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Dawson v. Northeast Ohio Community Alternative Program

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

August 20, 2019

ARLESIA DAWSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHEAST OHIO COMMUNITY ALTERNATIVE PROGRAM, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Kathleen B. Burke United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Arlesia Dawson (“Dawson”) was terminated by Defendant Northeast Ohio Community Alternative Program (“NEOCAP”) from her position as Executive Secretary to NEOCAP's Executive Director, Jake E. Jones, Sr. (“Jones”). She brings federal law claims for gender discrimination and sexual harassment against Defendants NEOCAP and Jones. First, Second, and Fourth Claims for Relief, Doc. 1, pp. 4-6.[1] She also asserts state law claims for spoliation of evidence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Doc. 1.

         Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment as to all of Dawson's claims. Doc. 21. Dawson has filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment based on her contention that NEOCAP is liable on her federal claims because it failed to adopt a policy governing senior-subordinate non-work related social interactions. Doc. 24.[2]

         For the reasons set forth more fully below, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Dawson's federal claims and Dawson's cross-motion is without merit. Dawson admitted on deposition that she does not believe Defendants discriminated against her and that Jones never suggested that she have anything other than a professional relationship with him. Those admissions undermine her claims and she has not demonstrated the existence of any genuine issue of material fact such that a reasonable jury could find for her on her federal claims.

         The Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Dawson's state law claims for spoliation of evidence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

         Accordingly, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 21) as to Plaintiff's federal claims stated in her First, Second, and Fourth Claims for Relief; DISMISSES WITHOUT PREJUDICE Dawson's state law claims - the Third (spoliation of evidence) and Fifth (negligent infliction of emotional distress “NIED”) Claims for Relief; and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 24).

         II. Background Facts

         NEOCAP provides an alternative to incarceration for felony offenders. Doc. 1, ¶6. It is the last step in the continuum of increasing punishment before incarceration. Id. It is a minimum-security operation housing approximately 120 offenders. Id. NEOCAP is administered by a local Judicial Corrections Board that includes at least one common pleas court judge from each county NEOCAP serves.[3] Id.

         A. NEOCAP employee discipline and harassment policies

         NEOCAP has specific procedures and policies to address allegations of sexual harassment and employee discipline that aare documented in the employee Personnel Policies Handbook. Doc. 21-2.[4] The disciplinary section of the Personnel Policies Handbook states that NEOCAP employs a “Progressive Discipline” practice to address disciplinary matters. Id. at pp. 2. This practice includes giving the employee a verbal reprimand and, if a verbal reprimand does not work, giving the employee a written reprimand. Id. If a written reprimand is not enough, suspension or termination can occur, but the staff member must be given the opportunity to tell his/her side of the issue and there must be an opportunity to correct the situation. Id. The Executive Director has the final decision regarding the disciplinary action. Id. Finally, upon receiving the handbook, every employee signs an acknowledgement that states “I understand that the handbook is a set of guidelines and it is not a binding contract and acknowledge that my employment is at-will and NEOCAP can terminate my employment at any time and bypass any disciplinary process if deemed necessary. Id. at pp. 93; Doc. 21-4, pp. 2, ¶10.[5]

         NEOCAP's harassment policy states:

It is the policy of NEOCAP to provide all staff members with a workplace free of harassment as required by Title VII of the Ohio Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended), Section 4112.0 of the Ohio Revised Code, and the Governor's Executive Order 87-30. Every effort will be made to eradicate all forms of harassment.
ALL STAFF MEMBERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR ADHERING TO THIS POLICY; DISCOURAGING HARASSMENT; REPORTING SUCH INCIDENTS TO THE APPROPRIATE PERSON; AND COOPERATING IN ANY INVESTIGATIONS WHICH MIGHT RESULT.

Doc. 21-2 at p. 4 (capitalization in original).

         The Harassment Complaint Procedure states further: “Staff members who believe they have been subjected to harassment will notify any member of management immediately.” Id. at p. 5.

