Poague v. Huntsville Wholesale Furniture

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Alabama
Decision Date29 October 2020
Docket Number7:18-cv-00005-LSC

MICHELLE POAGUE, et al., Plaintiffs,



October 29, 2020

Memorandum of Opinion

Huntsville Wholesale Furniture (HWF) owns and operates furniture stores. Michelle Poague, Katarda Bishop, and Lorrie Acker worked at HWF's Tuscaloosa location—Ashley Furniture. All three sued HWF and their Store Manager, Taylor Swinney (Doc. 49), and HWF and Swinney counterclaimed against Acker (Docs. 50, 56, and 58).

Here, the Court considers five motions. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 124) is due to be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 120) is due to be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Defendants' first Motion to Strike (Doc. 149) is due to be DENIED IN PART and TERMINATED as MOOT IN

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PART. Defendants' second Motion to Strike (Doc. 158) is due to be TERMINATED as MOOT. Swinney's Opposition to Evidence (Doc. 128) is due to be TERMINATED as MOOT.

I. Background

At summary judgment, the Court draws "all factual inferences" in the non-moving party's favor. Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206, 1213-14 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). With that in mind, the facts are as follows:

Plaintiffs' Claims

Poague and Acker were Product Specialists. They sold furniture for $10 an hour and earned a commission for each sale. (See Doc. 126-75 at 16.) Product Specialists also had promotional duties. (Doc. 126-76 at 318.) On occasion, they took flyers to Tuscaloosa businesses. (Id.) The canvassing usually lasted an hour, but twice it lasted two hours. (Id.) Acker says HWF never paid Product Specialists for the monthly canvassing. (Id.; Doc. 138-13 at ¶ 40.)

Unlike Poague and Acker, Bishop did not work directly for HWF. (Doc. 126-97 at 2.) She worked for a staffing company, Express Services, Inc. (Id. at 2.) Express assigned Bishop to HWF where she was a cashier earning $10 an hour. (Id.)

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Acker, Poague, and Bishop all claim they saw and suffered sexual harassment. Most alleged harassment involved Swinney, the Store Manager at HWF's Tuscaloosa location.

Poague contends that she heard Swinney say crude things about women "every day." (Doc. 126-33 at 2.) According to her, on more than ten occasions Swinney grabbed his testicles and said "deez nuts" to female employees. (Doc. 126-13 at 234-37.) Poague also says Swinney called attractive female customers "Omahas." (Id. at 225-27.) Omaha is an inside joke. (Id.) It means "a hot chick" or "good looking woman." (Id.)

Acker says Swinney and Sam Gibson, a male Product Specialist, degraded women on a "daily basis." (Doc. 49-4.) She reports that she once heard Gibson say, "Lesbians are better than faggots because women are pretty" (Doc. 126-75 at 54) and heard Swinney once call Acker attractive and told her HWF needed attractive Product Specialists like her. (Id. at 207-08.) Also, Acker insists that she regularly overheard vulgar conversations between Swinney and Sales Manager James Riggsby (Id. at 212-222) and, when she complained, Swinney replied, "If you can't take the heat, then get out of the kitchen." (Id. at 222.)

Acker alleges physical harassment alongside the verbal harassment. In early 2017, she says Swinney touched her three times. In January, he touched her breasts. (Id. at 24-25.) One month later, he touched her rear-end. (Id.) One month after that,

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Swinney touched her breasts a second time. (Id.) This touching and harassment negatively impacted Acker's sales and potentially caused stress-induced ulcers. (Id. at 54-56.)

Bishop alleges similar behavior. She says Swinney called her his "work wife" and threw money at her like she was "a stripper or a whore." (Doc. 126-96 at 17-18.) She saw Swinney grab his genitals and scream "deez nuts" at female employees and overheard him regularly tell jokes with sexual punchlines. Once, she even allegedly saw Swinney dance provocatively while another employee threw money at him. (Doc. 49-5.)

Bishop also alleges some less offensive behavior. For instance, Swinney commented on her appearance. (Id. at 2-3.) He once held Bishop's hand and also hugged her after morning meetings. (Doc. 126-96 at 94.) And he once "brushed" against her back while helping a customer. (Id. at 26-33.)

For both offensive and less-offensive allegations, Bishop contends that she suffered consequences when she complained. In March 2017, Bishop told Mia Washington, the Office Manager, she was "uncomfortable" with Swinney's behavior. (Doc. 126-96 at 22-25.) Bishop relayed those concerns to Kim Vetrano, HWF's Regional Customer Service Manager. (Id.) The next month, HWF cut Bishop's hours by half. (Id. at 148-49.)

