Hanlon v. Chambers

Decision Date26 October 1995
Docket NumberNo. 22595,22595
Citation195 W.Va. 99,464 S.E.2d 741
PartiesIrene HANLON, Plaintiff Below, Appellant, v. Terry CHAMBERS, Individually and DBA Chambers Chiropractic Offices, C.C., Defendant Below, Appellee.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
[195 W.Va. 103] make as to the elements of the prima facie case in order to defeat a motion for summary judgment is de minimis. In determining whether the plaintiff has met the de minimis initial burden of showing circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination, the function of the circuit court on a summary judgment motion is to determine whether the proffered admissible evidence shows circumstances that would be sufficient to permit a rational finder of fact to infer a discriminatory motive. It is not the province of the circuit court itself to decide what inferences should be drawn

10. " 'In an action to redress an unlawful retaliatory discharge under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va.Code, 5-11-1, et seq., as amended, the burden is upon the complainant to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (1) that the complainant engaged in protected activity, (2) that complainant's employer was aware of the protected activities, (3) that complainant was subsequently discharged and (absent other evidence tending to establish a retaliatory motivation), (4) that complainant's discharge followed his or her protected activities within such period of time that the court can infer retaliatory motivation.' Syl. pt. 4, Frank's Shoe Store v. West Virginia Human Rights Commission, 179 W.Va. 53, 365 S.E.2d 251 (1986)." Syl. pt. 1, Brammer v. Human Rights Commission, 183 W.Va. 108, 394 S.E.2d 340 (1990).

11. W.Va.Code 5-11-9(7)(C) (1992), prohibits an employer or other person from retaliating against any individual for expressing opposition to a practice that he or she reasonably and in good faith believes violates the provisions of the West Virginia Human Rights Act.

Lauren Clingan, David M. Hammer, and Robert J. Schiavoni, Hammer, Ferretti & Schiavoni, Martinsburg, for Appellant.

Barry P. Beck, Martin & Seibert, Martinsburg, for Appellee.

CLECKLEY, Justice:

The plaintiff below and appellant herein, Irene Hanlon, appeals an order of the Circuit Court of Berkeley County granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant below and appellee herein, Terry Chambers, who was sued individually and through his business, the Chambers Chiropractic Offices, C.C.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

From January 6, 1992, until April 15, 1993, the plaintiff worked as a Marketing Director One of the employees supervised by the plaintiff during her employment with the defendant was Jim Embrey. Mr. Embrey was hired during January of 1993, as a part-time hourly employee. The plaintiff asserts she was sexually harassed by Mr. Embrey during her employment with the defendant and she informed the defendant about Mr. Embrey's behavior. Plaintiff stated during her deposition that, on two occasions, she informed the defendant she could handle the situation. She also testified the defendant never did anything to discourage her from disciplining Mr. Embrey.

[195 W.Va. 104] at the Chambers Chiropractic Offices, which is owned and operated by Terry Chambers. The precise scope of the plaintiff's responsibilities and supervisory authority is disputed. The plaintiff admits she had the duty to supervise the office, but she denies she had the authority to make personnel decisions and, in particular, to fire other employees without consultation with the defendant, Dr. Chambers. The defendant asserts, however, that the plaintiff "had direct supervisory responsibility for all employees within the Marketing Department, including the authority to hire, discipline and terminate."

In March of 1992, the defendant hired a management consultant to study his chiropractic business. The defendant maintains that the consultant recommended eliminating the plaintiff's position and that the recommendation prompted her subsequent release. On April 9, 1993, prior to the defendant's informing the plaintiff of her layoff, the plaintiff requested a meeting with the defendant and his office manager, Donna Hollida, to discuss Mr. Embrey's actions. The defendant asserts that he investigated the plaintiff's claims immediately after the meeting on April 9, and that he proceeded with his plan to eliminate the Marketing Director position, after concluding there was insufficient evidence to justify the plaintiff's claims of sexual harassment.

The plaintiff filed her complaint with the Berkeley County Circuit Court on October 4, 1993, alleging two theories: (1) the defendant fired her in retaliation for her complaints about the sexual harassment, and (2) the defendant failed to "maintain a work environment free from sexual harassment by failing to promptly investigate complaints of sexual harassment and by failing to take necessary remedial actions." After limited discovery 1, the defendant moved for summary judgment. In a written order dated April 6, 1994, the circuit court granted the defendant's motion finding the plaintiff either had direct supervisory authority, as suggested by the defendant, or at least had the power to recommend personnel decisions to the defendant. The circuit court noted "[s]exual harassment in the workplace is essentially an abuse of power" and thus interpreted the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va.Code, 5-11-1, et seq., as protecting powerless employees who have no other legitimate avenue of relief. Furthermore, the circuit court held that supervisors, as agents of the employer, have the responsibility to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The circuit court reasoned that permitting supervisors to sue employers for the harassment by subordinates would subject employers to the "ultimate 'Catch-22' " by forcing them to hire supervisors to watch supervisors and so on.

The circuit court thus ruled in favor of the defendant based on its determination that supervisory employees may not maintain a cause of action against an employer for the sexual harassment of the supervisor by a subordinate employee. The circuit court also concluded that complaints about subordinate harassment could not, therefore, be in opposition to "any practices or acts forbidden under" the Human Rights Act. W.Va.Code 5-11-9(7)(C) (1992). As a consequence, the circuit court also dismissed the plaintiff's retaliatory discharge claim. The plaintiff appeals from the entry of the summary judgment.

II. DISCUSSION
A. Standard of Review

When considering a circuit court's grant of summary judgment, this Court noted "1. 'A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo.' Syl. pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).

[195 W.Va. 105] in Syllabus Points 1 and 2 of Jones v....

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