Ward v. Autozoners, LLC, 051120 FED4, 18-2100

Docket Nº:18-2100, 18-2170
Opinion Judge:FLOYD, CIRCUIT JUDGE
Party Name:KEITH WARD, Plaintiff - Appellee, v. AUTOZONERS, LLC, Defendant-Appellant. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Amicus Supporting Appellee. KEITH WARD, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. AUTOZONERS, LLC, Defendant-Appellee. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Amicus Supporting Appellant.
Attorney:Tracy Elizabeth Kern, JONES WALKER LLP, New Orleans, Louisiana, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee. Rebecca Joan Houlding, Giselle Brianceschi Schuetz, FRIEDMAN & HOULDING LLP, Mamaroneck, New York, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant. Phillip Matthew Kovnat, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISS...
Judge Panel:Before AGEE, FLOYD, and QUATTLEBAUM, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:May 11, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

KEITH WARD, Plaintiff - Appellee,

v.

AUTOZONERS, LLC, Defendant-Appellant.

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Amicus Supporting Appellee.

KEITH WARD, Plaintiff - Appellant,

v.

AUTOZONERS, LLC, Defendant-Appellee.

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Amicus Supporting Appellant.

Nos. 18-2100, 18-2170

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 11, 2020

Argued: September 20, 2019

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at New Bern. Louise W. Flanagan, District Judge. (7:15-cv-00164-FL)

ARGUED:

Tracy Elizabeth Kern, JONES WALKER LLP, New Orleans, Louisiana, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Rebecca Joan Houlding, Giselle Brianceschi Schuetz, FRIEDMAN & HOULDING LLP, Mamaroneck, New York, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Phillip Matthew Kovnat, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

ON BRIEF:

Laurie M. Riley, JONES WALKER LLP, Miami, Florida, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

Shilpa Narayan, FRIEDMAN & HOULDING LLP, Mamaroneck, New York, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

James L. Lee, Deputy General Counsel, Jennifer S. Goldstein, Associate General Counsel, Sidney A.R. Foster, Assistant General Counsel, UNITED STATES EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

Before AGEE, FLOYD, and QUATTLEBAUM, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded with instructions by published opinion. Judge Floyd wrote the opinion in which Judge Agee and Judge Quattlebaum joined.

FLOYD, CIRCUIT JUDGE

Before us is a matter arising from a jury verdict rendered in a sexual harassment case. In 2012, Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee AutoZoners, LLC (AutoZone) hired Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant Keith Ward as a part-time employee at its Whiteville, North Carolina store. Months later, the same AutoZone store hired Christina Atkinson. Shortly after she started working alongside Ward, Atkinson began groping him and engaging in sexually explicit language at work. Ward eventually quit and sued AutoZone, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and North Carolina law. A jury found AutoZone liable for creating a hostile work environment and for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and awarded both compensatory and punitive damages. AutoZone appealed, and Ward cross-appealed and conditionally cross-appealed, each raising a litany of issues. For the reasons set out below, we reverse the award of punitive damages for Ward's Title VII and state law claims and remand with instructions to the district court. However, as to AutoZone's duplicative recovery, jury instruction, and evidentiary error challenges, we affirm the district court.

I.

AutoZone is an automotive parts and accessories retailer and distributor with stores nationwide. On September 16, 2012, AutoZone hired Ward as a part-time commercial driver at its Whiteville, North Carolina store. Months later, around March 2013, it hired Atkinson to work at the same store. Though Ward and Atkinson began with different roles at the store, they worked alongside each other.

Soon after she was hired, Atkinson began sexually harassing Ward. Many times, she not only made sexually offensive remarks toward Ward but also groped him. Once, for instance, Atkinson joked to Ward and Wanda Smith-a commercial sales manager who directly managed Ward and Atkinson and was responsible for the commercial section of the store-that she had performed oral sex on her husband for three hours the previous evening. Another time, Atkinson "dragged her . . . fingers" across Ward's buttocks, J.A. 504, and, a few days later, "grabbed [Ward's] nipple through [his] shirt and twisted it until [he] had a bruise," J.A. 508-09. At other times still, Atkinson grabbed Ward's crotch; "jiggled and squeezed" his buttocks in Smith's presence, J.A. 518; poked his nipples with a pencil; and shoved him into a shelf, pressed her head to his chest, and rubbed his nipple. Despite Ward's repeated requests, Atkinson did not stop.

