407 F.3d 317 (5th Cir. 2004), 03-41620, Hockman v. Westward Communications, LLC

Docket Nº:03-41620.
Citation:407 F.3d 317
Party Name:Ladonna HOCKMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. WESTWARD COMMUNICATIONS, LLC; et al., Defendants, Westward Communications, LLC; Westward Communications, LP, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:December 22, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 317

407 F.3d 317 (5th Cir. 2004)

Ladonna HOCKMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

WESTWARD COMMUNICATIONS, LLC; et al., Defendants,

Westward Communications, LLC; Westward Communications, LP, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 03-41620.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

December 22, 2004

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Alex Arthur Castetter (argued), Stuckey, Garrigan & Castetter, Nacogdoches, TX, for Hockman.

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Felicity A. Fowler (argued), Matthew Thomas Deffebach, Haynes & Boone, Houston, TX, for Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

Before WIENER and PRADO, Circuit Judges, and LITTLE, District Judge. [*]

PRADO, Circuit Judge:

Ladonna Hockman sued Westward Communications, LLC and Westward Communications, LP (collectively "Westward") asserting various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. ("Title VII"). The district court granted Westward's motion for summary judgment on all claims, and Hockman appealed. We now affirm.

I. Background

Westward owns certain newspapers in East Texas that are involved in this lawsuit: the Grand Saline Sun in Grand Saline, the Wood County Democrat in Quitman, and the Edgewood Enterprise in Edgewood. At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Nell French was the publisher of all three papers and Hockman's immediate supervisor. Oscar Rogers ran a commercial printing press from the back of the Grand Saline Sun office. Aggie McDonald was the composition and graphics manager. Molly Harvill was the office manager.

Hockman actually worked for Westward twice. First, she worked as the assistant editor of the Edgewood Enterprise from July 30, 1998 to June 30, 1999. The reason for Hockman's 1999 departure is disputed: Hockman claims that she left because of a "personality clash" with the paper's publisher at that time, Jan Adamson; Westward claims that Hockman was involved in a theft. Regardless of the reason, Hockman was rehired in April 2001 as an editor for the Grand Saline Sun.

When Hockman rejoined the Westward team, she was provided with a copy of the employee handbook, which contains the company's antiharassment policy. The policy provides for the following in the event of a complaint:

If an employee believes that he or she is being subjected to harassment of any kind, the incident(s) must be reported promptly to his/her supervisor. If the employee feels that it would be inappropriate to report the matter to the immediate supervisor, or the matter is not satisfactorily resolved at this level, the employee should report the incident(s) directly to the Director, Human Resources at 440-746-1701.

On July 24, 2001, Hockman signed an acknowledgement form, attesting that she had received a copy of the handbook and understood its provisions.

Hockman claims that soon after she returned to Westward, Rogers began to harass her in the following ways: First, Rogers commented on the body of a former Westward employee, Sheila Ledesma. Specifically, Hockman claims that "[Rogers] would tell her that Sheila Ledesma had a nice behind and body." Next, Hockman claims that beginning in July of 2001, Rogers would brush up against her breasts and behind. Third, Hockman claims that on one occasion, Rogers "slapped [her] behind with a newspaper." Fourth, Rogers once attempted to kiss Hockman. Fifth, on more than once occasion, Rogers asked Hockman to come in early so that they could be alone together. Finally, Rogers once stood in the doorway of the ladies' restroom as Hockman was washing

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her hands. Rogers stepped aside, however, when Hockman exited the restroom.

On October 11, 2001, Hockman and her coworker, Harvill, told their supervisor, French, that they had been harassed by Rogers. The parties dispute what happened next. Hockman claims that she did not go to French before October of 2001 because she was embarrassed. However, Hockman discussed Rogers's behavior with Harvill and McDonald before approaching French. Both women allegedly told Hockman that they had also been harassed by Rogers.

According to Hockman, she and Harvill told French that Rogers had touched them inappropriately, and Hockman told French that Rogers had once tried to kiss her. In response, French asked Hockman how she wanted the situation handled. Hockman claims that she responded that she was not sure what French was supposed to do in this situation, that she was sure there was a formal procedure for handling such complaints, and that French should take action in compliance with that procedure. Hockman claims that French then directed her to a sexual harassment policy that was purportedly for a previous company named Howard and Bluebonnet and was not in effect for Westward during the relevant time period. Hockman claims that to her knowledge, French never acted on her complaint; Hockman reapproached French once or twice, but French again asked Hockman what she was supposed to do about the situation.

