Phillips v. Donahoe

Decision Date07 November 2013
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 12-410
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Pennsylvania
PartiesCATHERINE PHILLIPS, Plaintiff, v. PATRICK R. DONAHOE, Postmaster General, Defendant.

Judge Nora Barry Fischer

I. Introduction

The instant action involves allegations that a female postal worker was sexually harassed by some of her male co-workers and later discharged in retaliation for complaining about that harassment. Pending before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by the Defendant pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (Docket No. 35). For the reasons that follow, the Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part.

II. Background

Plaintiff Catherine Phillips ("Phillips") is an adult Caucasian female residing in Butler County, Pennsylvania. (Docket No. 13 at ¶ 3). She was hired by the United States Postal Service as a mail handler, or casual employee, in 2006. (Docket Nos. 40 & 41 at ¶ 1). Casual employees of the Postal Service are non-union workers with no guaranteed work rights. (Id.). Phillips' workplace was located at the Pittsburgh Network Distribution Center ("NDC") in Warrendale, Pennsylvania. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 1).

On February 13, 2011, Phillips received a threatening text message from co-worker Jason Williams ("Jason"). (Docket Nos. 40 & 41 at ¶ 4). The message implied that Phillips wouldexperience retaliation for statements that she had made about co-worker Maurice Williams ("Maurice"), who was Jason's cousin.1 (Id.). Shortly thereafter, Maurice angrily confronted Phillips and asked her why she was "running her mouth" about him.2 (Id. at ¶ 5). Phillips complained to Linda King ("King"), the Supervisor of Distribution Operations, who agreed that Jason's text message was threatening in nature. (Id. at ¶ 4). King spoke to both Phillips and Jason in an attempt to resolve the issue. (Id.).

The matter was called to the attention of Jason's manager, Randall Daugherty ("Daugherty"). (Docket No. 38-2 at 3, ¶ 5). Daugherty met with Jason on February 14, 2011. (Id. at 3, ¶ 6). During the meeting, Daugherty informed Jason that the text message sent to Phillips on the previous day had been deemed to be a "threat." (Docket No. 38-4 at 3, ¶ 7). In an attempt to demonstrate that he and Phillips were "on friendly terms," Jason showed Daugherty prior text messages that he had exchanged with Phillips. (Id. at 3, ¶ 9). Jason also displayed nude photographs of Phillips that he had received from Maurice. (Id. at 3, ¶¶ 11-13). Daugherty instructed Jason to delete the photographs from his telephone, to stop sending text messages to Phillips, and to avoid further contact with her. (Id. at 3, ¶¶ 8, 15). At some point during the next two weeks, Maurice's employment with the Postal Service was terminated because of an "unrelated incident." (Docket No. 38-1 at 12; Docket No. 38-6 at 5).

On February 27, 2011, Phillips received a telephone call from co-worker Ronna Safka ("Safka"), who wanted to meet with her. (Docket No. 38-1 at 8). Phillips and Safka met during a subsequent break. (Id.). Safka revealed that Mark Mason ("Mason"), a co-worker, had stated that Jason's cellular telephone contained nude photographs of Phillips. (Id.). Phillips spoke withher supervisor, Christopher Dee ("Dee"), and said that she was thinking about quitting her job. (Id.). Dee discouraged Phillips from quitting and encouraged her to report the matter to King. (Docket Nos. 40 & 41 at ¶ 7). After hearing about the situation, King promised to look into the matter and get back to Phillips. (Id.). King called the matter to Daugherty's attention the next day. (Docket No. 38-2 at 4, ¶ 16).

Jason was on leave between February 28, 2011, and March 13, 2011. (Docket No. 38-2 at 4, ¶ 18). Daugherty interviewed several postal employees during Jason's absence. (Id. at 4, ¶ 19). Some of the employees interviewed by Daugherty confirmed that they had seen photographs of a nude female on Jason's telephone. (Id. at 4, ¶ 20).

Jason returned to work on March 14, 2011. (ECF No. 38-2 at 5, ¶ 23). During a pre-disciplinary interview with Daugherty, Jason acknowledged that he had shown nude photographs of Phillips to some of his co-workers. (Docket No. 38-4 at 4, ¶¶ 19-20). Jason received a fourteen-day suspension for his conduct. (Id. at 4, ¶ 24). That same day, Phillips initiated contact with an equal employment opportunity ("EEO") counselor.3 (Docket No. 13 at 6, ¶ 29).

On June 7, 2011, Phillips filed a formal EEO complaint with the Postal Service.4 (Docket No. 7-1 at 6-11). She alleged that the displaying of nude photographs of her to other postal employees had rendered her work environment hostile and abusive. (Id. at 8-9). Phillips also expressed concern that the pictures could be posted on Internet websites. (Id. at 9). She faulted the Postal Service for failing to notify her of the actions taken to protect her interests. (Id. at 8).

