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Reed v. Department of Corrections

United States District Court, Western District of Virginia, Roanoke Division

May 15, 2015

KRISTIE ST. CLAIR REED, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS/COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

On September 23, 2014, a jury found in favor of Plaintiff Kristie St. Clair Reed on her claim that she was terminated in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The case is now before the court on a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law filed by Defendant Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC"). For the following reasons, the court will deny that motion.

Factual and Procedural History

The facts of this case are outlined in detail in the court's memorandum opinion granting in part and denying in part VDOC's motion for summary judgment. See Docket No. 35. Thus, only a brief summary follows here.

Reed worked as a senior correctional officer at Bland Correctional Center ("BCC") in Bland, Virginia from 2007 until she was terminated in 2012. Reed asserts that she was sexually harassed by her co-worker, Sergeant James Mitchell, from 2009 to 2012. Although Reed claims that she mentioned Mitchell's harassment to her immediate supervisor shortly after it began, she agrees that she did not formally report the harassment to BCC officials until April 8, 2012, one day after she was reprimanded for failing to remain "on post" while working as a dorm officer in "One Top, " one of BCC's dormitories. On May 18, 2012, Reed was terminated from her position, purportedly based on her disciplinary record as a whole. Reed brought this action against VDOC on November 15, 2013, alleging in part that VDOC had actually terminated her in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.

On September 22-23, 2014, a bifurcated jury trial was conducted on Reed's claims of gender discrimination and retaliation. At the close of Reed's evidence and again before the case was submitted to the jury, VDOC moved for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Reed had not presented sufficient evidence of a casual connection between her protected activity and her termination. The court denied VDOC's motions, and the jury returned a verdict in Reed's favor on her retaliation claim. After the jury returned this verdict, Reed and VDOC agreed to forego the damages phase of the trial. Instead, the parties stipulated to the applicable amount of compensatory damages, and submitted the issues of back pay and attorney's fees to the court for decision. See Docket Nos. 41, 48. The court entered final judgment in Reed's favor on November 13, 2014. See Docket No. 62. VDOC then filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The motion has been fully briefed and was argued on February 20, 2015. It is ripe for review.

Standard of Review

Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to renew its motion for judgment as a matter of law following the jury's verdict and the entry of judgment. The court may grant such a motion only if it finds that a "reasonable jury would not have had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). The court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Lack v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.. 240 F.3d 255, 259 (4th Cir. 2001). It cannot substitute its judgment for that of the jury by reweighing the evidence or making credibility determinations. Price v. City of Charlotte, 93 F.3d 1241, 1250 (4th Cir. 1996). The court should "accord the utmost respect to jury verdicts and tread gingerly in reviewing them." Id. Thus, when a jury has deliberated and returned a verdict in favor of the non-movant,

a court may set aside the verdict only if there exists such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or the evidence in favor of the movant is so overwhelming that reasonable and fair minded persons could not arrive at a verdict against it.

Cash v. Cnty. of Erie, 654 F.3d 324, 333 (2d Cir. 2011).

Discussion

To prevail on a Title VII retaliation claim, absent direct evidence of retaliation, a plaintiff "must first establish a prima facie case of retaliation, whereupon the burden shifts to the employer to establish a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the [adverse employment] action." Price v. Thompson. 380 F.3d 209, 212 (4th Cir. 2004). Once the employer does so, "the plaintiff must then show that the employer's proffered reasons are pretextual." Id. "More specifically, the plaintiff can prove pretext by showing that the explanation is unworthy of credence or by offering other forms of circumstantial evidence sufficiently probative of [retaliation]." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

To initially establish a prima facie case of retaliation, Reed must show that (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) VDOC took adverse action against her; and (3) a causal relationship exists between the two. Id. Reed has done so here. She engaged in protected activity when she reported Mitchell's sexual harassment on April 8, 2012. See Trial Tr. at 112, September 23, 2014 ("Day 2 Tr."), Docket No. 54; Trial Tr. at 52, Sept. 22, 2014 ("Day 1 Tr."), Docket No. 55. VDOC took an adverse employment action against her approximately five weeks later, when Warden Larry Jarvis terminated her on May 18, 2012. Day 1 Tr. at 62. The temporal proximity between Reed's protected activity and her termination "gives rise to a sufficient inference of causation to satisfy the prima facie requirement." King v. Rumsfeld, 328 F.3d 145, 151 (4th Cir. 2003) (ten-week period sufficiently close to raise inference of causality); see Williams v. Cerberonics, Inc., 871 F.2d 452, 457 (4th Cir. 1989) (stating that although temporal proximity alone "far from conclusively establishes the requisite causal connection, it certainly satisfies the less onerous burden of making a prima facie case of causality").

The burden thus shifts to VDOC to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for Reed's termination. See Price, 380 F.3d at 212. VDOC has done so. On April 30, 2012, Jarvis issued Reed a "Group II Notice" based on a report written by Reed's watch commander, Captain Larry Shelton, which indicated that Reed had been absent from her post on April 7, 2012. Day 2 Tr. at 28-29. Specifically, Shelton's report stated that he observed Reed "sitting in the office chair, talking on the telephone" instead of patrolling the dormitories as required by her post orders. See PL's Ex. 7, Docket No. 44. Reed had two prior disciplinary infractions on her record, so this third notice gave Jarvis the discretion to terminate her. Day 1 Tr. at 62. Jarvis testified ...


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