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U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ralphs Grocery Co.

May 18, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Napoleon A. Jones, Jr. United States District Judge


Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Ralphs Grocery Company dba Food 4 Less ("Defendant"). [Doc. No. 30.] The Court has considered this Motion, Plaintiff's Opposition, [doc. no. 35], and Defendant's Reply, [doc. no. 36]. For the reasons stated below, this GRANTS the present Motion.

Factual and Procedural Background

Defendant hired Pamela Lovell as a cashier at Defendant's El Centro store in December 2002. Undisputed Fact No. 1. During her entire tenure at Ralphs, Lovell was a bargaining unit member of the United Food & Commercial Workers' International Union, Local 1167 ("Union"). Undisputed Fact No.

In July 2004, Lovell used Defendant's formal dispute resolution program to complain about, inter alia, harassment that did not involve her personally. Undisputed Fact Nos. 5-7. In response, Defendant hired an outside investigative agency to investigate Lovell's complaints. Undisputed Fact No. 8. Through the investigation, some of Lovell's internal complaints were substantiated. Undisputed Fact No. 9.

In 2005, due to an unrelated case, Defendant was required to provide the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") Chicago Office with all of the complaints that its dispute resolution program received over a certain period of time, which included Lovell's July 2004 complaint. Undisputed Fact Nos. 17-19. The EEOC Chicago Office sent a letter to Lovell, as it did to all others who had submitted complaints during this time period, asking those individuals questions about their complaints. Undisputed Fact No. 20. Defendant sent a letter to the same individuals, explaining that it would "not take negative action" against anyone who would respond to the questionnaire. Undisputed Fact No. 21. Lovell responded to the EEOC's questionnaire and returned it. Deposition of Pamela Lovell ("Lovell Decl.") ¶ 4.

In December 2005, Defendant held a Christmas party. Lovell Decl. ¶ 6. Becky Griffins, a co-worker, made sexually inappropriate comments to another co-worker, Josephina Carrillo. See id. The alleged victim's husband became upset over the incident, and Lovell provided him with the EEOC's information. Id.

In late December 2005, two employees notified Chuck Rasmussen, Store Director, of comments Lovell allegedly made in the store. See Undisputed Fact No. 26. Ron Summers, a "Person In Charge," told the assistant manager that he had overheard Lovell tell a customer that there was bad management at the store and that the customer should not shop there. Deposition of Ron Summers ("Summers Depo.") 10:15-17, 15:21-16:4. The assistant manager in turn notified Rasmussen of Lovell's alleged conduct. Summers Depo. 20:24-21:6.

Another employee approached Rasmussen and told him that an employee had overheard Lovell telling a store vendor that one of the cashiers had been sexually harassed at a Christmas party and that an investigation was underway. Rasmussen Depo. 41:2-9.

Based on these employee complaints, on December 31, 2005, Rasmussen suspended Lovell pending further investigation. Undisputed Fact No. 30; [Doc. No. 35 at 4]. During the investigation Rasmussen interviewed and obtained written statements from several individuals including Carlos Rodriguez, Carrillo, and Summers.

Rodriguez was the Mission Foods vendor whom Lovell allegedly told that sexual harassment had occurred at the Christmas party. In his written statement, Rodriguez asserted that while buying some items in the store, Lovell told him that a girl was sexually harassed at the Christmas party and that someone was going to be checking into the allegations. Undisputed Fact No. 34.

Carrillo, Lovell's co-worker and the alleged victim of sexual harassment, affirmed in her written statement that rumors were circulating around the store that she had been sexually harassed by Griffith at the Christmas party. She further stated that Lovell asked her if she had been sexually harassed, and that Carillo replied, "No." Undisputed Fact No. 35.

Summers, another co-worker of Lovell's, described in his written statement how he heard Lovell tell a customer not to shop at the store and that the people were awful and had the worst customer service. Summers Depo. 22:16-23:10.

After reviewing the written statements obtained by Rasmussen, Defendant's Senior Labor Relations Representative, Bruce Wright, determined that Lovell had violated company policy by making disparaging remarks to a customer not to shop at the store and had spread false rumors regarding sexual harassment in the store. Declaration of Bruce Wright "(Wright Decl.") ¶ 2. Based on Lovell's length of service and because she did not have any other discipline in her file, Wright made the recommendation to construct a settlement with the Union to reinstate Lovell and transfer her with a disciplinary suspension. Undisputed Fact No. 39. Lovell's Union representative, Jerry Espinoza, agreed with Lovell's suspension and transfer in lieu of termination. Undisputed Fact No. 44.

Wright negotiated a settlement and release ("Agreement") with Espinoza to reinstate her after transferral to the Calexico Food 4 Less.*fn1 The Agreement stated that Defendant agreed to suspend Lovell in lieu of discharge. ...

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