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Heintz v. Fayette County Area Vocational Technical School

May 14, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donetta W. Ambrose, Chief U.S. District Judge


Plaintiff (hereinafter, "Heintz") filed a Title VII action alleging, inter alia, gender discrimination. All three Defendants filed summary judgment motions primarily arguing that Heintz's problems at work were not gender-based; rather, they claim her problems resulted from a personal dispute with a co-worker, Defendant Trimbath. Heintz claims that Defendants' argument is pretextual. She claims that both of the individual Defendants ("Jeffreys" and "Trimbath") attempted to establish a personal relationship with her, and as a result of her declining their invitations, her work relationships with each of them deteriorated, creating a hostile work environment. For the reasons set forth herein, I am granting in part and denying in part the motion filed by Trimbath as well as the motion filed on behalf of Jeffreys and Fayette County Vocational Technical School, (hereinafter, "the School").

I. Factual and Procedural Background

The School hired Heintz as an instructional learning support teacher in June of 2000. She also served as the School's Perkins grant coordinator for a period of time. From 2000 to 2002, Heintz claims she was subjected to at least two overtures made by her co-worker, Trimbath, in an attempt to establish a personal relationship with her. Similarly, from 2001 to 2004 Heintz claims she was subjected to three or more overtures made by her supervisor, Jeffreys.*fn1

From October of 2004 and throughout 2005, Heintz complained to Jeffreys about Trimbath's conduct, allegedly suggesting she believed he was harassing her due to her sex. Jeffreys disagrees that Heintz's complaints about Trimbath arose out of gender-based harassment. The parties agree that Heintz complained to Jeffreys about Trimbath's conduct shortly before and after Trimbath lost a union election. Following the election, Trimbath wrote a letter to union members which offended Heintz. Nothing in Trimbath's letter has anything to do with Heintz specifically nor women generally. Heintz wrote a letter to the same union members in response to Trimbath's letter, causing Trimbath to seek legal counsel with respect to Heintz's letter. Trimbath's attorney threatened to sue Heintz for slander. During the course of these events, Heintz complained to Jeffreys about Trimbath's letter and conduct toward her.

Heintz accused Trimbath of physically assaulting her on August 26, 2005 during an in-service educational program. Heintz told Jeffreys that Trimbath pushed her when she attempted to get him to sign an attendance record before the start of the program. Jeffreys reviewed the attendance sheets and confirmed that Trimbath failed to sign the attendance record. Within four days of the alleged incident, Jeffreys formally interviewed six individuals, including Heintz and Trimbath, and recorded their statements. Heintz stated that Jeffreys only spent ten minutes taking her statement and claims that she felt "rushed" by Jeffreys. Trimbath, per his recorded statement, told Jeffreys, "[i]f it [meaning the physical contact with Heintz] happened, it was not because I went after her, I don't remember ever being near her." Of the remaining four people who provided statements, none saw Trimbath push Heintz.

Heintz alleged that she sustained injuries as a result of the August 26, 2005 incident and she received workers' compensation benefits for those injuries, after being rendered unable to work from October of 2005 to January 9, 2006.*fn2 The School did not contest Heintz's workers' compensation claim which established that she had been injured in the course and scope of her employment on August 26, 2005.

After discussing the incident with the School's solicitor, Jeffreys opted not to discipline Trimbath, claiming he lacked sufficient information to do so. Instead, he instructed Trimbath and Heintz to stay away from one another. According to Jeffreys, both before and after the August 26, 2005 incident, Jeffreys asked Trimbath, Heintz and two other people at the School to take anger management classes. None of the four attended such classes and Jeffreys took no further action to ensure that they did.

On September 1, 2005, six days after the alleged assault, Jeffreys and Mr. Fibbi met with Heintz and gave her a warning about her "professionalism," suggesting that she could be part of the next series of staff cutbacks. The parties seem to agree the meeting was called to discuss Heintz's alleged untimely filing of some Perkins-related reports. Given the timing and her belief that the reports were timely filed, Heintz claims the warning was made in response to her complaints about

Trimbath. Jeffreys stated that Heintz resigned as Perkins Coordinator in either 2004 or 2005. Heintz claims Jeffreys pressured her to resign.

The parties agree that when Heintz returned to work on January 9, 2006 following her workers' compensation leave, Jeffreys instructed her to move out of her office. Jeffreys claimed that he did so because her office was a secure room that was needed to store old financial documents. Jeffreys also stated that very few teachers had both classrooms and offices. Heintz disagrees with Jeffreys, claiming that his reasons for stripping her of her office are pretextual in nature because her office was used to store "junk," fifteen teachers had offices while only six did not, and in order for someone to gain access to her former office, now a storage room, the person would have to walk through her classroom. Heintz suggests that for all of these reasons, removing her from her office was purely retaliatory. Both parties agree that there was a delay in getting certain wires and equipment moved out of her office and into her classroom but they disagree as to why, and they disagree as to whether Jeffreys took prompt action to ensure that Heintz had the necessary equipment to be able to work from her classroom.

On January 10, 2006, Heintz received an anonymous threatening note in her school mailbox telling her "not to get too comfortable" because she would not "be there for long." Heintz showed the note to Jeffreys and the police were contacted. An internal investigation into the incident performed by the school yielded no information as to who wrote and/or delivered the note. Heintz complains that Jeffreys did not actually investigate the incident on behalf of the School.

In addition to the note, Heintz's car was keyed on more than one occasion while parked on school property. Heintz complained to Jeffreys, the police were notified, but the vandal was not discovered. The School permitted Heintz to park in a more secure area, but only after her car had been keyed more than once. Heintz complains that Jeffreys' investigation and remediation were inadequate.

