Wolfe v. Columbia Coll., Inc.

Decision Date06 July 2021
Docket NumberCase No.: GJH-20-1246
PartiesKELLY WOLFE, et al., Plaintiffs, v. COLUMBIA COLLEGE, INC., et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Plaintiffs Kelly Wolfe and Odilia Maya bring suit against Defendants Columbia College, Inc., Susie Bae, and Joanna Hyeonjeong for alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII") as well as various state law claims, including wrongful discharge, battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, false imprisonment, and violations of the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Act, Md. Code, L.E., § 3-501, et seq. ECF No. 10. Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 11.1 No hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is granted, in part, and denied, in part.

A. Plaintiffs' Allegations

Plaintiff Kelly Wolfe, a Maryland resident, was hired as a Marketing Admission Representative for Defendant Columbia College, Inc. ("Columbia College") on May 5, 2019. ECF No. 10 ¶¶ 1, 13. Plaintiff Wolfe is originally from Peru and is "of Spanish/Latino descent." Id. ¶ 10. Although Columbia College is based in Vienna, Virginia, id. ¶ 3, Plaintiff Wolfe worked at its Silver Spring, Maryland campus, id. ¶ 13. Plaintiff Wolfe was supervised by Defendant Joanna Hyeonjeong, Campus Director for the College's Silver Spring, Maryland location, and Defendant Susie Bae, the Silver Spring location's Assistant Director. Id. ¶ 16. Both Defendants Hyeonjeong and Bae are of Korean descent. Id. In addition to Plaintiff Wolfe and Defendants Hyeonjeong and Bae, two other individuals worked in the office: one named Leo, of Korean descent, and another named Ali, "of middle-eastern descent." Id. ¶ 17.

Plaintiff Wolfe alleges that, beginning in June 2019, Defendants Hyeonjeong and Bae began a campaign of intimidation and harassment against her. Id. ¶ 18. Specifically, Defendant Hyeonjeong pulled Plaintiff Wolfe "into a private classroom and berated her for telling another co-worker about her hourly rate," id. ¶ 19; took Plaintiff Wolfe's "social security card out of her purse to intentionally conceal it from her," id. ¶ 20; pulled her "into a private classroom to berate her about her clothing," id. ¶ 21; excluded Plaintiff Wolfe from team meetings, id. ¶ 23; grabbed and pulled her hair, id. ¶ 24; "forced [Plaintiff] Wolfe to answer a call while she [was] on lunch, id. ¶ 25; and "hit [Plaintiff] Wolfe in her ear intentionally," id. Additionally, Defendant Bae "ripped and destroyed [Plaintiff] Wolfe's notes in front of her," id. ¶ 22; made "belittlingremarks" to Plaintiff Wolfe about a "Latino/Spanish student" asking, "is he Latino?" and "does he speak Spanish?" before stating, "I do not have time for that," id. ¶ 28; told Plaintiff Wolfe that she "can't stand listening [to] Spanish," id.; "grabbed [her] and shook her in a sexually suggestive manner," including "rubb[ing] her body against her backside," id. ¶ 29; and "squeezed [Plaintiff] Wolfe's neck while she was working at a computer," id. ¶ 30. Both individual Defendants forced Plaintiff Wolfe "to work without lunch breaks and disallowed [her] from eating in the kitchen," id. ¶ 25; "refuse[d] to speak with Latino/Spanish students at the college," id. ¶ 26; and refused to talk to Plaintiff Wolfe in English and spoke in Korean in order to exclude her, id. ¶ 27.

Plaintiff Wolfe's mother, Plaintiff Odilia Maya, is a student at Columbia College. Id. ¶ 34. According to the Amended Complaint, on or about November 5, 2019, Plaintiff Maya went to the Silver Spring location "because she left books there" and because she wanted to take time off from school in order to "assist her other daughter." Id. ¶ 36. The Amended Complaint further alleges that Plaintiff Maya was upset due to ongoing bullying from other students. Id. Defendant Bae told Plaintiff Maya that she would need additional documents in order to take time off from classes, but Plaintiff Maya did not have the required documents. Id. ¶ 37. Defendant Bae then ordered Plaintiff Maya to sign documents permanently withdrawing her from Columbia College, but Plaintiff Maya refused. Id. ¶ 38. The Amended Complaint states that, "[w]ith a pen in her hand, [Defendant] Bae profusely stated to [Plaintiff] Maya, 'Sign, Sign, Sign..!'" and, when Plaintiff Maya did not do so, Defendant Bae "assaulted" her by stabbing her with a pen, "severely bruis[ing]" her. Id. ¶¶ 38-39. Pictures showing Plaintiff Maya with a bruised arm are attached to the Amended Complaint. ECF No. 10-1. Plaintiff Wolfe's coworker, Ali, had to restrain Defendant Bae against the wall. ECF No. 10 ¶ 39. Defendant Hyeonjeong, also present,said, "she deserves it." Id. Plaintiff Wolfe witnessed the entire encounter and had to take her mother to the hospital afterward. Id. Plaintiff Maya had several doctors' appointments and sought therapy for the incident, and Plaintiff Wolfe also sought treatment for emotional distress related to witnessing Defendant Bae's conduct against her mother. Id. ¶ 40. Plaintiff Maya filed a police report and criminal complaint for assault and battery against Defendant Bae in Montgomery County District Court. Id. ¶ 41.

