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Schaefer v. Peralta

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

October 15, 2019

SHARON SCHAEFER
v.
DAVID PERALTA, et al.

         SECTION M (3)

          ORDER & REASONS

          BARRY W. ASHE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is a motion by defendant the St. Bernard Parish Government (the “Parish”) for summary judgment seeking dismissal of plaintiff Sharon Schaefer's retaliation and hostile work environment claims.[1] Schaefer filed a memorandum in opposition, [2] and both parties replied in further support of, or opposition to, the motion.[3] On September 26, 2019, the Court heard oral argument on the motion.[4] Having considered the parties' memoranda, the statements made at oral argument, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that summary judgment in favor of the Parish dismissing Schaefer's claims is warranted under controlling United States Supreme Court precedent because Schaefer was terminated for a non-retaliatory reason, and she did not avail herself of the Parish's reporting system to address the alleged hostile work environment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This matter concerns a former employee's claims for retaliation and hostile work environment brought against her former employer. In 2007, the Parish hired Schaefer as a legal secretary, and she was an at-will, unclassified employee.[5] Dr. Jerry Graves, Jr. was Schaefer's supervisor until he resigned in December 2013.[6] Thereafter, William McGoey became Schaefer's direct supervisor.[7]

         Schaefer eventually began a romantic relationship with David Peralta, who was the Parish's chief administrative officer.[8] Schaefer and Peralta became engaged in June 2011.[9]Peralta was elected Parish president in November 2011, and took office in January 2012.[10]Schaefer and Peralta were married in March 2012.[11]

         In September 2013, Schaefer witnessed fellow employee Donald Bourgeois gambling at work, and reported this conduct to Sharon Williams, the Parish's conflict attorney.[12] Peralta allegedly attacked Schaefer verbally for reporting Bourgeois's conduct to Williams, and suspended Schaefer for three days without pay.[13] Schaefer appealed the suspension, and was informed that Graves would overturn it.[14] However, Peralta emailed Graves and informed him that the suspension was not to be vacated, and the suspension was then upheld.[15]

         On October 27, 2013, Peralta allegedly raped Schaefer in a torture chamber he prepared in their home.[16] Peralta then prevented Schaefer from leaving the home.[17] Once she was able to escape, Schaefer immediately reported the rape to the police.[18]

         On October 28, 2013, Schaefer went to her workplace at the Parish to request leave, but Peralta's personal attorney, Pat Fanning, allegedly accosted her and brought her to Peralta's office.[19] According to Schaefer, after Peralta apologized to her, he grabbed her and dug his fingers into her shoulder, threatened to fire her if she did not drop the charges, struck her when she refused to do so, and then forced her to walk out of the building while holding his hand in case any media were present.[20] Schaefer alleges that Fanning escorted her to the sheriff's office where she was supposed to drop the rape charges against Peralta.[21] Although she dropped the charges, Schaefer refused to withdraw the report, which angered Peralta.[22] Shortly thereafter, Schaefer and Peralta vacationed together at Walt Disney World.[23]

         On December 4, 2013, Schaefer went to Peralta's office to see him.[24] He was not there, but his assistant Kim Owens was.[25] Schaefer told Owens that she was upset about family matters.[26] Then, Lenor Duplessis, another Parish employee, arrived and joined the conversation.[27] Schaefer commented that she needed a gun.[28] Duplessis advised Schaefer to seek professional help, and Schaefer told Duplessis that she was having trouble at home.[29] Schaefer and Owens both left the office, and Schaefer accused Owens of having an affair with Peralta, which Owens denied.[30]

         On December 5, 2013, McGoey placed Schaefer on paid leave.[31] Another employee donated sick leave to Schaefer so that she could continue leave with pay until January 2, 2014.[32]

         On December 23, 2013, Schaefer filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).[33] In the EEOC charge, Schaefer alleges that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by Peralta and that she was retaliated against for filing a criminal complaint against Peralta.[34]

         On January 1, 2014, Schaefer sent McGoey an email informing him that she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and requesting leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).[35] McGoey authorized Schaefer's requested FMLA leave, which began on January 2, 2014.[36]

         On January 7, 2014, McGoey wrote to Schaeffer asking her to return any files or documents she might have because they are the property of the Parish.[37]

