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Henry v. Sterling Collision Centers Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 17, 2017



          Nathaniel M. Gorton United States District Judge

         This case involves allegations of race-based employment discrimination. Plaintiff Tatiana Henry (“Henry” or “plaintiff”) claims that defendant Sterling Collision Centers, Inc. d/b/a Sterling Autobody Centers (“Sterling” or “defendant”) 1) discriminated against her, 2) harassed her and 3) fired her in retaliation for reporting the discrimination all in violation of the Massachusetts Anti-Discrimination Statute, M.G.L. c. 151B (“Chapter 151B”). Sterling's motion for summary judgment is currently pending before the Court. For the reasons that follow, that motion will be, with respect to defendant's request that damages for lost wages be limited to the period before October 23, 2014, allowed but otherwise denied.

         I. Background:

         A. The Parties

         Henry, a woman of African descent who was born in Haiti, currently resides in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Until mid-2014, Sterling operated auto body stores across the United States and was headquartered in Natick, Massachusetts. At that time, Sterling became a wholly owned subsidiary of Service King Paint & Body, LLC (“Service King”). Both Sterling and Service King are incorporated under the laws of Delaware and have principal places of business in Richardson, Texas.

         Henry first started working at Sterling as an accounts payable coordinator in October, 2007. She had no issues with discrimination or harassment during her first stint at Sterling and she left in May, 2011 of her own accord because she was moving out of the state.

         In April, 2013, Henry returned to Massachusetts and was re-hired by defendant to work as an accounts payable coordinator. When she returned to Sterling, Henry was the only black woman on a team of six to seven employees. Her direct supervisor was Deborah McGaughey, who reported to Guy Block. Gavin Fiske was Henry's co-worker.

         During Henry's employment, Sterling had two policies that barred discrimination, harassment and retaliation: 1) its Equal Opportunity Policy and 2) its Freedom from Harassment / Respect in the Workplace Policy. Although Sterling convened a meeting about those policies each year, according to Henry, Mr. Block, who led the meetings, always mocked the policies.

         B. The Group Text Message Incident

         The first incident that plaintiff reported to Sterling's Human Resources Department (“HR”) involved a group text message. In December, 2013, Mr. Fiske sent a text message to coworkers, including Mr. Block and plaintiff, that involved a picture of another co-worker dressed as a character from the movie Star Wars. Plaintiff responded by texting “[oh my god] is that really her?” and “are you cyber stalking the [coworker].” Another person in the group text asked Mr. Fiske if he was “BFF”, which means “Best Friends Forever”, with the coworker. Then a different individual asked if “BFF” stands for “big f****** friend”. At that point, plaintiff texted the group that she was laughing and that “it's Sunday be [holy]”. In February or March of 2014, plaintiff reported the group text messages to Sterling's Assistant Vice President of HR, Cary Varn.

         C. The Racially Offensive Comments

         At that time, plaintiff also reported to HR that Mr. Block had been making racially offensive comments. The parties agree that Mr. Block made the following comments in plaintiff's presence: 1) when she was eating chicken, he asked if it was fried chicken and if she was drinking Kool-Aid, 2) he stated that he was taking Martin Luther King Day off to have fried chicken and “celebrate with black people”, 3) he asked Mr. Fiske if a bottle of hot sauce was for plaintiff and 4) on multiple occasions he said that she looked like the African American singer Macy Gray, especially with respect to her curly hair, and that her hair meant she was “really falling into [her] culture”.

         Plaintiff asserts that Mr. Block's comments about fried chicken, Kool-Aid and Macy Gray were specifically directed toward her, while defendant states that they were simply made in her presence. The parties also disagree about how often the comments occurred. According to plaintiff, Mr. Block made the comments about fried chicken, Kool-Aid and Macy Gray at least once a week in January and February of 2014, while defendant contends that the fried chicken and Kool-Aid comment was made on only one occasion.

