Underwood v. Miss. Dep't of Corrs.

Decision Date29 March 2022
Docket NumberCivil 1:18cv24-HSO-JCG
PartiesSARAH UNDERWOOD PLAINTIFF v. MISSISSPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS DEFENDANT
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Mississippi

SARAH UNDERWOOD PLAINTIFF
v.

MISSISSPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS DEFENDANT

Civil No. 1:18cv24-HSO-JCG

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

March 29, 2022


MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS'S MOTION [127] FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW AND CONDITIONALLY GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL OR REMITTITUR

HALIL SULEYMAN OZERDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

BEFORE THE COURT is Defendant Mississippi Department of Corrections's Renewed Motion [127] for Judgment as a Matter of Law, or in the alternative, a New Trial or Remittitur. This Motion has been fully briefed. Having considered the parties' submissions, the record in this case, and relevant legal authority, the Court finds that the Motion [127] for Judgment as a Matter of Law should be denied and that the Motion for New Trial or Remittitur should be conditionally granted. Plaintiff Sarah Underwood may either consent to a remitted compensatory damages award or elect a new trial on damages.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual background

Plaintiff Sarah Underwood (“Plaintiff”) has been employed by the Mississippi Department of Corrections (“MDOC”) since 2013. Trial Tr. Vol. III, at 6. In 2016, Plaintiff was working as a probation/parole agent trainee in MDOC's Pearl River County office, where she helped monitor offenders' compliance with the conditions

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of their probation or parole. Trial Tr. Vol. II, at 61. The events from which this action arose commenced on September 27, 2016, when senior probation officer Bryan Scott Davis (“Davis”), Plaintiff's coworker, began sending her text messages proclaiming that he had feelings for her. Id. at 65-67; Joint Ex. 7, at 1. The text messages continued over the next month, Trial Tr. Vol. II, at 69-72, 75-81, and on October 26, 2016, Plaintiff made her first report of Davis's conduct to her supervisor Ben White (“White”), Joint Ex. 12, at 3. Plaintiff did not specifically mention the text messages, but merely informed White that she believed Davis was struggling with his home life and that his behavior had changed recently. Id.

The next day, Plaintiff rode with Davis in his MDOC vehicle to a staff meeting. Trial Tr. Vol. II, at 84. Plaintiff had become uncomfortable around Davis at this point, so she asked a fellow officer to ride with them; she observed that Davis was unhappy about this and “drove like a maniac.” Id. When they returned to the Pearl River County office, Davis stood in the doorway of Plaintiff's office and again expressed his romantic feelings for her. Id. at 84, 96. On October 30, 2016, Davis sent Plaintiff over 60 messages, to which she never responded, and called her seven times. Id. at 103. At this point Plaintiff contacted White again and informed him that Davis was harassing her. Joint Ex. 9, at 3.

There is no dispute that White contacted his superior and the decision was made to immediately transfer Davis to another office, in Marion County. Def.'s Ex. 1, at 1. White then instructed Plaintiff to fill out an incident report, which she completed on October 31, 2016. Id; see Joint Ex. 12. Two days later, MDOC issued a

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“NO CONTACT DIRECTIVE” to Davis which prohibited him from contacting Plaintiff directly or through any other person. Joint Ex. 1, at 1. There is no dispute that after November 2, 2016, Davis had no further direct contact with Plaintiff, via text message or otherwise. Trial Tr. Vol. III, at 13. Over the next few months, MDOC conducted an investigation into Davis's conduct, which culminated in a finding that Davis had sexually harassed Plaintiff in violation of MDOC policy, Joint Ex. 12, at 8, and resulted in a suspension of Davis for fifteen days without pay, Joint Ex. 5, at 1.

Plaintiff testified that after she filed her sexual harassment complaint against Davis, no one at the Pearl River County MDOC office would speak to her and rumors of what happened between her and Davis were circulated by her fellow officers. Trial Tr. Vol. II, at 105-06. Despite the no contact directive and investigation into his harassing behavior, Plaintiff testified that Davis told his former coworkers to “watch their backs, that [Plaintiff] was out to get them” and that she was making up her allegations. Id. at 106-07. White spoke with Davis on several occasions after Plaintiff filed her incident report and stated that Davis believed Plaintiff was trying to get him fired. Joint Ex. 12, at 6.

