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Rice v. Fair

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

April 29, 2019




         This employment dispute is before the Court on three motions: (1) Plaintiff Bernitha Rice's motion for partial summary judgment [51]; (2) a motion for summary judgment [53] filed by Defendant Eddie Fair, in his individual capacity; and (3) a motion for summary judgment [55] filed by Hinds County on behalf of Defendant Eddie Fair in his official capacity. For the following reasons, all motions are denied.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Bernitha Rice worked as a teller in the Hinds County Tax Collector's Office for roughly three months. She claims Eddie Fair, the elected Hinds County Tax Collector, sexually harassed her throughout her brief three months of employment.

         Rice says Fair verbally harassed her, making comments “about how her lips looked and saying he wanted to kiss her lips.” Compl. [1] at 2; see also Rice Aff. [73-1] at 1; Rice Dep. [55-1] at 6. He also allegedly remarked “how he loved the way [she] walked and how her rear fit into her pants, ” suggesting she “was going to find herself in some trouble.” Compl. [1] at 2; see also Rice Aff. [73-1] at 1; Rice Dep. [55-1] at 6. Rice says comments like these occurred two to three times a day during her tenure working for Fair. See Rice Aff. [73-1] ¶ 3. She also alleges physical harassment, describing an incident where Fair rubbed his genitals on her “back right on the rear part of [her] butt.” Rice Dep. [55-1] at 6.

         Rice says the harassment continued outside the office. First, she asserts that Fair repeatedly called and texted her in the evenings. Id.; id. at 9. Second, at an event attended by several office employees, Rice felt uncomfortable when Fair repeatedly complimented her clothing and said “he'd really like to get under [her] skirt.” Id. at 18. Finally, Fair purportedly invited Rice to his home several times and suggested they travel to New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, and the Mississippi Delta together. Id. at 6.

         For his part, Fair denies Rice's factual allegations and insists that her work performance was substandard, citing rude behavior and an inability to handle transactions properly. Fair Aff. [55-5] at 2. On July 7, 2016--less than three months after her arrival--Fair terminated Rice's employment for alleged insubordination. Fair Letter [55-8]. Aggrieved by her termination, Rice filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After receiving notice of her right to sue, Rice filed this action against Fair, in his individual capacity, and Hinds County. Compl. [1].

         In her Complaint, Rice advanced claims of sexual harassment and retaliation, invoking Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause. She has since conceded her Title VII and retaliation claims. As mentioned, all parties have filed motions for summary judgment. Fair and Hinds County both seek dismissal of all claims; Rice asks for partial summary judgment on Defendants' affirmative defense of failure to mitigate damages. Both Defendants declined to file replies in support of their motions, and the time to do so has passed.[1]

         II. Summary-Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) when evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         The party moving for summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323. The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, “but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the court may “not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075; SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1993).

         III. Analysis

         A. Defendants' Motions

         Rice alleges that Fair sexually harassed her at work and ultimately fired her because she resisted his advances, all in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. See Southard v. Tex. Bd. of Criminal Justice, 114 F.3d 539, 550 (5th Cir. 1997) (“Sex discrimination and sexual harassment in public employment violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”). Sexual-harassment claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 follow the same standards as claims under Title VII. See Lauderdale v. Tex. Dep't of Criminal Justice, ...

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