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Hite v. Manor Junior College

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 29, 2018

DEBORAH HITE, Plaintiff,


          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge.

         This is a Title VII case that underscores the importance of factual nuances and context in resolving cases alleging employment discrimination. Plaintiff Deborah Hite is an African American who worked at Manor Junior College for eight months until she resigned in what she asserts was a constructive discharge. She claims that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, racially-based disparate treatment, and retaliation by Defendant Manor College and her supervisor, Defendant John Dempster. She cites a panoply of evidence, including the use of racially charged language by fellow employees and supervisors. Defendants now move for summary judgment on all claims. I find that Plaintiff has set forth prima facie claims for hostile work environment and disparate treatment, and presented evidence suggesting that Defendants' conduct cannot be explained as simply a matter of office management. Defendants' Motion will therefore be denied, except as to Plaintiff's retaliation claim, to which there is no opposition.

         I. Background

         The Third Circuit has cautioned that “a discrimination analysis must concentrate not on individual incidents, but on the overall scenario.” Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1484 (3d Cir. 1990). Because I must view the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the question is whether the evidence, taken as a whole, could lead a reasonable jury to find that Plaintiff Deborah Hite was the victim of racial discrimination. The record in this case is voluminous. Rather than parse the relatively minor deviations in the parties' respective versions of the facts, and the vastly different inferences they ask me to make, I set forth a summary below that resolves disputes and draws reasonable inferences in favor of Plaintiff. See Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 762 n.1 (3d Cir. 1994).

         When Ms. Hite began working for Defendant Manor College as an Admissions Counselor in January 2015, she was the only African American woman in her department.[1]Plaintiff, who has a Master's degree, was hired at a salary of $40, 000 to replace a departing counselor with the same professional credentials who had been earning that amount. On her first day of work, she learned that she earned more than her fellow counselors (none of whom had a Master's), and that her higher salary had already been disclosed to her department in violation of Manor policy. According to Plaintiff, this drew resentment from her colleagues; fellow employees and Defendant Dempster were openly hostile to her as soon as she arrived. She was not introduced to other members of the department, not trained or fully briefed on her duties, and not advised as to her chain of command. (She would later learn, after intervention by Human Resources (HR), that Defendant Dempster was her direct supervisor.)

         Plaintiff further contends that another employee, who was not African American, used the N-word to refer to another person when he was speaking to Plaintiff on her first day. The next week, the same employee used the slur again when he and Plaintiff were in his car, directing Plaintiff's attention to a person of color who he said was sleeping at a red light.[2] Despite Plaintiff telling him that she found the word offensive and racist, he and another employee, who was white, frequently played rap music at a loud volume that included the N-word throughout Plaintiff's time at Manor.

         Plaintiff also maintains that her supervisor, Defendant Dempster, suggested that she was hired based on her race, rather than on merit. Dempster told Plaintiff that another supervisor, who had played a role in her hiring, “thought he was black” and “had a thing for black women”- a preference Dempster “[didn't] understand.” Pl. Dep. 153:3-9, 290:22-24, ECF No. 14-1. Dempster insinuated that this other supervisor might have had a romantic interest in Plaintiff.[3] Dempster also told Plaintiff about a former employee who was an African American woman, and said that he and others would make fun of her and call her “the little brown girl.” Id. at 155:12-16. Plaintiff learned that the employee ultimately sued Manor for race discrimination.

         Plaintiff testified that Defendant Dempster and others subjected Plaintiff to rules that did not apply to other members of the department, and criticized her for conduct that other employees engaged in without reprimand, including purported dress code violations and unkempt desks. The record includes many instances of rude and dismissive behavior toward Plaintiff from co-workers and supervisors alike. Manor's newly-hired HR director observed that Plaintiff's co-workers “will do anything they can to drive [her] out, ” and that Dempster ignored Plaintiff, “showed no respect or caring for [her] or anything she had to say, ” and wanted her fired. HR Notes, ECF Nos. 18-12, 18-13. Following Manor's harassment and discrimination protocol, Plaintiff frequently expressed concerns to HR, Dempster, and other superiors, but received inadequate responses or none at all. In fact, near the end of her time at Manor, Dempster reprimanded Plaintiff for carbon-copying the HR director on emails she sent to Dempster setting forth her concerns, despite the HR director having invited Plaintiff to do so. Plaintiff applied for a promotion, which she did not receive, and told HR several times that she would be forced to leave if conditions did not improve.

         Ultimately, in early September 2015 after a particularly upsetting confrontation with Dempster and another employee, Plaintiff drafted a letter of resignation. She cited harassment and discrimination as her reason for leaving and delivered the letter to Manor's dean. The dean apologized for Plaintiff's experience, commenting that “she [the dean] didn't understand racism” and hoped Plaintiff would be appreciated by a future employer. Pl. Dep. 307:11-22. Plaintiff offered to stay seven additional days in order to complete certain projects affecting students, but was asked to leave the day after delivering her letter, and was escorted out of the building by security. Manor hired a white woman to replace Plaintiff.

         Defendants dispute comparatively few of these facts but suggest non-discriminatory explanations for Plaintiff's negative interactions with her co-workers. Defendants point to evidence that Plaintiff's difficulty acclimating to her position was not related to her race, and claim that her experience improved with the passage of time. There is also evidence that the Admissions Department suffered from prolonged mismanagement, which Manor's top leadership had delayed in addressing because the college was in a period of transition. But that is very much a matter of interpretation. As the Supreme Court has stated: “Context matters. The real social impact of workplace behavior often depends on a constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships which are not fully captured by a simple recitation of the words used or the physical acts performed.” Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 69 (2006) (citation omitted).

         II. Standard

         Defendants' motion is governed by the well-established standard for summary judgment set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, as amplified by Celotex Corporation v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986). At this stage, Plaintiff, the non-movant, may rely on any evidence, including that which “as it stands now is hearsay, ” as long as it is “capable of being admissible” at trial. See Petruzzi's IGA Supermkts. v. Darling-Delaware Co., 998 F.2d 1224, 1235 n.9 (3d Cir. 1993); see also Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 465-66 n.12 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff Hite filed this suit for race discrimination against Manor College under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, and against both Defendants under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 955.[4] She alleges that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, disparate treatment resulting in her constructive discharge, and retaliation. Although Plaintiff's claims arise under both federal and state law, they are appropriately analyzed together because “the standards are the same for purposes of determining the summary judgment motion” in race discrimination cases. See Jones v. Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 198 F.3d 403, 409 (3d Cir. 1999); Crawford v. Verizon Pennsylvania, Inc., 103 F.Supp.3d 597, 603 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (“The same legal standards apply to Title VII and PHRA ...

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