The Amended Complaint alleges that, on the same day as the alleged assault, November 5, 2019, Plaintiff Wolfe asked to speak with Defendant Hyeonjeong about the discrimination and hostile work environment she had been experiencing, but Defendant Hyeonjeong refused. Id. ¶ 32. When, that same day, she approached Defendant Bae about her concerns, Defendant Bae told Plaintiff Wolfe, "if you go to HR, then you will see what [Defendant Hyeonjeong] is going to do to you." Id. ¶ 33.3 It is unclear from the Amended Complaint whether these interactions happened before or after the incident involving Plaintiff Maya.

The following day, November 6, 2019, Plaintiff Wolfe went to the Vienna, Virginia campus to discuss the discrimination and violent conduct she and her mother had experienced with an individual in Human Resources named Jinny Kim. Id. ¶ 42. Kim allegedly told Plaintiff Wolfe that she "knew everything." Id. That same morning, believing that Human Resources ignored her complaint, Plaintiff Wolfe shared her concerns with others in Columbia College's administration building. Id. ¶ 43. She also attempted to speak with the Columbia Collegepresident, who was in a meeting, and successfully met with Columbia College's vice president, who stated, "we know about the incident," and said he would set up a meeting with Plaintiff Wolfe, Defendant Hyeonjeong, and Jinny Kim. Id. ¶¶ 44-45.

Plaintiff Wolfe was then informed by email, also on November 6, 2019, that she had been terminated. Id. ¶ 46. In an affidavit filed with Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendants' Motion, Plaintiff Wolfe insists that she did not learn of her termination until that date. ECF No. 15-1 at 2.4 Attached to the affidavit is an email from Defendant Hyeonjeong, sent at 12:47 pm on November 6, 2019, stating, "[a]s I gave you notice verbally on Monday, November 4th, I am giving you 2 week notice of job termination." ECF No. 15-1 at 5.

The Amended Complaint further alleges that, after Plaintiff Wolfe's termination, Defendant Hyeonjeong continued harassing her, including going to Plaintiff Wolfe's home unannounced. ECF No. 10 ¶ 47. Finally, Plaintiff Wolfe alleges that she has not received her final wages, amounting to between $500 and $1,000. Id. ¶ 48.

B. Defendants' Version of Events

Defendants tell a vastly different story. According to Defendants, Plaintiff Wolfe was fired for cause on November 4, 2019. ECF No. 11-2 ¶ 2. Specifically, Defendant Hyeonjeong states in an affidavit attached to Defendants' Motion that, "[o]n Friday[,] November 1, 2019, it came to my attention that Ms. Wolfe had been contacting students and former students, whose contact information she obtained from internal college files, to ask inappropriate questions about a former student, a graduate of Columbia College's English as a Second Language program." Id. ¶ 3. She confronted Plaintiff Wolfe about the issue on Monday, November 4, 2019, but PlaintiffWolfe denied the behavior, then made excuses for it, and "did not understand that her unauthorized use of student information was a serious offense." Id. Defendant Hyeonjeong states that she gave Plaintiff Wolfe a two-week notice of termination that day. Id.

The following day, Defendant Hyeonjeong says she had an hour-long meeting with Plaintiffs Wolfe and Maya in which they argued for Plaintiff Wolfe's reinstatement. Id. ¶ 4. Defendant Hyeonjeong did not change her decision and asked Defendant Bae to escort Plaintiff Wolfe back to work and Plaintiff Maya back to class. Id. An hour later, Defendant Bae returned, having continued speaking with Plaintiffs for that hour. Id. Plaintiff Maya stated that she intended to withdraw from her course at the college due to Plaintiff Wolfe's termination, and Defendant Bae attempted to help her, but Plaintiff Maya would not sign the withdrawal form. Id. Plaintiff Wolfe then "yelled about a lack of respect for her mother, and her mother slammed her palms on a table, refusing to sign." Id. Defendant Hyeonjeong states that she "did not see anything resembling an attack by Ms. Bae; she did not even touch Ms. Maya or Ms. Wolfe. Instead, [Defendant Hyeonjeong] saw her offer Ms. Maya a pen to sign the form, which offer was rebuffed." Id.

Defendant Hyeonjeong further disputes Plaintiff Wolfe's allegations concerning discrimination, stating that she never pulled Plaintiff Wolfe's hair or otherwise physically harmed her, id. ¶ 5; that she never made Plaintiff Wolfe work during her lunch hour, id. ¶ 7; and that Plaintiff Wolfe did not make "any complaint to [Defendant Hyeonjeong] relating to discrimination as a result of or on account of...

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