United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division
FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Catherine M. Salinas United States Magistrate Judge.
matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment
filed by Defendant IKEA U.S. East, LLC (“IKEA”)
on January 29, 2018. [Doc. 33]. The first Plaintiff,
Stephanie Austin (“Austin”), alleges that IKEA,
her former employer, terminated her employment in retaliation
for her making a complaint of sexual harassment, in violation
of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42
U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title
VII”). The second Plaintiff, Jean Burke
(“Burke”), alleges that IKEA terminated his
employment in retaliation for his participation in an
internal investigation regarding Plaintiff Austin's
sexual harassment complaint, in violation of Title VII. For
the reasons discussed below, I recommend that IKEA's
motion for summary judgment be granted.
August 23, 2012, Burke was hired as a Team Lead in the Food
Services Department of IKEA's Atlanta store. [Videotaped
Deposition of Jean Burke (“Burke Dep.”) 29-30,
32, 49; Deposition of James F. Anastos (“Anastos
Dep.”) 13; Declaration of James F.
Anastos (“Anastos Decl.”) ¶ 2].
In October 2012, Austin was hired as a Team Lead in the same
department. [Videotaped Deposition of Stephanie Austin
(“Austin Dep.”) 33-34, 56, 95-96; Burke Dep. 50;
Anastos Decl. ¶ 2]. Burke's job duties included
ordering food for the restaurant and managing employees.
[Burke Dep. 49-50, 57; Austin Dep. 57-58]. Austin's job
duties included scheduling employees' shifts, managing
the cafeteria, and managing employees. [Austin Dep. 56-57;
Burke Dep. 50, 57].
April 2014, Harold “Hal” Mash was hired as the
Food Services Manager, and he directly supervised Austin and
Burke, among other employees. [Deposition of Harold Mash
(“Mash Dep.”) 11-12; Anastos Dep. 21-22; Anastos
Decl. ¶ 3; Austin Dep. 35, 57-58, 85; Burke Dep. 32-33,
50-51, 65-66]. On September 23, 2014, Austin received a
corrective action and counseling from Mr. Mash for engaging
in inappropriate behavior and making disrespectful comments
towards a co-worker. [Austin Dep. 99-100, Ex. 15; Mash Dep.
28-32, Ex. 1]. In November 2014, Mr. Mash gave Austin her
annual performance evaluation, in which he noted that Austin
“angered coworkers with [her] brash and perceived
rudeness” and that her “style and demeanor in
interacting with coworkers must be improved.” [Austin
Dep. 105-06, 108-09, 113, Ex. 16; Mash Dep. 34-36, Ex. 4].
Because Austin received a rating of “2” on her
performance evaluation, she was told that she would be placed
on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”).
[Austin Dep. 110].
January 10, 2015, Austin made a complaint using iSpeak, a
telephonic system available to IKEA employees to make
work-related complaints. [Austin Dep. 116-17, Ex. 17; Burke Dep.
70]. In her iSpeak complaint, Austin alleged the following:
that Mr. Mash had referred to Austin as his
“favorite”; that Austin had not yet received her
PIP; that Austin had requested training opportunities but was
told that none were available; that Mr. Mash had called
Austin his “work wife” twice; and that Mr. Mash
had asked Austin about her husband. [Austin Dep. 120-43, Ex.
17 at 2]. Austin stated that Mr. Mash had not made any
advances toward her, but that he made her feel
“uncomfortable.” [Austin Dep. 140, Ex. 17 at 2].
after Austin made her iSpeak complaint, Samantha Alfred,
another Team Lead in the Food Services Department, called Mr.
Mash and Marcia Mott, the Human Resources (“HR”)
Manager, alleging that Austin was making false accusations of
sexual harassment against Mr. Mash in an attempt to get him
fired and to avoid the PIP. [Video Deposition of Marcia Mott
(“Mott Dep.”) 8, 46-48; Mash Dep. 58-59; Anastos
Dep. 52; Anastos Decl. ¶ 9].
January 11, 2015, Austin met with Ms. Mott and informed her
of Mr. Mash's “work wife” and
“favorite” comments. [Austin Dep. 144-49]. The
following day, Austin met with Ms. Mott, Mr. Mash, and
another manager to discuss her iSpeak complaint, and Austin
was asked to prepare a written statement. [Austin Dep.
149-54, Ex. 18]. In her statement, Austin noted that Bunistie
Shockley, another Team Lead in the Food Services Department,
had been with Austin when Mr. Mash called Austin his
“work wife.” [Austin Dep. Ex. 18 at 1]. Austin
also noted that Mr. Mash had once asked Ms. Shockley
“to sit on his lap[.]” [Id.]. In her own
separate written statement, Ms. Shockley stated that she had
never seen Mr. Mash engage in any sexually harassing behavior
toward herself or toward Austin. [Austin Dep. 166-68, Ex. 20
at 3; Burke Dep. 74-75, Ex. 12 at 3].
written statement dated January 12, 2015, Mr. Mash stated
that Austin's sexual harassment allegations against him
were “baseless accusations[, ]” and that it was
“unacceptable to sling false accusations . . . in order
to exact revenge for disagreeing with a Performance
Evaluation.” [Mash Dep. 57-60, Ex. 11]. During his
deposition, Mr. Mash testified that he did, in fact, call
Austin his “work wife” one time at a work
function. [Mash Dep. 54-55].
