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Sims v. Met Council

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 22, 2019

Stephanie Sims, Plaintiff,
v.
Met Council, and Metro Transit Authority, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PAUL A. MAGNUSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, the Motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Stephanie Sims was a bus driver for Defendant Metro Transit from September 2013 until July 2017. (Sims Dep. (Ellingstad Decl. Ex. 1) (Docket No. 49-1) at 43.) On Wednesday, January 18, 2017, she walked into the drivers' lounge at one of Metro Transit's bus garages. (Id. at 81.) Playing on the television was a Netflix series called “Luke Cage.” Sims observed nudity on the screen and demanded that the other drivers stop playing the show. (Id. at 81, 84.) She claims that her co-workers argued with her briefly before turning off the television. (Id. at 85-87.) She also contends that she left the lounge and returned, and the show was again playing on the television. (Id. at 90-91.) Her co-workers turned it off after she again complained. (Id. at 111.) It is undisputed that the program in question contained two scenes with nudity, each lasting less than a minute. (Ellingstad Decl. Ex. 2 at 16.)

         Sims now contends that when she arrived at work on the day of the incident, she also overheard a conversation between two other employees, one of whom used the word “boner.” (Sims Dep. at 70.) She does not dispute that the conversation was not about her or directed toward her, nor does she dispute that when she complained to a manager, the employee was immediately counseled about his use of language. (Id. at 73, 74.) She contends that another employee referred to his “johnson” in her presence that day as well but admits that the manager present for that alleged conversation immediately told the employee to stop. (Id. at 76-77.)

         Sims reported the TV-show incident to several managers, all of whom told her they would address the situation. (Id. at 99-101.) They immediately ensured that the television in the lounge was no longer able to connect to the streaming device and that the streaming device was ultimately removed from the garage. (Hill Dep. (Ellingstad Aff. Ex. 3) at 21.) In addition, a manager invited Sims into her office and provided her with Met Council policies regarding sexual harassment and the Union's phone number. (Sims Dep. at 101.) Moreover, the manager of the employee who brought the streaming device counseled him in a one-on-one session, and the other employees present were spoken to about respectful workplace policies and the prohibition on retaliation. (Bailly Dep. (Ellingstad Aff. Ex. 7) at 55.)

         Sims contends that a co-worker called her at home that evening and told her that the drivers in the lounge were angry with her and planned to confront her. (Sims Dep. at 127.) Sims worked without incident on Thursday, but on Friday two of her co-workers again reported that other employees had threatened Sims and were mad at her. (Id. at 145-148.) She reported the alleged threats to her supervisor, who offered Sims several suggestions to help her feel safe. (Id. at 158.) Sims rejected all of the suggestions, and eventually submitted a doctor's note that she could not have any contact with any Metro Transit employees. (Ellingstad Aff. Ex. 14.) As a result, Metro Transit terminated her employment. This lawsuit followed.

         Sims raised six causes of action against Defendants Metro Transit, the Met Council, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local No. 1005. In October 2018, the Court granted the Union's motion to dismiss and dismissed Sims's claims against the Union with prejudice. (Docket No. 29.) Thus, the only two remaining Defendants are Metro Transit and the Met Council.

         Count I of the Complaint claims termination in violation of the MHRA and Title VII against Metro Transit and the Met Council. Count II claims retaliation, but does not list the statutory basis for the claim or the Defendants against whom it is brought. Count III alleges “negligence infliction of emotional distress” against “Defendants and Metro Transit.” Count IV claims respondeat superior liability against Metro Transit and the Met Council. Count V claims vicarious liability as to all three Defendants, arguing that “Defendants” acted within the scope of their employment so their actions should be imputed to Metro Transit and the Met Council. Count VI claims that Defendants were negligent in handling her complaint. Plaintiff's opposition brief does not mention either her negligence claim or her vicarious liability claim, appearing to concede that Defendants' Motion should be granted as to these claims.

         DISCUSSION

         Summary judgment is proper if there are no disputed issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court must view the evidence and inferences that “may be reasonably drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Enter. Bank v. Magna Bank of Mo., 92 F.3d 743, 747 (8th Cir. 1996). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest on mere allegations or denials, but must set forth specific facts in the record showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986).

         A. Sexual Harassment

         Title VII prohibits discrimination “against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).[1]Prohibited discrimination can include “requiring people to work in a discriminatorily hostile or abusive environment.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). A workplace is hostile or abusive when it is “permeated with ‘discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult' that is ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.'” Id. (quoting Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 65, 67 (1986)). The “critical issue . . . is whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed.” Id. at 25 (Ginsburg, J., concurring). The severity of the harassment is judged both objectively and subjectively: “[s]o long as the environment would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive, ” it is actionable. Id. at 22.

         Sims's workplace-harassment claims fail for multiple reasons under these standards. First, her exposure to two brief scenes of nudity on a television in the drivers' lounge cannot “reasonably be perceived . . . as hostile or abusive.” Id. There is no dispute that Sims found the scenes offensive and believes that they created a hostile work environment, but her subjective beliefs are only part of the equation. Considering all of the circumstances in the light most favorable to Sims, and even taking as true her ...


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