U.S. Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n v. Ecology Servs., Inc.

Decision Date19 March 2020
Docket NumberCivil Action No. ELH-18-1065
Citation447 F.Supp.3d 420
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Debra Michele Lawrence, Eric Stephen Thompson, Maria Salacuse, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Baltimore, MD, for Plaintiff.

Harriet E. Cooperman, Russell Bradley Berger, Michael Philip Cianfichi, Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, Baltimore, MD, for Defendant.


Ellen L. Hollander, United States District Judge

This suit concerns claims of unlawful employment practices. In an Amended Complaint (ECF 19), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") filed suit against Ecology Services, Inc. ("Ecology" or the "Company") "to correct unlawful employment practices" and to obtain "appropriate relief" for Kristen Hamilton, a former employee of Ecology. Id. at 1. The suit is predicated on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Title I").

In particular, the EEOC alleges that Hamilton was subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of repeated sexual harassment by a co-worker, and also alleges that she was constructively discharged from her employment. ECF 19, ¶ 13. The EEOC seeks, inter alia , back pay and punitive damages. Id. at 4-5. Ecology disputes the claims. Among other things, it contends that Hamilton voluntarily quit after she was disciplined for chronic tardiness and a performance issue. See ECF 20 (Answer); see also ECF 49-1 at 7.1 Several motions are pending.

Ecology has moved for partial summary judgment as to the claim of constructive discharge, as well as the EEOC's claims for back pay, front pay, and pecuniary damages. ECF 49. The motion is supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 49-1) (collectively, the "Ecology Motion") and numerous exhibits. ECF 49-2 to ECF 49-22. However, the EEOC has since abandoned some of its monetary claims, stating: "EEOC no longer seeks front pay, the value of employee benefits or pecuniary expenses." ECF 51-1 at 8 n.1.

The EEOC has filed a combined cross-motion for partial summary judgment and opposition to the Ecology Motion (ECF 51), supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 51-1) (collectively, the "EEOC Motion") and many exhibits. ECF 51-2 to ECF 51-11. Notably, the EEOC concedes that, in light of disputed facts, it is not entitled to summary judgment with respect to the claim of hostile work environment. ECF 51-1 at 18. Instead, it seeks summary judgment as to the fourth element, i.e. , that the conduct of sexual harassment on the part of Hamilton's co-worker is imputable to Ecology. See id. In addition, the EEOC seeks summary judgment with respect to Ecology's Tenth Affirmative Defense, the so called Faragher - Ellerth defense, claiming it is not available to Ecology. ECF 51 at 1; see ECF 20 at 10; see also Faragher v. Boca Raton , 524 U.S. 775, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998) ; Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth , 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998) (establishing a framework to determine an employer's liability for a hostile work environment). Ecology has since abandoned that defense. It asserts, ECF 52 at 6 n.2: "Ecology does not intend to pursue that defense, and thus, the EEOC's motion [on this issue] is moot."

In response to the EEOC Motion, Ecology has filed a combined opposition as well as a reply in support of the Ecology Motion (ECF 52, the "Ecology Opposition"), along with additional exhibits. ECF 52-1 to ECF 52-22. And, the EEOC has filed a reply in support of the EEOC Motion (ECF 53, the "EEOC Reply"), along with additional exhibits. ECF 53-1 to ECF 53-7. In addition, the EEOC filed a pleading titled "Plaintiff's Surreply To Defendant Ecology Services, Inc.'s Response In Opposition To Plaintiff's Motion For Partial Summary Judgment And In Reply To The EEOC's Opposition To Ecology's Motion For Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 52)." ECF 57 (the "Surreply").2 And, the EEOC also submitted additional exhibits. ECF 57-1 to ECF 57-2.

The motions are fully briefed and no hearing is necessary to resolve them. See Local Rule 105.6. I will grant the Ecology Motion with respect to the damages claims abandoned by the EEOC. And, I will grant the EEOC Motion as to the Tenth Affirmative Defense, because Ecology has abandoned that defense. For the reasons that follow, I shall otherwise deny the motions.

I. Factual Background3

Ecology is a trash collection company that provides refuse and recycling collection services to residential and commercial customers in Maryland. ECF 49-8 (Dep. of Mel Morales, Ecology Operations Mgr.), at 6, Tr. 10-11. The Company, which has at least 15 employees (ECF 19, ¶ 4), employs CDL-licensed drivers to operate trash collection trucks, as well as helpers who ride in or on the trucks to assist in the collection of curbside waste. ECF 49-9 (Dep. of Marvin Gaitan, Hamilton's supervisor) at 7, Tr. 24-25; id. at 9, Tr. 37; ECF 51-2 (Hamilton Dep.) at 9. The number of helpers assigned to a driver varies with the type of route, but there are usually one to two helpers assigned to each driver. ECF 49-9 at 9, Tr. 36-37.