Lester from IKEA's Co-Worker Relations Department took
over the investigation and conducted numerous in-person and
telephonic interviews. [Mott Dep. 21-22; Anastos Dep. 24;
Anastos Decl. ¶ 14]. Ms. Lester conducted separate
interviews with Austin and Burke on January 20, 2015 and
January 29, 2015, and took verbatim notes of each interview;
Ms. Lester also interviewed Mr. Mash and several other
employees as part of her investigation. [Austin Dep. 173-78,
Ex. 23; Burke Dep. 78-85, 90-93, 136-37, Ex. 13].
Jim Anastos, the Store Manager, learned about Austin's
iSpeak complaint against Mr. Mash. [Anastos Decl.
¶¶ 1, 11]. As the Store Manager, Mr. Anastos often
played a role in any iSpeak complaint investigations
involving management-level employees. [Id. at ¶
8]. On January 23, 2015, Austin met with Mr. Anastos and Mr.
Mash regarding Austin's iSpeak complaint. [Austin Dep.
108, 184-87; Burke Dep. 104, 107; Anastos Dep. 10-11; Anastos
Decl. ¶ 13]. Austin testified that during this meeting,
Mr. Anastos told Austin that he was disappointed in her, that
she should have come to him if she had any concerns about Mr.
Mash, and that she left scars on the store. [Austin Dep.
to Mr. Anastos, IKEA was unable to substantiate any of the
allegations made by Austin against Mr. Mash, and IKEA elected
not to pursue disciplinary action against anyone involved.
[Anastos Decl. ¶ 15].
four months later, in late May 2015, several high-performing
employees within the Food Services Department abruptly
resigned or sought to transfer to other departments. [Anastos
Dep. 32-33; Anastos Decl. ¶ 16]. In his declaration, Mr.
Anastos stated that he became concerned with the level of
dissatisfaction among employees, and he interviewed several
employees to get a sense of the work atmosphere. [Anastos
Dep. 32-36; Anastos Decl. ¶¶ 17-20]. From these
interviews, Mr. Anastos learned that employees were choosing
to resign or transfer because of the “uncomfortable and
disrespectful work environment” that Austin and Burke
created that made the Food Services Department an unpleasant
place to work. [Anastos Dep. 32-36, 38-39; Anastos Decl.
¶¶ 18-19, 21]. Employees accused Austin of using
excessive profanity when referring to co-workers and
management,  scheduling work shifts in a retaliatory
manner, and purposefully failing to order crucial food items
for the restaurant. [Anastos Decl. ¶¶ 22-23].
Employees accused Burke of using excessive profanity when
referring to co-workers and management. [Id. at
29, 2015, Mr. Anastos separately interviewed Austin and Burke
regarding the allegations against them. [Anastos Decl. ¶
25; Austin Dep. 194-99; Burke Dep. 105-06]. Based on the
number of complaints and the nature of the allegations, Mr.
Anastos sent Austin and Burke home pending the remainder of
the investigation. [Anastos Decl. ¶ 25; Austin Dep.
199-200, Ex. 27; Burke Dep. 106-12, Ex. 15]. According to Mr.
Anastos, after he completed his investigation, he concluded
that Austin and Burke should be terminated due to their
unprofessional behavior. [Anastos Decl. ¶ 26].
4, 2015, Mr. Anastos separately met with Austin and Burke and
terminated their employment with IKEA. [Anastos Dep. 20,
34-35, 39-40; Anastos Decl. ¶¶ 29-32, 35; Austin
Dep. 203, 206, 210, Exs. 28, 29; Burke Dep. 113, 115-21, Exs.
16, 17; Mash Dep. 37-38]. He told them that the termination
was based on their use of excessive and targeted profanity in
a way that created a hostile work environment.
same day, Austin made another iSpeak complaint, alleging that
her termination was in retaliation for her previous iSpeak
complaint against Mr. Mash. [Austin Dep. 213-14, Ex. 30;
Anastos Decl. ¶ 36]. In response to Austin's second
iSpeak complaint, IKEA conducted interviews with the
employees in the Food Services Department, which ultimately
substantiated Mr. Anastos's conclusion that
Plaintiffs' excessive use of profanity and other issues
contributed to a hostile work environment. [Anastos Dep. 56,
58-59; Anastos Decl. ¶ 38].
October 6, 2016, Austin and Burke initiated this two-count
lawsuit against IKEA, each alleging a single Title VII
retaliation claim. [Compl. ¶¶ 40-59]. Austin
contends that IKEA terminated her employment in retaliation
for her making the January 10, 2015 iSpeak complaint. [Compl.
¶¶ 43-44; Austin Dep. 218-19]. Burke contends that
IKEA terminated his employment in retaliation for his
participation in the internal investigation regarding
Austin's January 10, 2015 iSpeak complaint. [Compl.
¶¶ 53-54; Burke Dep. 125-26]. After the close of
the discovery period, IKEA filed the instant motion for
summary judgment. The motion is now fully briefed and ripe