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Smith v. Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 30, 2017

LATIYA T. SMITH
v.
FLORIDA PARISHES JUVENILE JUSTICE COMMISSION ET AL.

          ORDER ON MOTIONS

          JOSEPH C. WILKINSON, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is an employment discrimination action brought by Latiya T. Smith, an African-American woman, against her former employer, the Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center (the “Center”) and the Florida Parishes Juvenile Justice Commission (the “Commission”) (collectively “Florida Parishes”). Smith brings claims for race and sex discrimination and constructive discharge under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5, and the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law, La. Rev. Stat. § 23:332, and for interference with and retaliation for exercising her medical leave rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2611. Complaint, Record Doc. No. 1. This matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings and entry of judgment in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) upon written consent of all parties. Record Doc. No. 12.

         Florida Parishes filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Smith cannot make out a prima facie case of any of her discrimination or constructive discharge claims or show any interference with or retaliation for exercising her FMLA rights. Alternatively, Florida Parishes argues that, if plaintiff can make out a prima facie case of any of her claims, she has no evidence to rebut Florida Parishes' legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons for its actions. The motion is supported by two declarations under penalty of perjury, verified documents from plaintiff's personnel file, her answers to interrogatories and a Statement of Undisputed Material Facts. Record Doc. No. 16. Smith filed a timely memorandum in opposition, supported by her own declaration under penalty of perjury, her charge of discrimination filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and a response to defendants' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts. Record Doc. No. 24. Four other declarations under penalty of perjury and other exhibits that she submitted are largely or entirely irrelevant to the issues in this case.

         Having considered the complaint, the record, the submissions of the parties and the applicable law, IT IS ORDERED that the motion is GRANTED for the following reasons.

         I. THE UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS

         The competent evidence establishes the following material facts, which are accepted as undisputed for purposes of defendants' summary judgment motion. The Commission operates the Center, which is a juvenile detention facility. Smith began working at the Center in 2008 and was an Assistant Shift Supervisor from 2011 until she resigned on March 22, 2015.

         On October 21, 2014, Russell Sanders, the Center's Director of Operations, received an anonymous letter alleging that Smith had engaged in various misconduct, including sending “emails and videos (sexual content)” by email or over the internet “from Ms. Smith's charter account.” Defendants' Exh. A-2, anonymous letter at p. 2. When Sanders investigated the letter's allegations, “a pornographic slideshow and video recordings were discovered on the Center's server that Ms. Smith had taken and sent to others on her work phone and through her work e-mail, and at least one such instance was recorded and sent while Ms. Smith was on duty at the Center.” Defendants' Exh. A, declaration under penalty of perjury of Russell Sanders at ¶ 8; Defendants' Exh. C, declaration under penalty of perjury of Joseph Dominick, the Center's Facility Manager and Director of Female Services, at ¶ 12.

         Sanders and Dominick consulted with the Center's management group, Executive Director Tom Jarlock and Director of Administration Steven Happel, about the images on the server. All four directors agreed that “Smith's egregious violations of the Center's rules of conduct and ethics warranted her termination.” Defendants' Exh. A at ¶ 38; Defendants' Exh. C at ¶ 15.

         Sanders and Dominick confronted Smith on October 23, 2014 about the images. She admitted that she had used her work-issued cell phone and/or personal e-mail to send the images and videos in 2011, including on one day when she was working. She did not know that the images would appear or remain on the Center's server. Defendants' Exh.

         A-6, Employee Rule Violation Report dated October 23, 2014. Smith confirmed these admissions in her declaration under penalty of perjury submitted in opposition to defendants' summary judgment motion. Plaintiff's Exh. 10, declaration under penalty of perjury of Latiya Smith at ¶¶ 19, 21-22.

         Sanders and Dominick urged Smith to resign on October 23, 2014 to avoid being terminated, but she refused and opted to use the Center's disciplinary program. Sanders issued an Employee Rule Violation Report that day, charging Smith with aggravated malfeasance and general misconduct, specifically for using her Florida Parishes e-mail account to send the “pornographic slideshow, pornographic videos, and numerous pornographic images to her personal e-mail and to two other recipients” on several occasions. Defendants' Exh. A-6 at pp. 1, 3. Sanders recommended termination. Id. at p. 3.

