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Owen v. County of Franklin

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

March 6, 2019




         Jennifer Owen filed this action against the County of Franklin, Virginia (the "County") and Robert Andrew Morris. Owen asserts claims of hostile work environment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") against the County, and related claims of assault and battery against Morris. The County has moved for summary judgment on the retaliation claim. The court held a hearing on the motion via teleconference on February 7, 2019. The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the following reasons, the motion will be denied.


         The following facts are either undisputed or presented in the light most favorable to Owen. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc.. 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (emphasizing that "[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor," when ruling on a motion for summary judgment).

         In December of 2013, the County hired Owen to work as a building inspector. Owen Dep. 11, Dkt. No. 109-1. Morris became the County Building Official and Owen's head supervisor in November of 2014. Morris Dep. 27, 47-48, Dkt. No. 109-15. Morris remained in that position for the duration of Owen's employment.

         Within months of becoming Owen's supervisor, Morris began to sexually harass her. Id. 101. The harassment began with comments regarding the plaintiffs attractiveness, which Morris made in person and in text messages. Id. 47-48. When the comments were made at work, Owen would point to a photograph of Morris' wife and ask him to "stop." Id. 48. Rather than doing so, Morris engaged in increasingly inappropriate conversations with Owen. For instance, Morris asked Owen how she had lost her virginity. Id. 106. When Owen refused to answer his question, Morris proceeded to describe his first sexual experience in detail. Id. 106. Morris also made sexual advances via text message, asked Owen to send him inappropriate photographs of herself, offered to perform oral sex on Owen, and told Owen they were going to "do it" and "she was going to like it." Id. 123, 125, 127-28, 154-55. Owen reminded Morris that he was married with four children and asked him to "stop." Id. 126. Rather than doing so, Morris requested that Owen perform oral sex on him for his birthday. Id. 127.

         In the summer of 2015, Morris began to engage in inappropriate physical contact. Id. 35. Morris touched Owen's breasts on several occasions. Id. 146; see also id. ("[H]e would come up behind me and grope me and grab me."). He also "forced [Owen] to kiss him many times," "tried to force her to feel his penis," and "placed his hand on [her] genital area" while she was driving. Id. 146-47, 150-52.

         Lewis Turner, another County employee in Owen's chain of command, also made comments of a sexual nature to the plaintiff. Turner showed Owen photographs of women and ask her if she thought the women's breasts were real or fake. Id. 39. Turner also engaged in "drunk texting," during which he sent Owen inappropriate messages. Id. 42.

         Owen complained to Morris about Turner's behavior, but "nothing changed." Id. 40. Instead, as the year progressed, Owen's work environment worsened, and she began to fear that Morris would hurt her or terminate her employment. Id. 71. Morris advised Owen that she would be immediately fired if he ever saw her enter the area of the building where the County's human resources ("HR") department was located. Id. 71-72.

         In November of 2015, Owen made it clear that she was not going to tolerate Morris' behavior any longer. While Owen was sitting at her desk, Morris approached her from behind, placed his hands down her shirt and under her bra, and squeezed her breasts. Id. 147. In response, Owen slapped her fist on the desk and said, "That's it ... . You're going to stop touching me now. No. more. Leave me alone. Stop." Id.

         Owen contends that Morris' demeanor subsequently changed. He became "cold" and "mean," and imposed restrictions on the plaintiff. Id. 155. For instance, Morris told Owen that she was no longer allowed to bring food from home or exercise during her lunch break, and that she would be required to go out to eat with "the guys." Id. 157. Morris also made Owen return her work vehicle. Id. 158.

         On February 5, 2016, Morris and Turner met with Owen in a conference room. Id. 61. During the meeting, Morris presented the plaintiff with a bulleted list of alleged reasons to terminate her employment. Id. He advised Owen that should could either quit her job or be fired. Id.

         After meeting with Owen, Morris asked Patricia Barnes, an HR official, to prepare a "Notice of Intent to Terminate" letter. Barnes Dep. 42, Dkt. No. 109-2. The letter advised Owen that she would have three days to respond to the proposed course of action before Morris made a final decision. Notice of Intent to Terminate, Dkt. No. 109-7.

         Owen met with Barnes after work that same day in Barnes' office. Owen Dep. 65. During the meeting, Owen told Barnes that Morris had made sexual advances toward her and that she had rejected his advances. Id. 65-66. Owen also indicated that the asserted reasons for her proposed termination were "fabrications" and that Morris was retaliating against her for "standing up ...

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