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Swinney was not the only one alleged to act in an inappropriate manner. Poague testified that Riggsby relayed explicit details about his sex life. He told Poague a female customer wanted to "f*** his brains out." (Doc. 126-13 at 219.) He showed Poague nude pictures of that same customer. (Id.) Poague objected: "I said it was gross, stop." (Id. at 222.) Riggsby kept on, and when Poague complained to Swinney, he "laughed her complaints off." (Id. at 223.) According to Poague, Gibson openly discussed pornography. He even suggested Poague enjoys performing oral sex.1 (Doc. 126-35 at 7.) Poague complained to management and, soon after, Gibson "cornered" her. (Id.) He warned her he "didn't want nothing to do" with her sexual harassment allegations. (Id.) Jason Seavers, HWF's Director of Stores, once "wrote up" Poague. (Doc. 126-33 at 2.) When she asked why, Seavers allegedly accused her of "inappropriate" involvement in "woman stuff." (Id.)

The Plaintiffs also contend that management favored male employees with sales. For instance, HWF uses the "Up System." If a Product Specialist is "up," he or she gets the next walk-in customer. Poague and Acker say Swinney assigned customers to male Product Specialists when female Product Specialists were next "up." (See Doc. 126-75 at 44.) Because Product Specialists earned commission, each lost customer means lost income. Swinney often rejected Poague's sales. (Doc.

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126-75 at 18-21.) He said her profit margins were too low but yet approved male employees' sales at identical (or lower) profit margins. (Id.)

Poague says Swinney mistreated her when she returned from maternity leave. Swinney sometimes let Poague use his office to pump breastmilk. (Doc. 126-13 at 33-34.) Other times he offered her only the "Community Room." (Id. at 34.) The Community Room has cameras, and customers shop the Community Room for clearance items. (Id.)

According to Poague, when she asked to pump breastmilk, Swinney stared at her breasts and made her "stay on the floor for additional time." (Doc. 138-13 at ¶ 64.) In a signed declaration, Poague says:

The more I exhibited the symptoms of discomfort and pain, the wider he would smile. If my milk leaked through my shirt, he would stare at my breasts and smile. It appeared . . . he took pleasure in my humiliation and pain. (Id.)

Poague asserts that HWF did not let her take federally-protected leave. Poague told Swinney she "needed leave" because her son was "not gaining weight like he should." (Doc. 126-13 at 48.) Swinney and Seavers denied her request. (Id.) Weeks later, a pediatrician diagnosed Poague's son with a "chronic condition." (Doc. 126-46 at 29-32.) As treatment, Dr. Kelton recommended Poague stay home for twelve weeks and nurse her son. (Id.) At-home nursing was necessary because Poague was "not provided [a] private place . . . at work [nor] adequate breaktime to express breastmilk, resulting in reduced supply." (Id. at 30.)

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Eventually HWF allowed Poague to take leave. The month she returned, managers: (1) put her on an improvement plan, (2) twice split her sales with other Product Specialists, (3) rejected other sales, and (4) wrote her up each week for poor performance. (Doc. 126-36 at 3-4.)

HWF and Swinney deny many of the Plaintiffs' allegations. (See Doc. 133 at 1-7.) Further, HWF says it responded reasonably to inappropriate behavior, insisting that HWF policy prohibits discrimination and harassment. (Doc. 133 at 46.) HWF displayed EEOC and Department of Labor posters and offered an anonymous hotline for harassment victims. (Id.) And on one occasion, when Poague complained, CEO Chris Caune investigated and spoke with Swinney. (Id. at 47.)

Plaintiffs sued under Title VII, other federal employment-law statutes, and Alabama tort law. HWF and Swinney counterclaimed.

Defendants' Counterclaims

Acker employment at HWF ended in March 2017. (Doc. 126-75 at 21.) Soon after, she hired lawyers and filed an EEOC discrimination charge. (Doc. 49-4.) Three months later, Acker learned that HWF fired Swinney. (Doc. 126-75 at 69.) Believing "the sexual harassment, discrimination, [and] retaliation" ended with Swinney, Acker emailed Seavers and asked for her job back. (Id.) Seavers responded and invited Acker to a June 2017 meeting. (Id. at 69-70.) Behind closed doors, she met with Seavers and Daniel Hannan, HWF's attorney. According to Hannan and

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Seavers, Hannan introduced himself as HWF's attorney and then asked Acker if she was represented by counsel. Acker disagrees on both fronts. First, she says Hannan never introduced himself as HWF's attorney. Second, she believed Hannan worked with HWF's human resources department—that his purpose was to "help her get her job back." (Id. at 74.) She also says Hannan never asked if counsel represented her. (Id. at 75.)

During the meeting, Hannan and Seavers handed Acker a General Release. According to Acker, she was told, "If you want your job, sign these documents." (Id. at 93.) Although Acker admits no one forced her to sign, she never called her lawyer. She insists that she had no chance to read the Release before...

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