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Stewart v. Durham

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

September 8, 2017




         Before the Court are Belhaven University's motion for sanctions and dismissal, Docket No. 69, as well as its motion for summary judgment, Docket No. 124.[1] The matters are fully briefed and ready for adjudication.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         In 2015, Erica Stewart sought a job in the Online Admissions Department of Belhaven University. She knew Tarold Durham, the director of that office, through social channels. Durham had led her to believe that there would be a vacancy within the Department.

         Stewart and Durham then exchanged a series of sexually explicit text messages and photos. Durham wanted sexual favors in exchange for the job offer, while Stewart kept up flirtatious banter to try and get the job. When no offer materialized, Stewart filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and subsequently commenced this suit against Belhaven and Durham. She asserted a variety of claims under Title VII and Mississippi law.

         Durham-who was fired from Belhaven for his conduct-maintained that the messages were flirtatious and consensual. The record bore that out to the extent that there was no evidence that he had caused Stewart emotional distress. As a result, Durham was dismissed from this case. See Docket No. 98.

         Belhaven now seeks sanctions and summary judgment. It contends that Stewart's case should be dismissed because she disposed of her cell phone in disregard of her obligation to preserve relevant evidence. Alternatively, Belhaven seeks summary judgment because there was no actual job vacancy, Durham was not a supervisor within the meaning of Title VII, and Stewart did not suffer any emotional distress at Belhaven's hands, among other reasons.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Sanctions for Destruction of Evidence

         “Courts agree that a willful or intentional destruction of evidence to prevent its use in litigation can justify severe sanctions.” Rimkus Consulting Grp., Inc. v. Cammarata, 688 F.Supp.2d 598, 618 (S.D. Tex. 2010). “Sanctions for spoliation of evidence may include awarding attorney fees, deeming certain facts admitted, giving an adverse inference instruction to the jury, excluding evidence or expert testimony, striking pleadings, entering a default judgment, and dismissing the case entirely.” Allstate Texas Lloyd's v. McKinney, 964 F.Supp.2d 678, 683 (S.D. Tex. 2013) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Spoliation of evidence may also subject a party to criminal penalties, contempt sanctions, and disciplinary sanctions. Wallace v. Ford Motor Co., No. 3:11-CV-567-CWR-FKB, 2013 WL 3288435, at *5 n.1 (S.D.Miss. June 28, 2013). Much like criminal sentencing, an appropriate discovery sanction will take into account principles of deterrence, restitution, and punishment in proportion to the significance of the violation. McKinney, 964 F.Supp.2d at 682-83.

         Dismissal with prejudice is an extreme sanction. It is appropriate “only if: (1) there is a clear record of delay or contumacious conduct by the plaintiff, and (2) lesser sanctions would not serve the best interests of justice.” Brown v. Oil States Skagit Smatco, 664 F.3d 71, 77 (5th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks and citations omitted). “[I]t is not a party's negligence-regardless of instead, it is the stubborn resistance to authority which justifies a dismissal with prejudice.” McNeal v. Papasan, 842 F.2d 787, 792 (5th Cir. 1988) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         B. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A party seeking to avoid summary judgment must identify admissible evidence in the record showing a fact dispute. Id. at 56(c)(1). “Once a summary judgment motion is made and properly supported, the nonmovant must go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts in the record showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Neither ‘conclusory allegations' nor ‘unsubstantiated assertions' will satisfy the nonmovant's burden.” Wallace v. Tex. Tech Univ., 80 F.3d 1042, 1047 (5th Cir. 1996) (quotation marks and citations omitted).

         The Court views the evidence and draws reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Maddox v. Townsend and Sons, Inc., 639 F.3d 214, 216 (5th Cir. 2011). But the Court will not, “in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.” McCallum Highlands, Ltd. v. Wash. Capital Dus, ...

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