Howard v. Winter

Citation446 F.3d 559
Decision Date04 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-1258.,05-1258.
PartiesStephanie HOWARD, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Donald C. WINTER, Secretary of the Navy, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)

ARGUED: John F. Karl, Jr., Karl & Tarone, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Dennis Carl Barghaan, Jr., Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Paul J. McNulty, United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before WILKINS, Chief Judge, and WILLIAMS and SHEDD, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed in part; vacated and remanded in part by published opinion. Judge WILLIAMS wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge WILKINS and Judge SHEDD joined.

WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge.

Appellant Stephanie Howard appeals the district court's entry of summary judgment for Appellee Secretary of the Navy (Navy), in his official capacity,1 on her hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq. (West Supp. 2005). The district court granted summary judgment based on its conclusion that once the Navy was provided adequate notice of Howard's allegations, its response was reasonable. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm in part, and vacate and remand in part.

I.

We summarize the essential facts of this case in the light most favorable to Howard.2 Howard is a former employee of the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Arlington, Virginia. During some of her time at NAVAIR, Howard was employed as a group secretary, where her duties consisted of providing administrative services to all fifty-five staff members in the Air Assault and Weapons Division.

One of those fifty-five staff members was Randy McCall, a Logistics Management Specialist. Howard alleges that McCall sexually harassed her between the period of June 1995 to November 1996. Howard claims that McCall often spoke to her in a sexually provocative manner and fondled her breasts, backside, and face. This behavior reached a height on March 5, 1996, when Howard walked over to McCall's cubicle to read his newspaper, as she often did. While she was reading the newspaper, McCall placed his fingers up her dress and inside her vagina. Traumatized and violated, Howard immediately fled McCall's cubicle area.

After the March 5 incident,3 Howard drafted a letter to McCall explaining that his advances were unwanted and he had gone too far. After drafting the letter, she delivered it to McCall while accompanied by her friend and coworker, William Willard. On March 19, Howard went to speak with Jessica Demaris, who worked in NAVAIR's human resources division. Howard told Demaris that she wished to be placed on a list to receive placement with another Department of Defense division. When Demaris asked why, Howard told her she was being "assail[ed]" at work. (J.A. at 321.) Demaris attempted to get more information out of Howard, but, by Howard's own admission, she was not "very specific" and did not name McCall. (J.A. at 85.) Unable to obtain much information from Howard, Demaris then referred Howard to Aaron Pendleton, a Human Resources Specialist. (J.A. at 507.) At her deposition, Howard recounted her conversation with Pendleton:

[Pendleton] said to me, Hey, what's going on? What are you doing here?

I says, I am trying to get the hell up out of here.

He says, Why? What's wrong?

I said this mother-f____r put his hands on me, and I don't like it.

He says, Who?

I said, Somebody old enough to be my grandfather.

He says, Who?

I said, Randy McCall.

He says, I don't know him. He says, This is what you need to do. He says, What you need to do is you need to write him a letter.

I said, I already did.

He says, The next thing you need to do is you need to write down everything else that he, you know, he does to you if he harasses you again. Now, if he harasses you again, you need to let somebody know. You need to tell your supervisor or you need to come back to me.

(J.A. at 322-23.)

Some time later, McCall again began to make inappropriate comments to Howard, but he did not touch her again until November 18, 1996, when Howard alleges that McCall cornered her while she was sorting mail, this time placing his hand on her face, neck, and breast. Howard told her friend and coworker Pace about McCall's behavior, and sometime in November 1996, Pace — with Howard's consent — went to Pace's supervisor, Ginger Toucher, to explain Howard's problem and provide Toucher with a copy of Howard's earlier letter to McCall. At that point, Toucher called both of Howard's supervisors, Michael Erk and John Baranowski, into her office to explain what she had learned. This was the first that Erk or Baranowski had heard of Howard's allegations. Erk and Baranoswki then immediately informed NAVAIR's Office of General Counsel of the allegations, and Baranoswki located McCall and brought him into his office. McCall was immediately reassigned to another NAVAIR division on a different floor level. An investigation ensued, but NAVAIR could not verify Howard's charges. Nonetheless, McCall's reassignment off of Howard's floor was made permanent. Howard did not complain of any harassment after this November date.

At all times during the period of alleged harassment, the Department of the Navy had a specific sexual harassment policy in place. The relevant portions of the policy provided:

Individuals who believe they have been sexually harassed are encouraged to address their concerns or objections regarding the incident directly with the person demonstrating the harassing behavior. Persons who are subjected to or observe objectionable behavior should promptly notify the chain of command if:

(1) The objectionable behavior does not stop; or

(2) The situation is not resolved; or

(3) Addressing the objectionable behavior directly with the person concerned is not reasonable under the circumstances; or

(4) The behavior is clearly criminal in nature.

If the person demonstrating the objectionable behavior is a direct superior in the chain of command or the chain of command condones the conduct or ignores a report, individuals who have been subjected to or who observe objectionable behavior are encouraged to promptly communicate the incident through other available means.

(J.A. at 213.)

In January 1997, Howard filed an EEO complaint with NAVAIR, alleging that the Navy discriminated against her on the basis of her sex in violation of Title VII. On July 15, 1999, an EEOC administrative judge (AJ) entered a "Decision Without Hearing" against Howard. (J.A. at 180.) The AJ found that McCall had no supervisory authority over Howard, that Howard first informed NAVAIR of her allegations in November 1996, and that the Navy responded with immediate and appropriate action once it was put on notice in November. NAVAIR adopted the AJ's findings of fact and conclusions of law as its final agency decision. Howard appealed the final agency decision to the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations, and they affirmed the decision.

On March 18, 2002, Howard filed her civil complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Howard's complaint put forward three separate claims pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:(1) intentional sex discrimination; (2) intentional creation of a hostile work environment based on sex; and (3) retaliation for bringing a complaint of sexual harassment. During litigation, Howard's first two causes of action were determined to constitute a single claim for what traditionally has been known as "hostile work environment" sexual harassment.

On August 26, 2003, the district court transferred venue over Howard's complaint to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. On November 30, 2004, the Navy moved for summary judgment. In her opposition to the Navy's summary judgment motion, Howard conceded that the retaliation claim should be dismissed, leaving only the hostile work environment claim. After briefing, the district court held a hearing on the Navy's motion.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the court orally granted the Navy's motion for summary judgment, implicitly finding that McCall was a co-worker, not a supervisor, and explicitly noting that once the Navy was put on notice in November 1996, its response was "about the fastest [the court had] seen an employer do in a long time in these cases." (J.A. at 569.) The court further found that action was not taken earlier by the Navy because Howard failed to "give the employer adequate information to trigger the kinds of response [she was] requesting." (J.A. at 569.)

By written order on January 10, 2005, judgment was entered in favor of the Navy. Howard timely appealed, and we have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (West 1993).

II.

Howard argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the Navy on her hostile work environment claim. She contends that the Navy is liable for McCall's harassment because he was her supervisor for purposes of Title VII. Howard further contends that even if McCall was not her supervisor, the Navy is nonetheless liable for the harassment because it knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take measures to stop it.

We review de novo the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Navy, applying the same standard as did the district court. See Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 415 (4th Cir.2006) (en banc). Summary judgment is appropriate when "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 judgment as a matter of law." Fed R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). We...

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