         Plaintiff's various allegations that the images were discovered during a search of the server conducted for a different reason unrelated to her claims in this case (which, ironically, if true, negates any claim that race- or sex-based animus motivated the search); that she was taking a break when she recorded a video at her workplace; and that defendants' policies in 2011 did not prohibit personal use of a work-issued cell phone are not material fact disputes. The relevant and undisputed facts are that the images were discovered on the server, Smith admitted making and sending them, and her disciplinary charge was based on sending pornography, not personal use of a cell phone.

         After Smith refused to resign, the upper management group decided that they had to protect the Center's network from her, so they took away her work cell phone and suspended her access to the Center's network. Without such access, Smith was required to work alongside her supervisor, but otherwise continued her regular duties. Defendants' Exh. A at ¶¶ 39-41; Defendants' Exh. C at ¶¶ 28-30.

         From that point forward, the upper management group “thought it best that contact between us and Ms. Smith should be kept to a minimum to avoid confrontation and minimize unpleasantness at work. Ms. Smith continued to work as usual with her supervisors, ” and she was not demoted or given tasks below her position. Defendants state that “[i]t was awkward when contact between [Sanders, Dominick or other members of] the management group occurred.” Defendants' Exh. A at ¶¶ 42-44; Defendants' Exh. C at ¶¶ 31-33.

         Smith left work and applied for FMLA leave on October 31, 2014. She submitted a certification form to defendants on November 19, 2014, certifying that she had a health condition warranting medical leave. Defendants initially sought a second medical opinion, but withdrew their request and granted plaintiff's request for FMLA leave. The evidence does not contain the dates of these events, but plaintiff's complaint states that the Center requested a second opinion on Friday, November 21 and withdrew its request and approved her leave on December 1, 2014, the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday. The decision to seek a second opinion did not delay Smith's leave in any way. She returned to work on January 8, 2015 and continued to perform her regular job duties without any demotion, loss of pay or reassignment until she resigned.

         The ad hoc disciplinary review committee met with Smith and her attorney to consider the Employee Rule Violation Report on January 14, 2015. The committee decided that plaintiff's conduct documented in the report did not conform to the Center's mission, but that termination was not appropriate because of the long passage of time since the pornographic images entered the Center's server. The committee instead issued a “Job at Risk letter, ” stating that Smith would face termination if similar or greater misconduct occurred within one year. Defendants' Exh. A at ¶ 53; Defendants' Exh. A-9, letter dated February 9, 2015. The committee ordered that plaintiff's cell phone and network access be restored the next work day, which was done.

         According to Sanders and Dominick, the management group members “were disappointed by the ad hoc committee's decision, because we thought Ms. Smith should have been fired, but we continued to minimize unpleasantness by avoiding direct contact with her in this admittedly awkward situation.” Defendants' Exh. A at ¶ 55; Defendants' Exh. C at ¶ 42. Smith argues that a disputed issue of material fact exists whether her work environment in which her upper level managers avoided her was merely “awkward, ” as defendants assert, or was actually “hostile or toxic, ” as she alleges. Her only evidence in support of this argument is her declaration under penalty of perjury in her EEOC charge that, after she returned to work from FMLA leave on January 8, 2015: “Upper management would not speak to me. If I would enter a room, Mr. Sanders would leave. This treatment of exclusion went on for weeks.” Plaintiff's Exh. 14, EEOC charge filed on September 16, 2015 at p. 2. This statement reiterates the facts that Sanders and Dominick have admitted.

         On March 12, 2015, Smith gave defendants two weeks notice of her resignation. Her last day of work was March 22, 2015. Id.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Legal Standards for Summary Judgment Motion

         “A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought. The 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).

         Rule 56, as revised effective December 1, 2010, establishes new procedures ...


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