A regulation promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") permits a federal employee alleging the existence of workplace discrimination to "amend acomplaint at any time prior to the conclusion of the investigation to include issues or claims like or related to those raised in the complaint." 29 C.F.R. § 1614.106(d). Through a letter authored by her counsel, Phillips amended her complaint on June 14, 2011. (Docket No. 7-1 at 13-14). The amendment added allegations that managerial employees King and Joseph Buzzell ("Buzzell") had inappropriately disclosed confidential information about Phillips' complaint to non-managerial employees Patricia Murphy ("Murphy") and Rosemarie Stragand ("Stragand"). (Id. at 13). The alleged disclosures were described as acts of "continued sexual harassment" and "retaliation." (Id.).

Phillips became a postal support employee ("PSE") on July 16, 2011. (Docket Nos. 40 & 41 at ¶ 2). She worked as a mail processing clerk. (Id.). Phillips' appointment to the position was contingent upon her successful completion of a ninety-day probationary period. (Docket No. 38-17 at 4, ¶ 12).

On July 25, 2011, Buzzell encountered Phillips while walking to his office. (Docket No. 38-11 at 9). He asked why his name had been mentioned in her EEO complaint. (Id.). Phillips responded by stating that her attorney had instructed her not to discuss the matter. (Id.). The verbal exchange apparently left Phillips so upset that she decided to leave her work station. (Docket Nos. 40 & 41 at ¶ 19). Manager James Faloon ("Faloon") told Phillips that she needed to complete a leave slip. (Docket No. 38-1 at 15). After completing the leave slip, Phillips left work five hours early. (Docket No. 38-15 at 2). She listed "stress" as the reason for her departure. (Id.).

Phillips amended her EEO complaint again on August 3, 2011. (Docket No. 7-1 at 16-17). In the portion of his letter explaining the grounds for the amendment, Phillips' counsel stated as follows:

Specifically, on July 25, 2011 a manager, Joe Buzell [sic], screamed at Ms. Phillips while pointing his finger at her upon receipt of correspondence from the EEO investigator. He yelled at Ms. Phillips for filing an EEO complaint. She became upset and asked to leave early. Other employees had seen this conduct. She was asked to sign a leave slip to leave early which she never had to do before if she had to leave early. Ms. Phillips lost some wages as a result. Since that occasion, Joe Buzell [sic] and Chris Dee, another manager, have been assigning her to jobs with less favorable conditions, i.e. more work and less help. Also they are constantly changing her work schedule (days off) without sufficient notice and for no legitimate purpose.

(Id. at 16). The conduct described in the amendment letter was characterized as a form of "additional retaliation." (Id.).

During the summer of 2011, Mary Delaney ("Delaney") served as the Supervisor of Distribution Operations for the Postal Service's Warrendale facility. (Docket No. 38-17 at 2, ¶ 3). On August 16, 2011, Delaney performed a "thirty-day employee evaluation" of Phillips. (Id. at 4, ¶ 17). On the evaluation form, Delaney rated Phillips' "attendance" as "unacceptable." (Docket No. 38-19 at 2). Phillips' performance was deemed to be "satisfactory" in all other categories. (Docket No. 38-19 at 2-3).

Phillips was scheduled to work from 2:00 P.M. through 9:00 P.M. on August 26, 2011. (Docket No. 38-17 at 5, ¶ 25). Due to an illness, she left a voicemail message that morning declaring her intention to remain at home. (Docket No. 38-1 at 24). The message was apparently left with the "tour office" at 8:11 A.M. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 171; Docket No. 38-17 at 5, ¶ 29). When Phillips returned to work on August 27, 2011, she was told to discuss her absence with Kathleen Wells ("Wells"), who served as the Manager of Distribution Operations. (Docket No. 38-1 at 24). During a meeting with Phillips and Delaney, Wells chastised Phillips for calling the tour office's telephone number rather than the number that she had previously been instructed to use when calling off. (Docket No. 38-18 at 5, ¶¶ 30-33).

A second meeting between Phillips, Delaney and Wells was conducted on September 2, 2011. (Docket No. 38-1 at 25). Wells asked Phillips to provide documentation for her earlier absences. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 183). Phillips was not able to provide the requested documents. (Docket No. 38-1 at 25). Wells concluded the meeting by informing Phillips that she was being discharged. (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 190). In a memorandum dated September 3, 2011, Wells stated that Phillips had been terminated for declining to provide the appropriate documentation for her absences and failing to follow the proper call-off procedures. (Docket No. 38-22 at 2). The memorandum was co-signed by Buzzell, who was listed as the "concurring official." (Id.). In a letter to Phillips dated September 9, 2011, Plant Manager Lauren Harkins ("Harkins") made the following observations:

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