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Austin v. Ikea U.S. East, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

July 6, 2018

IKEA U.S. EAST, LLC, Defendant.


          Catherine M. Salinas United States Magistrate Judge.

         This 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.

         I. FACTS[1]

         On 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[2] (“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].

         In 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].

         On January 10, 2015, Austin made a complaint using iSpeak, a telephonic system available to IKEA employees to make work-related complaints.[3] [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].

         Shortly 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].

         On 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].

         In a 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.[4] [Mash Dep. 54-55].

         Wendy 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].

         Meanwhile, 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. 185-87].

         According 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].

         Approximately 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, [5] 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.[6] [Id. at ¶ 24].

         On May 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].

         On June 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. [Id.].

         That 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].

         On 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 for consideration.


         A. Summary ...

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