AutoZone had a written sexual harassment policy while this happened, of course. As then written, the policy defined sexual harassment to include "sexual flirtations, advances, and propositions"; "requests for sexual favors"; "verbal abuse of a sexual nature"; "gestures or verbal comments about an individual's body"; "sexually degrading words"; or "the display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures in the workplace." J.A. 2067. It also required employees "who receive a complaint or become aware of any harassment" to "report it immediately to management" or other officials. J.A. 2067. And AutoZone had a general reporting procedure for workplace issues, which included sexual harassment incidents. Generally, employees were to report such incidents to their immediate supervisor. Should an employee feel uncomfortable doing so or believe that their manager would inadequately respond to the incident, though, they could report it to "higher levels of management," like the store manager or district manager. J.A. 2070-71. In any event, management were to "thoroughly investigate[] each reported allegation." J.A. 2070-71. AutoZone also administered an online test to its managers to assess their knowledge regarding its sexual harassment policy.

AutoZone's sexual harassment policy, however, found little purchase at its Whiteville store. For one, handbooks describing the policy were not available at the store. Nor did AutoZone provide any in-person training on their sexual harassment policy. Instead, AutoZone required employees-managers and non-managers alike-to log in to a computer and "hit 'yes'" to verify that they had read the policy. J.A. 1201-02. Wayne Tarkington-a store manager who oversaw the Whiteville store and had hired Ward and Atkinson-testified that, though his responsibilities as store manager included ensuring that employees acknowledged that they "received" the policy, "or at least knew where it was at," it was "not [his] job" to ensure that they read it. J.A. 1201-02. Indeed, "99 percent of the people [did] not even read the policy," according to Tarkington, who also explained that he would illicitly log in to AutoZone's digital verification program and verify on behalf of other employees that they had read the policy. J.A. 1201. As for himself, Tarkington had only read the policy during his first year at AutoZone and "basically all [he] knew about it" was that it was "zero tolerance." J.A. 1202. And the online test administered to managers would reveal correct answers at its end, so any failing manager could pass the test with little studying.

So, despite this policy, Ward found little success in reporting Atkinson's behavior to their superiors. When Ward first reported Atkinson's behavior to Smith, she failed to respond-despite AutoZone's policy requiring her to do so. When Ward complained to Smith that he was "sick and tired" of Atkinson "putting her hands" on him, J.A. 512-13, Smith replied: "Well, maybe if you'll give her what she wants, she'll leave you alone," J.A. 514. Ward then turned to Tarkington. After learning about Atkinson's behavior, Tarkington confronted Atkinson and admonished her to stop. But at the same time, Tarkington warned Ward to "knock it off," although no one had accused Ward of any misconduct. J.A. 1244-45. Tarkington also informed Kenneth Geer-a district manager who oversaw about a dozen AutoZone stores, including the Whiteville location-about Atkinson's conduct and his response to it. Yet, according to Tarkington, Geer did nothing. Atkinson thus continued unabated as Smith and Tarkington did little to stop her: one time, Smith laughed while watching Atkinson try to grab Ward's hand and put it in her pants pocket, after Atkinson had said that she was not wearing any underwear and that her pocket had a hole in it; another time, Tarkington just "sh[ook] his head" after Ward complained about Atkinson once more, J.A. 534.

About five months after Atkinson was hired, Lawrence McCall replaced Tarkington as the store manager. After Ward reported Atkinson to McCall, McCall assured Ward that Smith-who was present during this conversation and admitted that she had seen Atkinson touch Ward-would talk to Atkinson about her behavior the following day. Besides that assurance, McCall also confirmed that Smith was authorized to send Atkinson home for misconduct.

When Ward drove to work the next day, however, he saw Atkinson's car in the store's parking lot. So he drove away to draft a resignation letter, which he submitted later that day. Three days later, on August 19, 2013, Ward met with Geer to discuss possibly returning to work. During that conversation, Geer told Ward that "the whole thing [was Ward's] fault." J.A. 578. Because Ward was "a man," Geer continued, he "should have been able to . . . prevent[]" Atkinson's behavior. J.A. 578.

Ward did not return to AutoZone. According to Ward, Atkinson physically harassed him "at least [twenty] times, maybe a couple of dozen" in all, J.A. 795, and Ward reported her to Smith as many as twenty times between March and August 2013. Because of Atkinson's harassment, Ward suffered anxiety, stress, and chest pains, the latter of which required emergency medical attention and led to a heart catheterization.

So Ward sued AutoZone in the Eastern District of North Carolina. He alleged a hostile work environment on the basis of his sex, 1 constructive discharge, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) under North Carolina law. The district court granted AutoZone summary judgment only on Ward's constructive discharge...

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