According to Plaintiff, rumors about her continued to circulate in the MDOC community, and on January 30, 2017, Plaintiff emailed Corrie Cockrell (“Cockrell”), an MDOC attorney and one of the investigators handling Plaintiff's complaint about Davis, to inform her that Davis was telling other MDOC employees that she had sent him naked pictures of herself. Pl.'s Ex. 2, at 2. Plaintiff denied sending these

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pictures and MDOC concluded that this rumor was unsubstantiated. Joint Ex. 12, at 9. On March 29, 2017, Davis, while still working in Marion County, filed an incident report in which he claimed that Plaintiff had overdosed on Adderall over the weekend of March 19, 2017. Joint Ex. 20, at 1. In an incident report filed on August 30, 2017, James Burch (“Burch”), an MDOC Agent, stated that before he began working in the Pearl River County Office, he “was warned that [Plaintiff] . . . was known for getting people fired or wrote up due to her being a mischievous [and] malicious person.” Joint Ex. 23, at 1. Burch also stated that he was told that Plaintiff had gang affiliations and slept with inmates. Id. In October 2017, Plaintiff was transferred to MDOC's Stone County office, Trial Tr. Vol. II, at 125-26, and was informed by one of her coworkers there that there was a rumor that she was sleeping with offenders, id. at 133.

As of the time of trial, Plaintiff was still employed by MDOC, Trial Tr. Vol. III, at 41, working in the Hancock County office in a similar role to the one she held in 2016 and 2017, id. at 41, 75. Plaintiff testified that the preceding events did not cause her to miss a single day of work and she at all times continued to receive the same level of pay. Id. at 6-7, 41.

B. Procedural history

Plaintiff filed an initial EEOC charge on June 9, 2017, in which she detailed Davis's sexual harassment, the continuing alleged harassment from her coworkers, and what she believed was subsequent retaliation. Ex. 1 [12-1] at 5-6. She amended her charge on October 24, 2017, to include additional evidence of discrimination and

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retaliation. Id. at 9-11. Plaintiff was issued a right to sue letter as to her first charge on October 20, 2017. Id. at 2.

Plaintiff sued MDOC, Pelicia Hall (“Hall”) in her official capacity as the MDOC Commissioner, White, and Davis on January 19, 2018. Compl. [1]. Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint [12] against Defendants on May 2, 2018, which advanced claims under Mississippi Code Annotated § 25-9-149, the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 701-795, the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213 (“ADA”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17, state defamation law, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, all arising out of the sexual harassment and retaliation she allegedly experienced during her employment with MDOC. Am. Compl. [12] at 6-8.

Prior to trial the Court entered an Agreed Judgment [76] as to Davis in Plaintiff's favor pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b) and terminated him from this case. Agreed J. [76] at 2. The Court also granted summary judgment in favor of MDOC, Hall, and White as to Plaintiff's claims under the Rehabilitation Act and as to her 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Title VII claims for retaliation; and in favor of White as to Plaintiff's state-law defamation claim and sex discrimination claim based on a hostile work environment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Order [74] at 27-28. The Court's Order [73] also dismissed White from the case. Id. at 28. This left for trial Plaintiff's Title VII claim against MDOC for sex discrimination based upon a

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hostile work environment and her claim against Burl Cain (“Cain”)[1] under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

C. Trial and post-trial proceedings

Plaintiff's claims were tried before a jury on June 14-17, 2021. J. [117] at 1. At the close of Plaintiff's case-in-chief, MDOC and Cain moved for Judgment as a Matter of Law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) as to Plaintiff's Title VII and § 1983 claims, as well as on her claim for punitive damages. Order [108]. The Court granted the Motion as to Plaintiff's claim against Cain under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and as to her claim for punitive damages, and denied it as to her Title VII hostile work environment claim against MDOC. Id. The Court further dismissed Cain as a Defendant after concluding that it had dismissed all claims for which he was a proper Defendant. Order [116]. MDOC reasserted its request for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the entire case, Trial Tr. Vol IV, at 34, which the Court denied, Trial Tr. Vol V, at 7-23. The jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff's favor as to her Title VII claim for hostile work environment against MDOC and awarded her $750, 000.00 in compensatory damages for emotional distress, which the Court reduced to $300, 000.00 pursuant to the noneconomic damages cap set forth at 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3)(D). Jury Verdict [113] at 2; J. [117] at 1.

MDOC has filed a Renewed Motion [127] for Judgment as a Matter of Law, or, in the alternative, a New Trial or Remittitur. Mot. [127]. MDOC contends that it

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is entitled to judgment as a matter of law “because the jury lacked a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for . . . Plaintiff and award her damages.” Mem. [128] at 1. Alternatively, MDOC argues that the Court should grant a new trial as to Plaintiff's damages or “significantly remit” her award. Id. Plaintiff has filed a Response [129] in Opposition and MDOC has...

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