         Mr. Fiske, plaintiff's coworker, also asked her if she liked, wanted or drank Kool-Aid about 10 to 15 times between April, 2013 and February, 2014. It is undisputed, however, that plaintiff did not report Mr. Fiske's comments to HR. Plaintiff submits that her supervisors witnessed Mr. Fiske's Kool-Aid comments and laughed about them.

         D. The Investigation of the Text Messages and Comments

         The parties offer differing versions of what happened after plaintiff reported the text messages and comments to HR. Defendant submits that Ms. Varn and the Senior Human Resources Manager, Mike Nuxoll, promptly investigated plaintiff's claims and, in March, 2014, interviewed plaintiff over the phone. During the interview, Ms. Varn and Mr. Nuxoll discussed the text messages and Mr. Block's comments and said that they would speak to him. Defendant also asserts that they inquired about whether plaintiff thought her co-workers retaliated against her for reporting the text messages by not treating her to a birthday lunch. They further asked about co-worker reports that plaintiff talked to herself and drank alcohol at work. Plaintiff vigorously denies that she did either of those things.

         Defendant contends that Ms. Varn and Mr. Nuxoll also interviewed Mr. Block and the other employees involved in the text messages and set up a meeting with plaintiff and Mr. Block after the interviews. In that meeting, Ms. Varn purportedly asked if plaintiff was comfortable with the work environment. Plaintiff stated that she was “fine as long as the harassment doesn't continue”. Mr. Block apologized and said he did not think of plaintiff as black and did not think that she was offended by the comments. After Mr. Block left the meeting, Ms. Varn thanked plaintiff for reporting the issues and said that Mr. Block would receive a verbal warning. Defendant states that it issued verbal warnings to all employees involved, although plaintiff contends that she never received a warning for participating in the text messages.

         Plaintiff asserts, and, for the purpose of summary judgment, defendant does not dispute, that after the HR investigation, Mr. Block commented in her presence that he was not permitted to make statements about fried chicken, Kool-Aid or hair on 10 to 15 separate occasions. Plaintiff states that the comments were hostile and made her uncomfortable but defendant points out that plaintiff did not report the comments to HR because she “didn't think it was harassment”. Plaintiff explains that she did not report the comments because she did not think that HR could help her, the comments were not directed specifically to her and she felt that it would make things worse. She states that she was worried about losing her job and that her supervisor, Ms. McGaughey, laughed about the comments.

         E. Plaintiff's Termination

         In mid-March, plaintiff had her 2013 performance review. Ms. McGaughey rated her “successful” which is the median of Sterling's five employee ratings. Plaintiff claims that she heard Ms. McGaughey say that she was lucky that the review occurred before she complained to HR because if it had been after the complaints it would have been a negative review. How much Ms. McGaughey knew about plaintiff's complaints to HR is disputed. Defendant claims that Ms. McGaughey was aware of the complaint about the text messages but not the complaint about Mr. Block's comments. Plaintiff contends that Ms. McGaughey demonstrated that she had some awareness of the complaint concerning Mr. Block's comments because she heard and laughed in response to his later statements such as “I cannot make comments about fried chicken or I might be reported again”.

         Plaintiff was purportedly terminated for insubordination in response to a reprimand for discussing Service King's upcoming acquisition of Sterling. Defendant submits that Sterling employees were instructed to avoid discussing the acquisition with “outsiders and the media”. Plaintiff asserts that she was never instructed to avoid mentioning the acquisition to other Sterling employees and Sterling assumes the truth of that statement for the purpose of summary judgment.

         In May, 2014, Ms. McGaughey overheard plaintiff discussing the acquisition on the phone, concluded that she was violating the order to avoid discussing it and told her to hang up and started yelling at her. Defendant contends that plaintiff responded by 1) calling Ms. McGaughey “woman”, 2) telling her she was not her mother, 3) saying she was not her child and 4) advising Ms. McGaughey that she needed to show plaintiff some respect. Plaintiff denies the first two allegations but admits to advising Ms. McGaughey that she should be treated respectfully. Ms. McGaughey ...

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