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Ponte v. Steelcase Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 25, 2013

NICOLE PONTE, Plaintiff,
v.
STEELCASE INC., Defendant

Page 56

For Nicole Ponte, Plaintiff: John A. Markey, LEAD ATTORNEY, Moses Smith and Markey LLC, New Bedford, MA.

For Steelcase Inc., Defendant: Sean P. O'Connor, LEAD ATTORNEY, Tracy Thomas Boland, Morgan, Brown & Joy, LLP, Boston, MA.

OPINION

Page 57

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Nathaniel M. Gorton, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff alleges that defendant, her former employer, violated Massachusetts and federal law by tolerating purported sexual harassment by her supervisor and by later terminating her employment in retaliation for her complaints about the same. Defendant moves for summary judgment on all claims.

By prior order, the Court ruled that defendant's motion for summary judgment would be allowed and plaintiff's Complaint would be dismissed in accordance with a memorandum to follow. The Court now publishes that memorandum, allows defendant's motion and dismisses the case.

I. Factual Background

A. Parties

Defendant Steelcase Inc. (" Steelcase" ) is a Michigan company that manufactures furnishings and offers services for the workplace, primarily by selling them through dealers located throughout the United States and elsewhere. Steelcase markets and sells its healthcare products and services through a brand called Nurture.

Plaintiff was hired in June, 2010 to be the Area Healthcare Sales Manager for New England in the Nurture Division of Steelcase. In that role, two of plaintiff's key duties were to meet sales goals and to maintain and develop relationships with defendant's clients, including its dealers who directly sold those products. Plaintiff remained employed in that position until her termination in May, 2011. During the 11 months of her employment Mr. Robert Lau was plaintiff's direct supervisor.

B. Incidents of Alleged Sexual Harassment

As part of her training, plaintiff attended orientation along with other newly hired managers at defendant's headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan in July, 2010. One evening, Lau hosted a dinner for plaintiff and three of her colleagues, Benjamin Pratt, Jared Mejeur and Robin Goldhawk. Upon its conclusion, although he was staying elsewhere, Lau purportedly insisted on driving plaintiff back to her hotel. During the ride, Lau rested his arm on the top of plaintiff's seat and, as he did so, Lau's hand touched plaintiff's shoulder for about one minute.

The nature and purpose of the ride is disputed. According to plaintiff, while Lau was touching her shoulder, he told her that he " did a lot to get [her the] job" and that she " needed to do the right thing by him." Plaintiff felt uncomfortable and later testified that she believed Lau wanted to make sure she knew that she " owed him." Defendant claims, meanwhile, that Lau offered to drive plaintiff home merely because he wanted to check in with his new hire, whom he would see infrequently because the two worked in different cities. Defendant further notes that Lau removed his hand after a minute of his own accord and without plaintiff asking him to do so.

Page 58

Although defendant disputes her claim, plaintiff recalls the scenario repeating itself a second time during her orientation, following another dinner with Lau and three colleagues. On that second occasion, Lau rested his arm on plaintiff's seat for the duration of the car ride, approximately 15 to 25 minutes, while his hand again touched her shoulder.

Plaintiff discussed her discomfort regarding her car rides with Lau with two of her peer trainees, Mejeur and Goldhawk, and told them, in so many words, that Lau had " tried to hit on her" and that she was " taken aback" by his actions. She did not report any concerns about Lau to any other personnel at defendant at that time.

C. Lau's Concerns about Plaintiff's Performance

Lau began documenting concerns about plaintiff's performance from approximately the beginning of her tenure with defendant. Some of those concerns came from defendant's own staff. In approximately July, 2010, plaintiff's human resources contact, Mary Chestnut, reported to Lau that plaintiff was having difficulty completing the " on-boarding process" which consisted of administrative tasks that all new employees had to complete. Later, in January, 2011 when plaintiff completed her required training, plaintiff's trainer provided negative feedback to Lau about plaintiff's performance, including concerns about her professionalism, and particularly her late arrival to training sessions and use of her smartphone while attending them.

Lau also documented concerns based upon complaints he received from two dealers located within plaintiff's sales territory. Plaintiff's contact at one such dealer, Susan Hughes, complained to Lau that plaintiff was late to her first meeting with Ms. Hughes and the client's CEO, in or around late June, 2010. Ms. Hughes reported that when plaintiff did arrive, she appeared disorganized and unprepared. Plaintiff failed to appear at all for her second meeting with the same client. In March, 2011, Lau received a second complaint from plaintiff's contact at another dealer, who opined that plaintiff had difficulty communicating well with her and had " not made a positive impact" for defendant. In response to that complaint, Lau organized a meeting between Ms. Ludlow and plaintiff later that month in an attempt to foster their reconciliation, to which plaintiff arrived one hour late.

In response to these concerns, Lau arranged for plaintiff to receive additional feedback and supervision. He communicated directly with plaintiff concerning the development of plaintiff's " soft skills." Beginning in June, 2010, he arranged for plaintiff to meet with another sales manager at defendant to provide additional assistance. Lau also conducted weekly phone conferences with plaintiff, beginning in August, 2010. Both steps reflected additional ...


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