         B. Dawson's employment at NEOCAP and termination

         In her complaint, Dawson alleges that she was personally recruited and hired by Jones. Doc. 1, ¶9. She applied to work at NEOCAP on November 2, 2015. Doc. 23, pp. 45:14-46:5.[6]She applied for the positions of Program Assistant and Resident Supervisor. Doc. 23, pp. 45:24-46:5. However, she was hired as an Executive Secretary to the Director on February 8, 2016. Doc. 1, ¶5. Dawson alleges that, when she was hired, Jones told her that her position as Executive Secretary was to only work for him and that she did not have to take instruction from other personnel unless Jones directed her otherwise. Doc. 23, pp. 54:8-56:1, 58:24-59:19. She continued to work as Jones's Executive Secretary until she was terminated on March 28, 2017. Doc. 1, ¶5.

         1. Dawson's conflicts with Jones and other employees

         During Dawson's employment at NEOCAP, several incidents occurred in which she was in conflict with another employee. First, Dawson and Robert Blower (“Blower”) had a verbal conflict in July 2016. Doc. 23, pp. 64:3-10; Doc. 21-4, ¶2. Jones asked Dawson to start helping Blower with payroll. Doc. 23, p. 64:17-21. The verbal confrontation stemmed from a disagreement between Dawson and Blower as to how overtime should be calculated. Id. Dawson alleged that Blower wanted to fire her for her insubordination but, when Jones spoke to her about the incident, she alleges that Jones said, “You can't be insubordinate to someone who you're not subordinate to.” Id. at pp. 66:24-67:5. Jones also told Dawson that sometimes when she raises her voice it could be taken as aggressive. Id. at p. 68:6-13. This was documented in Dawson's September 2016 performance evaluation. Doc. 21-3, p. 45.

         The second incident occurred in March 2017 when Blower asked Dawson to distribute employees' health insurance cards to their individual mailboxes. Doc. 23, pp. 79:8-23, 80:25-82:7. To distribute the cards, Dawson put a note on the time clock for the employees to see her to get their cards. Id. at pp. 80:16-24. She left the note for employees because there had been previous problems where items in mailboxes had disappeared and she did not want the health cards to be taken. Id. Blower talked to Jones about Dawson's failure to follow directions. Id. at pp. 82:8-85:13. When Jones spoke with Dawson regarding the insurance cards and informed her to put the insurance cards into the mailboxes, Dawson responded by stating, “do not say anything to me if they -- if [the insurance cards] disappear out of the mailboxes.” Doc. 23, pp. 84:4-85:23. Dawson acknowledged that Jones had indicated Dawson raised her voice with him when indicating that he should not blame her if the insurance cards disappeared but did not recall raising her own voice regarding that issue. Doc. 23, p. 8:14-23.

         The final incident occurred roughly a week later on March 22, 2017. Doc. 21-3, p. 48. Dawson was wearing headphones while working at her desk. Id. Jones asked her to remove the headphones. Id. Jones claims that Dawson was argumentative after he asked her to remove her headphones. Id. Dawson alleges that she had worn her headphones while working many times before and no one had said anything to her about it until that day. Doc. 23, p. 129:12-23. After the headphone incident, Jones met with Dawson in his office to discuss her behavior. Doc. 21-3, p. 48. Jones indicated in a personnel file memo that Dawson continued to be argumentative during the meeting.[7] Id. Within the same personnel file memo, Jones indicated that he told Dawson that he “would not accept her argumentative insubordinate behavior toward [him] or . . . Robert Blower, as she did one week [prior] when he asked her to put staff medical cards in their mailboxes [and] . .. [that] type of behavior reaches the[] level of terminable.” Doc. 21-3, pp. 48. Dawson did not recall Jones telling her the foregoing during the March 22, 2017, meeting. Doc. 23, pp. 136:24-137:9.