Hamilton commenced employment with Ecology on May 25, 2016, and was based in Frederick, Maryland. ECF 49-1 at 8; ECF 51-1 at 8; ECF 51-2 at 9. She left employment with Ecology on November 7, 2016. ECF 51-11 (Hamilton Decl.), ¶ 6. The parties vigorously dispute whether Hamilton's departure constituted a voluntary resignation or a constructive discharge.

While Hamilton worked at Ecology, she drove a recycling or garbage truck with respect to various waste collection routes; the routes were assigned on a daily basis. ECF 51-3 (Morales Dep.) at 8; ECF 51-2 at 12-13. She worked five days per week, and earned $150 per day. ECF 49-3 (Hamilton Dep.) at 17, Tr. 122. Hamilton earned a total of $3,000 per month. ECF 49-15 (EEOC responses to interrogatories) at 16.

Hamilton's supervisor, Marvin Gaitan, assigned the routes and the helpers. ECF 51-2 at 11. Gaitan frequently assigned a helper named Carlos Paz to work with Hamilton. Id. at 20-21. Paz primarily speaks Spanish. ECF 51-4 (Paz Dep.) at 3. But, he also speaks some English. ECF 49-9 at 7, Tr. 24. And, Gaitan indicated that he (Gaitan) is able to speak in Spanish. ECF 49-9 at 7, Tr. 24.

Paz was fired from Ecology in 2015, but he was subsequently rehired. ECF 49-9 at 13, Tr. 68-69. Paz testified that he was typically assigned to work with Hamilton twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, because those were "short routes," which Gaitan typically assigned to women. ECF 51-4 at 11. According to Paz, this was because men drive faster and because "it's difficult for [women] to reverse and get the vehicles out" of roundabouts. Id. at 11-12. He attributed these views to Gaitan. Id. at 13.

The helpers generally rode on the back of the truck and emptied the garbage cans and recycling containers into the truck. ECF 51-3 (Morales Dep.) at 9. When it was raining, or when eating, the helpers rode in the cab of the truck while traveling to and from the collection routes. Id. at 10; see also ECF 51-2 at 14-15; ECF 51-4 at 9.

Hamilton testified that she was subjected to repeated sexual harassment by Paz. She claims that, beginning about one month after she began working at Ecology, Paz began to make lewd and graphic remarks about her body. ECF 51-2 at 24-26. Further, she asserts that Paz made obscene gestures to her, which included pantomiming oral sex. ECF 51-2 at 23, 31, 33. According to Hamilton, on several occasions, Paz offered Hamilton money for sex. Id. at 23. Moreover, she claims that Paz sometimes grabbed her body, including her breasts. On one occasion, when Paz "reached from behind and grabbed" Hamilton's left breast, Hamilton said: "Don't ever do that again." Id. at 36-37.

Hamilton also testified that on more than one occasion, Paz exposed himself to her while she was driving, and forcibly pulled her hand onto his penis. Id. at 23, 27, 35, 36, 38, 39, 41, 42. For example, she recounted that in September 2016, while she was driving and Paz was in the cab with her, Paz "grabbed [her] hand and put it on his penis." Id. at 38-39. Hamilton "immediately took [her] hand away when [she] realized what was happening" and she "punched" Paz. Id. at 39. She also told Paz not to do that again. Id. Paz responded by laughing. Id. According to Hamilton, in October 2016, Paz again grabbed Hamilton's hand and put it over his partially exposed penis. Id. at 40-41. On that occasion, Hamilton "slapped him across the face." Id. at 40. After this second incident, Hamilton "didn't say anything right away," because she was "embarrassed" and "didn't know how to say anything." Id. at 43. However, she claimed that eventually she did "go to Marvin." Id.

On or about September 15, 2016, Hamilton texted Gaitan to report that another helper, Videl Veltran, urinated in the truck. Id. at 44-45, 47-48; ECF 49-9 at 7, Tr. 22. Hamilton understood that urinating in the truck was "grounds for immediate dismissal." ECF 51-2 at 45. Later, when Hamilton "happened to be in the office," and because Veltran was "still working" at the Company, she asked Gaitan, "so what's going with [Veltran]?" Id. at 45. Gaitan told her he could not discuss the matter with another employee. Id. at 46.

Hamilton testified that, in the course of that conversation with Gaitan, she reported Paz's conduct. Id. Hamilton stated, id. :

[W]ell, I said, on another note, you know, [Paz] exposed himself and made me, you know, put my hand on his penis. And [Gaitan] was like—you know, kind of like, wow, you know, shocked or whatever. And I was like, I just don't want to work with him by myself. I don't want to be riding in a truck by myself with him.

According to Hamilton, Gaitan responded that he would talk to Paz. Id. Hamilton testified that she did not make "a full blown ... statement" because she was...

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