1) Daniels held an overall reluctance to side with African-American employees when in a dispute with white employees and (2) that this reluctance influenced his decision-making when he fired Maxwell. Therefore, by definition, the evidence could only be circumstantial because, at most, it merely “suggests discrimination, leaving the trier of fact to infer discrimination based on the evidence.” Earley v. Champion Intern. Corp., 907 F.2d 1077, 1081-82 (11th Cir. 1990) (emphasis in original).

         The need for inference to link Daniels's comment to Maxwell's termination is even greater given the two events that transpired the last three days Maxwell worked. The April 23 and 25 incidents, which nearly came to physical violence, led to the involvement of other management personnel, union officials, and a Threat Assessment Team from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service that investigated those incidents. Doc. 17-2 at ¶¶ 9-10, 12, 14-16, 18. Thus, these intervening events and involvement of other Postal ...


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