         On March 14, 2014, the Parish's human resources department sent Schaefer a letter asking her to have her primary care physician complete the FMLA certification forms that were previously provided to her.[38] The letter also informed Schaefer that her twelve weeks of FMLA leave would expire on April 1, 2014, and that her job would no longer be protected if she did not return to work on April 2, 2014.[39] Schaefer did not return to work on April 2, 2014, and she was terminated as a result.[40]

         The EEOC sent Schaefer a right-to-sue letter on September 29, 2016, and she filed this action on December 23, 2016.[41] Initially, Schaefer brought a number of state law and federal claims, against several defendants, including a Title VII claim for hostile work environment and retaliation against the Parish.[42] In a December 7, 2017 Order & Reasons ruling on several motions, this Court dismissed all of Schaefer's claims except her retaliation and hostile work environment claims against the Parish.[43]

         II. PENDING MOTION

         The Parish filed the instant motion for summary judgment arguing that Schaefer cannot prevail on her retaliation and hostile work environment claims.[44] With respect to the retaliation claim, the Parish argues that Schaefer cannot prove that her filing a police report against Peralta concerning the October 27, 2013 incident was the “but-for” cause of her termination.[45] Rather, the Parish contends that Schaefer was terminated because she failed to return to work from her FMLA leave and that she has admitted never returning to any type of work.[46] The Parish further argues that Schaefer cannot prevail on her hostile work environment claim because she did not avail herself of the Parish's reporting mechanism.[47]

         Schaefer, on the other hand, argues that she was terminated before she failed to return from FMLA leave, in closer proximity to her reporting the alleged rape.[48] According to Schaefer, she was terminated in December 2013.[49] Schaefer contends that the “tone” of McGoey's January 7, 2014 letter implies that she was terminated at least as of that date.[50] She also argues that her last day could not have been April 2, 2014, because she received her last pay check in February 2014.[51] As to the hostile work environment claim, Schaefer argues that Peralta prevented her from reporting his conduct but that, in any event, the Parish was aware of the conduct by virtue of Peralta's knowledge of it.[52]

         III. LAW & ANALYSIS

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is proper “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 a judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). “Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, 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 the party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. A party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the basis for summary judgment and identifying those portions of the record, discovery, and any affidavits supporting the conclusion that there is no genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. If the moving party meets that burden, then the nonmoving party must use evidence cognizable under Rule 56 to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 324.

         A genuine issue of material fact exists if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1996). The substantive law identifies which facts are material. Id. Material facts are not genuinely disputed when a rational trier of fact could not find for the nonmoving party upon a review of the record taken as a whole. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n v. Simbaki, Ltd., 767 F.3d 475, 481 (5th Cir. 2014). “[U]nsubstantiated assertions, ” “conclusory allegations, ” and merely colorable factual bases are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50; Hopper v. Frank, 16 F.3d 92, 97 (5th Cir. 1994). In ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court may not resolve credibility issues or weigh evidence. See Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co., 530 F.3d 395, 398-99 (5th Cir. 2008). Furthermore, a court must assess the evidence, review the facts, and draw any appropriate inferences based on the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. See Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 656 (2014); Daniels v. City of Arlington, 246 F.3d 500, 502 (5th Cir. 2001). Yet, a court only draws reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmovant “when there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (citing Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990)).

         After the movant demonstrates the absence of a genuine dispute, the nonmovant must articulate specific facts and point to supporting, competent evidence that may be presented in a form admissible at trial. See Lynch Props., Inc. v. Potomac Ins. Co. of Ill., 140 F.3d 622, 625 (5th Cir. 1998); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A) & (c)(2). Such facts must create more than “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. When the nonmovant will bear the burden of proof at trial on the dispositive issue, the moving party may simply point to insufficient admissible evidence to establish an essential element of the nonmovant's claim in order to satisfy its summary judgment burden. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-25; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(B). Unless there is a genuine issue for trial that could support a judgment in favor of the nonmovant, summary judgment must be granted. See Little, 37 F.3d at 1075-76.

         B. Retaliation

         Title VII's anti-retaliation provision provides, in pertinent part:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of [its] employees ... because [s]he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because [s]he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner ...

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