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Houck v. ESA, Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Dakota

June 12, 2014

DONNA HOUCK, Plaintiff,
ESA, INC., and WILLIAM ENGEL, JR., Individually, Defendants.


KAREN E. SCHREIER, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Donna Houck, brought this suit against defendants, ESA, Inc., and William Engel, Jr., asserting various claims arising out of her employment at ESA. ESA and Engel move for summary judgment. Houck resists the motion. The motion is granted as to Engel, and granted in part and denied in part as to ESA.


The facts, viewed in the light most favorable to Houck, the nonmoving party, are as follows:

ESA is a company based out of North Sioux City, South Dakota. Houck began working as an accountant at ESA in January 2010. Around the same time, ESA also hired Pam Todd as an assistant to Houck. Engel worked as a project manager for ESA and spent roughly 40-50 percent of his time in the field and the rest in the ESA office. ESA is owned by Dennis "Mike" Mitchell, who supervised Houck on a day-to-day basis. Engel and Mitchell were close friends. Houck and Todd were also friends.

In March 2010, Todd began dating Engel. Around this time, Houck's contact with Engel began to increase. This contact included text messages, emails, and jokes, which Houck found inappropriate, including two animated sexual text messages and one pornographic email. Houck also testified that Engel would make comments such as "Mmm, nice breasts, " and other sexually suggestive remarks. Docket 25-1 at 6. Additionally, Engel would make sexual comments to Houck about Todd and sexual gestures while standing in the door of Houck's office. Houck told Engel that he was "disgusting, " but she never filed a formal complaint regarding Engel's behavior. Docket 25-1 at 3.

After receiving a sexual image via text message from Engel some time in April or May 2010, Houck told Engel to stop sending her messages and to stop coming by her office. Engel stopped contacting Houck, but he continued to contact Todd during the workday. Todd's work suffered as a result. On July 8, 2010, Houck told Todd that Todd was spending too much time with Engel and that it was negatively impacting the quality of her work.

The following Monday, July 12, 2010, Houck was fired[1] by Engel. Houck recalled the conversation between herself and Engel as follows:

A: I think it was Monday. Yes, it was Monday morning. I came in to work, came into my office, turned on my computer, went out to get a cup of coffee, came back into my office. And, as I did, Bill Engel followed me in and shut the door behind him. And I sat down at my desk, and he sat in the chair in front of me and said: "We're going to fire you anyway, but I'm going to give you a chance to leave with dignity. You've been bad-mouthing me and others, and we don't want you here anymore." I don't remember exactly what he said.
Q: I understand that.
A: But it was basically that gist.
Q: So he said, "We're going to anyway, " meaning -
A: Yes.
Q: - that he, Bill Engel, couldn't do it; but, "I'm giving you a heads-up that Mike [Mitchell] is going to fire you." Is that the way you understood it?
A: That's what I understood, yes.
Q: And "Hey, you could quit now and avoid being fired"?
A: Yes.

Docket 25-1 at 6. Following that conversation with Engel, Houck packed her belongings and left ESA, believing she had been terminated.

Houck testified that even though Engel was not technically her supervisor, she understood that "whatever [Engel] wanted he would get; Mr. Mitchell would pretty much go along with whatever he wanted; and that, if he didn't like me he could get rid of me. He made that very clear to me." Id. at 2. Houck also testified that she did not report Engel's conduct to Mitchell "because I didn't think it would do any good, because, from my observations, it seemed that Mr. Mitchell didn't care what Bill Engel did. And Bill Engel had told me that he could do whatever he wanted." Id. at 8. Additionally, Houck testified that she could not remember if she was ever given a copy of the ESA employee handbook containing its sexual harassment reporting policy. Id. at 7.

Following her termination from ESA, Houck filed suit in this court. She alleges that ESA and Engel engaged in gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation prohibited under Title VII. She also alleges claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract, and she seeks to hold ESA liable under a theory of vicarious liability. She requests both compensatory and punitive damages.


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). The moving party must present admissible evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact or must show that the nonmoving party has not presented admissible evidence to support an element of the case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). If the moving party meets its burden, "[t]he nonmoving party may not rest on mere allegations or denials, but must demonstrate on the record the existence of specific facts which create a genuine issue for trial.'" Mosley v. City of Northwoods, Mo., 415 F.3d 908, 910 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Krenik v. Cnty. of Le Sueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 1995)).

Summary judgment should not be granted if there is a material factual dispute that could affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The court views the facts and the inferences drawn from such facts "in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 588 (1986).


I. Title VII Claims

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees with respect to their compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Additionally, an employer may not retaliate against an employee because the employee opposed an unlawful employment practice. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).

Before reaching the Title VII claims themselves, the court will address the issue of Engel's individual liability. Engel argues that individuals cannot be held liable under Title VII. Docket 26 at 16. Houck contests this argument but provides no controlling authority on that point. See Docket 27 at 17-21 (discussing Title VII, agency principles, and congressional intent). In fact, the only Eighth Circuit case cited by Houck notes the "clear consensus" that Title VII does not impose personal liability on co-workers or supervisors. See Lenhardt v. Basic Inst. of Tech., Inc., 55 F.3d 377, 381 (8th Cir. 1995). Following Lenhardt, the Eighth Circuit has held that Title VII does not impose personal liability on either supervisors or co-workers. See Van Horn v. Best Buy Stores, L.P., 526 F.3d 1144, 1147 (8th Cir. 2008) ("The district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Clark on the Title VII claim because that law does not provide for an action against an individual supervisor...."); Powell v. Yellow Book USA, Inc., 445 F.3d 1074, 1079 (8th Cir. ...

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