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Thirkield v. Neary & Hunter OB/GYN, LLC

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 2, 2015

KIMBERLY THIRKIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
NEARY & HUNTER OB/GYN, LLC, DR. TODD HUNTER, FAYE HUNTER, KATHY CREGG and PAUL RIETH Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Kimberly Thirkield, Plaintiff: Michael O. Shea, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael O. Shea, P.C., Wilbraham, MA; Daniel J. O'Connell, O'Connell, Plumb & MacKinnon, P.C., Springfield, MA.

For Dr. Todd Hunter, Faye Hunter, Kathy Cregg, Paul Rieth, Neary & Hunter OB/GYN, LLC, Defendants: Colleen Cushing Towle, Bowditch & Dewey LLP, Boston, MA; David M. Felper, Bowditch & Dewey LLP, Worcester, MA.

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ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OF DECISION ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docket No. 68)

TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN, DISTRICT JUDGE.

Introduction

This is an action brought by Kimberly Thirkield against Defendants Neary & Hunter OB/GYN, LLC, Dr. Todd Hunter, Faye Hunter, Kathy Cregg and Paul Rieth for violations of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Plaintiff alleges that she was sexually harassed in the workplace (Counts I, III and V), that she was retaliated against for reporting the sexual harassment (Counts II, IV, VI, VIII, X, and XII), and that certain defendants aided and abetted the harassment and retaliation (Counts VII, IX, XI). For the reasons that follow, the Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted as to all claims except Count V.

Background

This lawsuit arises out of alleged sexually harassing conduct by Defendant Faye Hunter toward other employees of Neary & Hunter OB/GYN. Neary & Hunter OB/GYN is small, family-run obstetrics and gynecology practice located in Worcester, Massachusetts. The practice is owned and operated by Dr. Brenda Neary and Defendant Dr. Todd Hunter (" Dr. Hunter" ). Plaintiff Kimberly Thirkield (" Plaintiff" ) worked as a medical assistant at Neary & Hunter from January 2010 to April 2012. Defendant Faye Hunter (" Faye" or " Faye Hunter" ) is the daughter of Dr. Hunter and worked as a receptionist at Neary & Hunter from January 2011 to August 2013. Defendants Kathy Cregg (" Cregg" ) and Paul Rieth (" Rieth" ) are the Office Manager and Practice Manager at Neary & Hunter, respectively. Their job responsibilities include developing and implementing office policies and procedures, as well as handling employee-related disputes, discipline, or other issues. Julie Hunter--the wife of Dr. Hunter and mother of Faye Hunter--also works as a medical assistant at Neary & Hunter, although she is not a named party in this lawsuit. Cregg is Julie Hunter's sister and Faye's aunt. Neary & Hunter OB/GYN additionally employs a handful of other medical assistants, medical secretaries, and/or other staff.

Plaintiff's complaint asserts that on multiple occasions, Faye Hunter sexually harassed Plaintiff by groping her and making sexualized comments toward her. Plaintiff also alleges that Faye engaged in similar conduct toward other employees of Neary & Hunter, and that Plaintiff found this offensive. Plaintiff informed her supervisor, Defendant Cregg, of Faye's conduct for the first time on February 29, 2012. Plaintiff provided a handwritten list to Cregg that described the following incidents:

1) On January 25, 2012, while Plaintiff was in the office phone room, Faye Hunter grabbed Plaintiff's breasts and said " oh, you know you want it." Plaintiff backed away and told Faye Hunter to stop and that such conduct was inappropriate.
2) On February 12 or 13, 2012, while Plaintiff was in the office lunch room, Faye Hunter grabbed Plaintiff's breasts. Plaintiff again backed away and told Faye Hunter to stop and that such conduct was inappropriate. Faye Hunter told Plaintiff to " lighten up."
3) On February 22, 2012, Plaintiff witnessed Faye Hunter grab the breasts of another employee, Tara Doherty, in the office phone room. Doherty was laughing and commented " it doesn't bother me."
4) On February 29, 2012, while Plaintiff was just outside the office lunchroom, Faye Hunter placed her left hand on

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Plaintiff's buttocks, winked at Plaintiff, and walked away.

After Plaintiff provided these details to Cregg, Cregg informed Rieth of Plaintiff's report. Cregg and Rieth subsequently met with Plaintiff to discuss her allegations against Faye. During that meeting, Cregg and Rieth apologized to Plaintiff, stated that Faye's conduct was unacceptable in an office setting, assured Plaintiff they would speak with Faye about the inappropriate touching, and stated that they would follow up with Plaintiff after the meeting with Faye. Plaintiff requested that her complaint be kept confidential because she was fearful of being chastised by other employees in the small family office. At the end of the meeting, Plaintiff expressed her gratitude to Cregg and Rieth for addressing her concerns.

At some point during February 2012, medical assistant Alexandra Cook was also made uncomfortable by Faye's touching and sexualized comments. In late February, Cook reported Faye's conduct to Cregg, although the parties dispute the precise date that this occurred. In hopes of showing that Neary & Hunter management should have acted to stop Faye's touching earlier, Plaintiff claims that Cook first reported Faye's sexually harassing conduct several days before February 29, 2012. The Defendants, as well as Cook herself, assert that Cook's meeting with Cregg occurred on February 29, 2012--the same day that Plaintiff reported Faye.

On March 2, 2012, Cregg and Rieth met with Faye regarding the incidents of alleged touching. The parties disagree about the details of that meeting, and about whether Cregg and Rieth followed up with Plaintiff following the meeting with Faye. It is undisputed that Cregg and Rieth told Faye that touching other employees in the office was inappropriate, and that Plaintiff did not experience any further inappropriate touching. However, Plaintiff claims that Faye's conduct did not stop, because she witnessed Faye grab Alexandra Cook's breasts again in late March. Cook denies that the incident in late March ever occurred.

Although Plaintiff was not touched again by Faye after she reported the harassment, things at work did not improve. Plaintiff says that after she told her supervisors about Faye's conduct, other employees began to ignore her. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Faye Hunter, Julie Hunter, and employees Tara Doherty and Mary Jo Peters began giving her the " cold shoulder" in retaliation for reporting Faye's sexually harassing conduct. Plaintiff makes no claim that she was disciplined, lost pay, or lost benefits as a result of reporting Faye's touching. However, Plaintiff alleges that the work environment was so hostile that she had no choice but to leave Neary & Hunter.

On April 2, 2012, Plaintiff met with Dr. Neary to resign. Plaintiff initially indicated to Dr. Neary that one of the reasons for her resignation was that she was not getting enough hours. Plaintiff went on to explain, however, that another motivation for her resignation was the sexual harassment by Faye and the " cold shoulder" she experienced from other employees after reporting Faye's conduct to Cregg and Rieth. Prior to Plaintiff's resignation, neither Dr. Neary nor Dr. Hunter were aware of Plaintiff's allegations against Faye.

Based on the circumstances leading to her resignation, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Neary & Hunter OB/GYN with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on April 30, 2012. Plaintiff filed the instant action against the Defendants on August 31, 2012.

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Discussion

Summary Judgment Standard


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