Westward's account of the October 11 and post-October 11 events is completely different. According to Westward, when approached by Hockman on October 11, 2001, French asked her if she wanted to lodge a formal complaint and Hockman said that she did not; she did not want to jeopardize her working relationship with Rogers. French claims that she informed Hockman that Rogers's actions may constitute sexual harassment and that they could get fired if they did not file a formal complaint. Hockman then told French that McDonald would corroborate her allegations, but she nonetheless remained unwilling to file a formal complaint against Rogers. Rather, Hockman told French that she wanted French to talk to McDonald before taking any formal action.

French claims that she immediately investigated Hockman's allegations. First, she contacted six other Westward employees who had worked with Rogers. Each stated that they had neither witnessed nor suffered any harassment at the hands of Rogers.

Next, on approximately October 23, 2001, French met with McDonald, who refused to support Hockman's allegations. McDonald claimed that she had not experienced inappropriate behavior by Rogers, nor was she aware of any other Westward employee towards whom Rogers had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior.

For the next three weeks, French followed up with Hockman weekly, asking Hockman whether she was ready to file a formal complaint against Rogers. According to French, Hockman consistently refused to file a complaint. French thereafter concluded that Hockman's allegations were meritless.

Hockman, however, asserts that she was not hesitant about filing a formal complaint against Rogers after she spoke to French on October 11. Rather, according to Hockman, French had previously told her "never to go above [French's] head." Hockman contends that because of French's directive, Hockman believed that she would be fired if she reported the harassment to anyone else.

Westward claims that in the fall of 2001, the Chief Operating Officer of the Sun and

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the Enterprise, J. Tom Graham, began analyzing ways to manage the papers more efficiently because both papers were doing poorly financially. Because French divided her time among three different Westward papers, Graham decided to create an assistant publisher position to manage the business and editing duties of the Sun and the Enterprise. With the creation of such a position, Hockman's editor position would become unnecessary.

Graham wanted someone with business experience to be the new assistant editor; Hockman had none. Accordingly, Graham concluded that she was not qualified for the new job. Hockman was consequently set to be discharged upon the creation of the new position. On February 7, 2002, Wilbur Callaway was offered the assistant editor position. Because Callaway had requested that his wife work with him, Westward offered her a position answering telephones and assisting Callaway at the Edgewood Enterprise.

On February 19, 2002, Graham; Robert McMaster, the Chief Executive Officer of Westward; and Gina Fisher, Westward's Director of Human Resources, received a letter from Hockman's attorney stating that Hockman intended to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") asserting claims of sexual harassment and sex discrimination against Westward. According to Westward, Fisher immediately launched an investigation. On February 20, 2002, Fisher contacted Hockman--who refused to speak with Fisher out of her attorney's presence--and French, who told Fisher that Hockman had not wanted to pursue a formal complaint on October 11, 2001. That same day, Fisher contacted McDonald, who stated that she had not witnessed any harassment by Rogers. Fisher also called Bill Holder, the Regional Vice President of Westward. Fisher asked Holder to be present during a phone conversation between Fisher and Rogers. During that conversation, Fisher informed Rogers of the allegations against him, which he emphatically denied.

The next day, Fisher spoke to Hockman by telephone while Hockman was at her attorney's office. Fisher asked Hockman why she had never contacted her after the October 11 meeting with French. Hockman stated that French had told her "never to go above her head."

At that time, Graham, McMaster, and Fisher decided to separate Rogers and Hockman, who were both working at the Grand Saline Sun. Westward made Hockman the editor of the Edgewood Enterprise. Although, according to Westward, the company had previously decided to discharge Hockman when Callaway's employment began, given the pending harassment claim, Westward now believed that it was better to separate Hockman from Rogers than to terminate her employment. To afford keeping Hockman on as a Westward employee, Westward rescinded its offer of employment to Callaway's wife.

Hockman claims that the Enterprise...

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