that plaintiff and other witnesses offered contrasting versions of the events, given the inevitable fading of memories over time. But it is undisputed that at least two meetings took place between Stoeckel and Heineman -- one shortly after Custer submitted his resignation and one in mid-January. What is disputed is whether a third meeting took place in early January, and the extent to which Stoeckel was informed of Miller's and Heineman's dissatisfaction with her job performance prior to the termination of her employment.
The Court finds the testimony of William Heineman the most credible of all witnesses on the chronology and content of the meetings. His recounting of the events, bolstered by his demeanor and the manner in which he testified, was highly persuasive. Accordingly, the Court finds that 1) Mr. Heineman did discuss the importance of the job tracking reports with Stoeckel at the December 18, 1989 meeting; 2) a meeting, in part concerning Stoeckel's job performance, occurred in early January at which time Heineman reiterated the importance of the job tracking reports; 3) Stoeckel's job performance continued to be unsatisfactory to Heineman following the January 8th meeting; 4) Heineman and Stoeckel had a heated meeting concerning Stoeckel's job performance on January 18, 1990; and 5) Heineman fired Stoeckel the following Monday.
II. Conclusions of Law
Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.
Plaintiff's amended complaint raised four counts, including discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, maintenance of a hostile work environment, discriminatory termination of employment on the basis of sex, and retaliation in termination of employment. These claims will be considered in turn.
A. Discrimination in Employment
In Count One of her amended complaint, Stoeckel alleges that defendants "harassed and discriminated against Plaintiff on account of her sex" and "took adverse employment actions . . . affecting the terms, conditions, and privileges of her employment . . . because of her status as a female employee."
In order to prevail on a claim of disparate treatment, plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence. McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973); Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207, 101 S. Ct. 1089 (1981). Once a prima facie case has been established, a presumption of wrongful discrimination arises, see United States Postal Serv. Bd. of Governors v. Aikens, 460 U.S. 711, 714, 75 L. Ed. 2d 403, 103 S. Ct. 1478 (1983), and the burden shifts to the employer to "articulate some legitimate, non-discriminatory reason" for the challenged action. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802; see also Burdine, 450 U.S. at 257. The burden on the employer is merely one of production, because "the ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff." St. Mary's Honor Center v. Hicks, 125 L. Ed. 2d 407, 113 S. Ct. 2742, 2747 (1993) (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. at 253). If the defendant carries this burden of production, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination. Burdine, 450 U.S. at 252-53.
Stoeckel's evidence on this count consists of 1) Stoeckel's testimony that Heineman belittled ideas from women, including herself (which Custer corroborated in his testimony); and 2) Stoeckel's testimony that Heineman directed her to hire a female receptionist because of his view that answering telephones was not an appropriate occupation for a man. Both of these assertions were contradicted by the testimony of other witnesses.
The evidence presented by plaintiff, even if accepted as true, is insufficient to make out a prima facie case of sex discrimination. Plaintiff has offered no evidence linking Heineman's alleged criticism of her ideas to adverse consequences with respect to her position or pay.
Moreover, to the extent Heineman did direct Stoeckel to hire a female applicant instead of a male applicant for the receptionist position, such action does not translate into discrimination against Stoeckel giving rise to a disparate treatment claim. Accordingly, count one of plaintiff's amended complaint fails.
B. Hostile Work Environment
In Count Two of her complaint, Stoeckel alleges that defendants created a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII through, inter alia, condescending comments by Heineman and unwelcome comments and behavior of a sexual nature by Miller. Stoeckel claims that the conduct unreasonably interfered with her work environment.
In contrast to quid pro quo sexual harassment cases, where a benefit or condition of employment is conditioned on acquiescence to the sexual advances of another employee, hostile work environment cases concern "conduct that [is] severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment -- an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive." Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 126 L. Ed. 2d 295, 114 S. Ct. 367, 370 (1993). As the Supreme Court noted in Harris, determining whether a hostile work environment exists is not "a mathematically precise test", but rather "can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances", including 1) the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; 2) the severity of the conduct; 3) whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and 4) whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance. 114 S. Ct. at 371.
Whether Miller's comments and behavior created a discriminatory, hostile work environment in violation of Title VII is a difficult question.
As the Supreme Court pointed out in Harris, Title VII does not protect against all comments that an employee may find offensive. 114 S. Ct. at 371. Still, there comes a point where behavior crosses over the line and becomes sufficiently pervasive and severe to create a hostile work environment and constitute sex discrimination.
The acts in question include: Miller's comments about Stoeckel's dress, his rubbing of plaintiff's neck and shoulders on at least one occasion, his touching plaintiff's clothing on one occasion, his winking at plaintiff, his following Stoeckel around the office, the elevator incident, and Miller's comments to plaintiff about his dating life. These actions took place over a four month period of time.
Upon scrutinized evaluation of the testimony, the Court finds that these incidents, taken in the context of all the facts and circumstances presented, do not rise to the level of such pervasiveness and severity to constitute a hostile work environment. The Court has no doubt that Stoeckel found Miller's conduct objectionable; that his comments and behavior were unwelcome to her (even though she never verbally ordered him to stop); and that his conduct caused her discomfort. It is also apparent that Miller's conduct was highly unprofessional and inappropriate, particularly considering his position within EMS.
At the same time, Ms. Stoeckel did not testify that she found any of the incidents, save the elevator incident, physically threatening in any way.
Moreover, Stoeckel never complained to anyone about Miller's actions until four months after they commenced.
Corrective action was immediately taken by Stoeckel's supervisor, an apology ensued, and the unwanted behavior ceased.
The test of whether a hostile work environment exists is not whether offender's conduct is objectionable, unprofessional, or uncalled for; nor does the test focus solely on how the recipient of the comments and behavior construes the actions. Rather, the test is whether the conduct is "severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment." Harris, 114 S. Ct. at 370 (emphasis added). While Miller's conduct comes close to the line, the Court cannot find it was sufficiently egregious to rise to the level of a violation of Title VII.
Accordingly, the defendants prevail on Count Two of plaintiff's complaint.
C. Discriminatory Termination
In Count Three of her amended complaint, plaintiff alleges that defendants "discharged and terminated Plaintiff's employment on account of her sex and for reasons arising from discrimination and harassment of Plaintiff on account of her sex." At trial, plaintiff testified that her sex was a "partial factor" in her discharge, and referenced Heineman's alleged hostility to her ideas as evidence. In order to establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment discrimination, Stoeckel must demonstrate sufficient facts to create an inference of unlawful discrimination. McDonnell Douglas v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668, 93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973); Texas Dep't of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253, 67 L. Ed. 2d 207, 101 S. Ct. 1089 (1981). The Court finds that the evidence presented on this claim falls short of establishing a prima facie case that plaintiff was terminated because of her sex; accordingly, plaintiff cannot prevail on this count.
D. Retaliatory Discharge
Plaintiff's final count alleges that defendants "retaliated against Plaintiff because of her opposition to, and having complained about, Miller's sexually-motivated misconduct towards her", and that defendants "terminated Plaintiff's employment as a part of this retaliation."
In order to prevail in her claim that she was terminated in retaliation for opposing Miller's conduct, Stoeckel must present evidence sufficient to establish a prima facie case raising an inference of retaliatory discharge. Our Court of Appeals has stated plaintiff's initial burden of proof as follows:
In order to establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must show: 1) that she engaged in a statutorily protected activity; 2) that the employer took an adverse personnel action; and 3) that a causal connection existed between the two. As in a case of disparate treatment, this initial burden is not great. Plaintiff merely needs to establish facts adequate to permit an inference of retaliatory motive.