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SMITH v. COUNTY OF HUMBOLDT

January 14, 2003

MARY L. SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF HUMBOLDT, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SUSAN ILLSTON, United States District Judge.

JUDGMENT

This Court has granted defendant's motion for summary judgment as to all claims in the complaint. Accordingly, judgment is hereby entered in favor of defendant and against plaintiff.

  IT IS SO ORDERED.

  ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

  On September 28, 2001, plaintiff, Mary L. Smith, filed an employment discrimination complaint against County of Humboldt, alleging that she was subject to sexual harassment by her coworker Denise Grimes, shortly after both began training for positions as Eligibility Workers for the Humboldt County Department of Social Services. On October 4, 2002 this Court heard argument on defendant's motion for summary judgment based on plaintiffs failure to (1) establish a prima facie case of sexual harassment and (2) file a timely complaint. The Court GRANTS summary judgment for defendant based on plaintiff's failure to state a prima facie claim of sexual harassment. Accordingly, the Court declines to decide whether plaintiff's complaint is time-barred.

  BACKGROUND

  Plaintiff and the alleged harasser, Denise Grimes, began an eight week training course for their employment as Eligibility Workers for the Humboldt County Department of Social Services on January 8, 2001. According to plaintiff, on January 11, 2001, Ms. Grimes initiated unwanted contact by pushing plaintiff's head. Plaintiffs Depo. at 83:3-8. Plaintiff alleges several other incidents of offensive conduct by Ms. Grimes including: sitting in a chair vacated by plaintiff (id. at 87:5-9); "brushing up" against plaintiff in the bathroom (id. at 89:3-5); hitting the plaintiff's cheekbone (id. at 82:8-17; id. at 30:8-10); trying to sit next to plaintiff at lunch; touching plaintiff(id. at 83:13-19, 84:18-22); and hitting plaintiff on the shoulder to get her attention (id. at 86:9-12).

  Plaintiff complained about the harassment for the first time on January 22, 2001. That same day, her employer reprimanded the alleged harasser. Plaintiff requested that her work station be changed on January 29, 2001. Exhibit B to the Decl. of Lorraine Davey, Deputy Director of Employee Services for Humboldt County. That same day, plaintiff submitted a letter entitled "Sexual Harassment Complaint" to her employer. Id. On February 1, 2001, plaintiff submitted a letter of resignation in which she stated, "Due to the sexual harassment incident whereby Denise Grimes assaulted and approached me with unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature that has unreasonably interfered with my work performance and created an intimidating and hostile and offensive working environment and no satisfactory remedy has been made, I hereby submit my resignation for the position of Eligibility Worker I (EW) trainee effective immediately." Exhibit B to the Decl. of Lorraine Davey.

  The steps taken by defendant to remedy the harassment included admonishing the alleged harasser not to engage in any unwanted touching of employees and reviewing sexual harassment policies with all trainees. Polifrom Decl. 4:4-15; 4:19-26. Upon plaintiff's request, defendant rearranged seating in the classroom to put more distance between plaintiff and Ms. Grimes. Polifrom Decl. 5:17-26. Plaintiff does not dispute that following these remedial measures, plaintiff did not report another incident of harassment. Exhibit B. to Decl. of Lorraine Davey.

  LEGAL STANDARD

 1. Summary Judgment

  Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment shall be granted "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial . . . since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential

[240 F. Supp.2d 1114]

      element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); see also T.W. Elec. Serv. v. Pacific Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987) (the nonmoving party may not rely on the pleadings but must present significant probative evidence supporting the claim); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (a dispute about a material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.").

  The court's function, however, is not to make credibility determinations, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249, and the inferences to be drawn from the facts must be viewed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. T.W. Elec. Serv., 809 F.2d at 631. The court is only required to draw those inferences that are reasonable in light of the facts. See Tyler v. Runyon, 70 F.3d 458, 457 (7th Cir. 1995) (cited in Tovar v. City of Alameda, 1998 U.S. Dist. Lexis 5688 (N.D.Cal.)). In considering a summary judgment motion the Court must render summary judgment if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

 2. Title VII

  Title VII makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of sex with respect to the terms and conditions of employment. 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-2 (a)(1). The courts have held that discriminatory conduct includes harassment (see e.g., Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986)) when that harassment occurs because of sex. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75, 80-81 (1998) (stating that Title VII only prohibits harassment which occurs because of sex, regardless of whether the harasser is the same sex as or opposite sex from the victim).

  The courts have recognized two legal theories on which plaintiffs may base sexual harassment claims. The first is quid pro quo harassment, or harassment in which a supervisor requires an employee to engage in sexual activity and threatens tangible employment actions, such as demotion, denial of promotion, or discharge, if the employee does not comply with the harasser's demands. The second is hostile work environment harassment. This harassment can be perpetrated by a supervisor or coworker. The hallmark of hostile work environment harassment is that there is no tangible employment action which results from the harassment. See Burlington v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 751-753 (noting that the terms "quid pro quo" and "hostile work environment" have been used in the courts to refer to sexual harassment and describe respectively, harassment that is accompanied by specific harm to the victim's job and harassment that harms an employee's job more generally, by creating a hostile work environment).*fn1

[240 F. Supp.2d 1115]

     

  To survive a defendant's motion for summary judgment, as a threshold matter, a plaintiff must show that the harassment occurred because of sex. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75, 80-81 (1998). In addition to this requirement, to state a prima facie case of hostile work environment sexual harassment a plaintiff must show that she has experienced (1) conduct of a sexual nature (2) that is so severe or pervasive as to alter the terms and conditions of her working environment and (3) that the conduct is unwelcome. Harris v. Forklift Systems, 510 U.S. 17 (1993); Brooks v. City of San Mateo, 229 F.3d 917, 924 (9th Cir. 2000); Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872, 875 (9th Cir. 1990). The plaintiff's belief that she has been subjected to a hostile and abusive work environment must be both subjectively held and objectively reasonable. Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872, 879 (9th Cir. 1991). See also, Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 786 (1998) (holding that sexual harassment is actionable only if it is both objectively and subjectively offensive, such that a reasonable person would find the environment hostile or abusive and the plaintiff actually did find the environment hostile or abusive).

  Courts apply a totality of the circumstances test to the determination of whether plaintiffs have stated a colorable claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment. Brooks v. City of San Mateo, 229 F.3d 917, 923 (9th Cir. 2000). If the plaintiff has established a prima facie case, and the employer has articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions, the plaintiff must then show that the reason stated by the employer is pretextual. Marconi v. Eldorado Resorts, LLC, 2000 US. ...


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