         2. Non-work related events and Jones's visits to Dawson's house

         a. Non-work related events

         During her deposition, Dawson explained that around June of 2016, Jones required that she assist with and attend non-work related events. Doc. 23, pp. 115:19-116:10; 121:19-22; 124:11-125:5. The non-work related events were related to a cause that Jones was involved with, i.e., the Howland Terrace or Howland Home Reunion, and involved selling t-shirts for that cause and attending the reunion. Doc. 23, pp. 115:19-116:10; 124:11-125:5.

         b. Jones's visits to Dawson's house

         During July 2016, Jones appeared at Dawson's house on three separate occasions. Doc. 30-2, pp. 5-7. On the first occasion, Jones was driving by and saw Dawson working outside so he stopped to talk to her. Id. The second and third visits related to Dawson's request to Jones to borrow NEOCAP's cornhole boards for a party she was throwing. Id. Jones dropped the boards off and later picked them up. Id. On all three occasions, Dawson invited Jones inside and offered him a drink, to which Jones said yes. Id. During one of these visits, Jones explained to Dawson how he gets women who do not want to sleep with him to change their minds. Id. Dawson alleges that the sexually based conduct to which she was subjected was Jones coming over to her house uninvited because he was a married man and her superior and she was an unmarried woman. Doc. 23, pp. 93:12-94:5.

         3. Dawson's termination

         On March 27, 2017, Jones gave Dawson a written reprimand. Doc. 23, pp. 137:22-138:9, 138:23-139:5. The written reprimand stated that it was a follow-up to a recent meeting they had regarding Dawson's continuous argumentative insubordinate behavior. Doc. 21-3, pp. 49. The reprimand also said that Jones spoke with Dawson “many times regarding [her] unacceptable behavior” over the course of her one year of employment. Id. Dawson disagreed that Jones spoke with her many times. Doc. 23, pp. 139:12-22. Additionally, within the reprimand, Jones ordered Dawson to come in the following day, March 28, 2017, with a plan to improve her performance deficiencies. Doc. 21-3, pp. 49. It also advised her that any “future acts of this nature will result in disciplinary actions that may include suspension or termination.” Id.

         The following day, Dawson had an improvement plan typed on her computer. Doc. 23, pp. 146:2-24. When she arrived in the office, she did not have time to print the plan off before she was asked to meet with Jones, but she had some hand-written notes that she grabbed to take into the meeting with her. Id. at pp. 148:3-149:9. Kim Massary, Director of Operations at NEOCAP, was also at the meeting. Id. at pp. 149:15-17. Dawson claims that, when she entered the conference room for the meeting, she relayed that she had something she wanted to say and Jones responded that it would be a waste of her breath and their time but to go ahead and say it. Doc. 23, p. 149:20-24. At that point, Dawson felt she was going to be fired so she opted not to go over the plan she had on her paper and spoke directly to Ms. Massary, explaining that she had followed the onboarding procedure[8] and that she did not understand why she was being fired.[9]Id. at pp. 149:24-150:9. In his write-up of the incident, Jones alleges that Dawson failed to present any plan to correct her behavior but instead said how she was not the problem and that Jones was the problem. Id. at pp. 145:13-23, 151:17-24; Doc. 23-1, p. 47. Dawson was terminated after this meeting. Doc. 21-4, p. 1, ¶ 6; Doc. 23, pp. 155:12-19; Doc. 23-1, p. 47.

         4. Decision by Unemployment Compensation Review Commission

         Dawson filed for unemployment compensation on March 29, 2017. Doc. 30-4, p. 52. Dawson's application for unemployment compensation was initially denied based on a finding that she was terminated for just cause. Doc. 24-2, pp. 1. Dawson then filed an appeal on May 25, 2017. Id. The appeal was granted by the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission (UCRC). Id. at p. 2. The UCRC reasoned that, while Dawson was in the meeting with Jones, “[her] attempt to explain her position may have been argumentative and warranted some type of discipline, it [did] not constitute insubordination sufficient to warrant her immediate discharge.” Id. Therefore, the UCRC determined that Dawson was discharged without just cause so she was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits. Id.

         III. ...


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