Heintz also claims that Trimbath told his students that she had wrongfully accused him of assault in an attempt to "cause trouble" for him. Heintz believes that some of Trimbath's students, in an effort to show their support for Trimbath, vandalized her car and took other actions off school property to intimidate her. Jeffreys admitted that at some point in time Heintz told him that she was afraid of Trimbath.

Heintz filed a complaint with the PHRA and EEOC simultanesously. The complaint indicates: (1) from October of 2004 to October of 2005, Heintz made numerous complaints to Jeffreys about Trimbath harassing her due to her sex; (2) on September 1, 2005, Jeffreys cautioned her to watch her professionalism and warned her that staff cutbacks were imminent and that she could be let go; (3) on January 9, 2006, she was asked to vacate her office, was provided minimal assistance in moving heavy objects, and was deprived of phone and internet lines for a prolonged period of time; (4) after receiving an anonymous, threatening note in her school mailbox and reporting it to Jeffreys, she was ultimately told that nothing could be done; and (5) Jeffreys exacerbated the problems with Trimbath by encouraging her to file a report concerning some of the harassing incidents and then provided a copy of the report to Trimbath.

The PHRC's findings of fact indicate that the Defendants failed to provide information that Jeffreys attempted to develop a personal relationship with Heintz on several occasions. The agency also issued findings related to: (1) Trimbath's alleged physical assault on Heintz; (2) Heintz's decision to submit a workers' compensation claim as opposed to filing a police report against Trimbath with respect to the assault; (3) vandalism to Heintz's vehicle while parked on school property; (4) Heintz's receipt of the anonymous, threatening note; and (5) Heintz's loss of use of her office. Ultimately, the PHRC found that even though Heintz could establish a prima facie case for sexual discrimination, the Defendants articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for their actions, and determined the reasons were not pretextual in nature.

Heintz filed her complaint on August 27, 2007 with this court. I granted in part and denied in part the Defendants' motion to dismiss (docket no.14), ultimately resulting in Heintz filing a second amended complaint on November 14, 2007. The Defendants' arguments for summary judgment are with respect to Heintz's second amended complaint. (See, docket no. 16).

II. Standard of Review

Granting summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing F.R.Civ.P. 56). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

When considering a motion for summary judgment, the courts examine the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. International Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed. 2d 265 (1986).

While summary judgment is usually disfavored in employment discrimination cases, it is appropriate when a plaintiff relies on mere inferences, conjecture, speculation or suspicions. Anderson v. School District of Philadelphia, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4232, 1998 WL 151034, *5 (E.D.Pa. 1998). Similarly, summary judgment may not be granted if there is a disagreement over what inferences can be reasonably drawn from the facts even if the facts are undisputed. Ideal Dairy Farms, Inc. v. Labatt, Ltd., 90 F.3d 737, 744 (3rd Cir. 1996), citing Nathanson v. Medical College of Pennsylvania, 926 F.2d 1368, 1381 (3rd Cir. 1991). Moreover, "any unexplained gaps in materials submitted by the moving party, if pertinent to material issues of fact, justify denial of a motion for summary judgment." Ibid, quoting Ingersoll-Rand Financial Corp. v. Anderson, 921 F.2d 497, 502 (3rd Cir. 1990).

III. Analysis

This opinion addresses both the joint motion for summary judgment filed by the School and Jeffreys as well as the motion for summary judgment filed by Trimbath.

A. Defendants' Request for Summary Judgment on Heintz's Title VII and PHRA Claims

My November 8, 2007 order terminated Heintz's Title VII claims against Jeffreys and Trimbath. Heintz's amended complaint complied with my Order, only raising the Title VII claim with respect to the School. Accordingly, I will address any Title VII argument only as it pertains to the School, but will address any PHRA argument with respect to all three Defendants.

The School requests summary judgment on Heintz's Title VII claim, and the School and Jeffreys request summary judgment on Heintz's PHRA claim, suggesting that these claims are barred because Heintz failed to exhaust her administrative remedies with respect to them. Alternatively, they suggest these claims are also time-barred under the 300-day rule. (See, 42 U.S.C.S. §2000e-5(e)). The School and Jeffreys also contend these claims should be dismissed because Heintz cannot establish a hostile work environment since the acts she complains of were not motivated by her sex, no pervasive and severe discrimination occurred, and because the School took prompt, corrective actions. Trimbath argues that the PHRA claim against him should be dismissed because Heintz failed to produce any evidence that Trimbath aided or abetted the School or Jeffreys in any discriminatory conduct pursuant to 43 Pa.C.S.A. §955(e). In addition, Trimbath points out that he was merely Heintz's co-worker and at no time did he hold supervisory authority over her. I will address each of these arguments in turn.

1. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

Starting with arguments raised by the School and Jeffreys, the law is clear that a plaintiff must exhaust all administrative remedies before bringing a claim for judicial relief. Robinson v. Dalton, 107 F.3d 1018, 1020 (3d Cir.1997) (citing, McKart v. United States, 395 U.S. 185, 193, 89 S.Ct. 1657, 23 L.Ed.2d 194 (1969)). When determining whether a lawsuit is limited to the scope of the administrative charge, the Third Circuit adopted a "fact-specific" approach, requiring a careful examination of the prior pending EEOC complaint and the unexhausted claim on a case-by-case basis. Robinson, 107 F.3d at 1024.

The test in the Third Circuit for exhaustion of administrative remedies is "whether the acts alleged in the subsequent Title VII suit are fairly within the scope of the prior EEOC complaint, or the investigation arising therefrom." Antol v. Perry, 82 F.3d 1291, 1295 (3d ...

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