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Pickett v. Mississippi Board of Animal Health

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

January 13, 2020

ANNA KATHERINE PICKETT PLAINTIFF
v.
MISSISSIPPI BOARD OF ANIMAL HEALTH DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KEITH STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         For the reasons below, the Court denies Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [22].

         I. Background

         This is a Title VII retaliation case. In August 2012, Plaintiff began working for Sanderson Farms, a chicken producer in Collins, Mississippi. In December 2016, Sanderson Farms terminated Plaintiff's employment. On March 10, 2017, Plaintiff filed an EEOC charge alleging that Sanderson Farms fired her because of her sex. On June 1, 2017, Plaintiff began working for Defendant, the Mississippi Board of Animal Health, as a poultry epidemiologist. Although Plaintiff did not meet the qualifications for the position, Defendant's Executive Director, James Watson, “made changes . . . to the position requirements to hire her.” Exhibit 2 to Motion for Summary Judgment at 8-9, Pickett v. Miss. Bd. of Animal Health, No. 2:18-CV-214-KS-JCG (S.D.Miss. Oct. 10, 2019), ECF No. 22-2. Watson knew that Sanderson Farms had fired Plaintiff, but he did not know that Plaintiff had filed an EEOC charge.

         In July 2017, Phil Stayer, a veterinarian employed by Sanderson Farms and member of Defendant's Board of Directors, told Watson about Plaintiff's EEOC charge. Stayer expressed concern to Watson that Plaintiff's “presence there would not be a good thing for Sanderson.” Exhibit 11 to Response at 4, Pickett v. Miss. Bd. of Animal Health, No. 2:18-CV-214-KS-JCG (S.D.Miss. Nov. 7, 2019), ECF No. 26-11. Stayer requested that Plaintiff not work with Sanderson's poultry farmers, questioning her ability to fairly apply state regulations.

         Later that month, Watson and his deputy director, Brigid Elchos, met with Plaintiff and asked her about the legal proceedings against Sanderson Farms. Plaintiff admitted that she had filed an EEOC charge against her former employer. According to her, Watson and Elchos “said that if they had known . . . that from the beginning that it might would have affected my employment with the Board of Animal Health . . . .” Exhibit 1 to Motion for Summary Judgment at 29-30, Pickett v. Miss. Bd. of Animal Health, No. 2:18-CV-214-KS-JCG (S.D.Miss. Oct. 10, 2019), ECF No. 22-1. Watson told Plaintiff that he would check with Defendant's lawyer as to whether there was a conflict of interests, but Plaintiff continued to perform her job without any limitation. In August 2017, Watson told Plaintiff that he had received a “tentative ruling” that she was cleared to inspect Sanderson Farms poultry growers. Exhibit 15 to Response at 4, Pickett v. Miss. Bd. of Animal Health, No. 2:18-CV-214-KS-JCG (S.D.Miss. Nov. 7, 2019), ECF No. 26-15.

         On December 15, 2017, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Sanderson Farms, alleging that it had violated Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. Plaintiff continued working full-time as an epidemiologist for Defendant, but she alleges that Defendant's employees began to treat her differently after they learned of her EEOC charge and lawsuit against Sanderson Farms. For example, she claims that her immediate supervisor stopped including her in office work; that Watson began referring to her as a “field inspector, ” rather than as an epidemiologist; that a coworker told her that Watson didn't trust her to take a certain computer home; and that Watson excluded her from certain meetings and from the management of disease outbreaks.

         At the end of Plaintiff's probationary employment period, Watson met with two of Plaintiff's supervisors to evaluate her performance and decide whether she would continue to work for Defendant. One of them told Watson that Plaintiff “was not a good fit for [the] agency.” Exhibit 3 to Motion for Summary Judgment at 34, Pickett v. Miss. Bd. of Animal Health, No. 2:18-CV-214-KS-JCG (S.D.Miss. Oct. 10, 2019), ECF No. 22-3. Accordingly, on April 16, 2018, Watson terminated Plaintiff's employment, effective immediately. According to Plaintiff, he told her, “We decided it's not a good fit, ” and “You're still within your one-year probationary period, so we can fire you without any cause at all.” Exhibit 1 [22-1], at 70-71. He claimed that Plaintiff had not been “trustworthy” because she had not told “the truth from the beginning . . . .” Id. at 71. He said: “Nobody wants to work with someone they can't trust.” Id. He gave her a letter of termination that did not provide a reason for the termination. Exhibit 20 to Response, Pickett v. Miss. Bd. of Animal Health, No. 2:18-CV-214-KS-JCG (S.D.Miss. Nov. 7, 2019), ECF No. 26-20. Likewise, the separation document in Plaintiff's state personnel file does not provide a reason for the termination, but it does provide that Plaintiff did not leave the job “in good standing.” Exhibit 21 to Response, Pickett v. Miss. Bd. of Animal Health, No. 2:18-CV-214-KS-JCG (S.D.Miss. Nov. 7, 2019), ECF No. 26-21.

         After exhausting her EEOC remedies, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against Defendant. She alleges that Defendant fired her in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge and lawsuit against her former employer, Sanderson Farms. Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [22], which the Court now considers.

         II. Standard of Review

         Rule 56 provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if 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); see also Sierra Club, Inc. v. Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010). “Where the burden of production at trial ultimately rests on the nonmovant, the movant must merely demonstrate an absence of evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant's case.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). The nonmovant “must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. “An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Sierra Club, 627 F.3d at 138. “An issue is ‘genuine' if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Cuadra, 626 F.3d at 812.

         The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009). When deciding whether a genuine fact issue exists, “the court must view the facts and the inference to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Sierra Club, 627 F.3d at 138. However, “[c]onclusional allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.” Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff contends that Defendant fired her in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge and lawsuit against her former employer, Sanderson Farms. “Title VII prohibits retaliation against employees who engage in protected conduct, such as filing a complaint of discrimination.” Perez v. Region 20 Educ. Serv. Ctr., 307 F.3d 318, 325 (5th Cir. 2002). To make out a prima face case of retaliation under Title VII, Plaintiff must prove that “(1) she engaged in activity protected under Title VII, (2) an adverse employment action occurred, and (3) there was a causal ...


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