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Clayton v. Sioux Steel Co.

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division

October 22, 2018




         Plaintiff Debra-Lyn Clayton (Clayton) sued her former employer Defendant Sioux Steel Company (Sioux Steel) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Doc. 1. She asserted claims for racial discrimination, sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation.[1] Doc. 1. Sioux Steel has moved for summary judgment on all claims, Doc. 13, which Clayton opposed, Doc. 18. For the reasons explained below, this Court grants Sioux Steel's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Fact Not Subject to Genuine Dispute[2]

         On March 15, 2010, Clayton began employment with Sioux Steel as a shipping clerk. Doc. 14 at ¶ 1; Doc. 19 at ¶ 1. Part of Clayton's job duties were to produce internal and external reports, coordinate operations, and direct support staff. Doc. 1 at ¶ 8. Clayton's position also required her to have interactions with co-workers, customers, and third-party vendors. Doc. 1 at ¶ 8; Doc. 14 at ¶ 2; Doc. 19 at ¶ 2.

         Clayton identifies several incidents at work to support her claims. First, in 2013 or 2014, a supervisor[3] made a statement to another co-worker about Clayton engaging in sexual activities with men in the woman's restroom at work. Doc. 1 at ¶ 10; Doc. 15-1 at 26. Clayton confronted the supervisor and the supervisor stated he would stop making such statements. Doc. 15-1 at 26. Clayton never heard the statement again and did not to report the incident to Human Resources (HR). Doc. 15-1 at 26.

         Sometime during this same period, co-worker Autrie Kimble (Kimble) told other coworkers that Clayton was having affairs at work. Doc. 1 at ¶ 10; Doc. 15-1 at 26. Clayton was told by a co-worker about the statement made by Kimble, and then never heard the comment again. Doc. 15-1 at 26-27. Clayton's supervisor knew Clayton was upset for some reason, but Clayton declined to disclose to the supervisor why she was upset because Kimble is associated with Clayton's ex-husband. Doc. 15-1 at 27.

         Also in 2013 or 2014, during an "in-house" weight loss challenged designed to improve employee health, co-worker Sarah Larson (Larson) approached Clayton and asked her if she cheated by wearing ankle weights during a weigh in. Doc. 1 at ¶ 10; Doc. 15-1 at 27. Clayton stated in her deposition that Larson approached her and asked her about cheating "because she got caught, too." Doc. 1 at ¶ 10; Doc. 15-1 at 27. Clayton reported this conversation to Supervisor Craig Stein (Stein) who discussed the situation with HR. Doc. 15-1 at 27. Clayton was required to re-weigh in, but she did not hear the rumor again. Doc. 15-1 at 27. Clayton admitted in her deposition that she has "no idea" how this incident is related to race or sex discrimination. Doc. 15-1 at 27.

         On December 16, 2014, co-worker Justin Wulf (Wulf) stated to Clayton, "I was told you're a lesbian. Are you a lesbian?" Doc. 1 at ¶ 10; Doc. 15-1 at 28. Wulf explained that the reason he asked was because co-worker Troy Brown (Brown) told him that Clayton was a lesbian. Doc. 15-1 at 28. Clayton confronted Brown about his alleged statements, and Brown then complained to Sioux Steel management about Clayton because he felt threatened by Clayton. Doc. 14 at ¶ 44; Doc. 19 at ¶ 44. Shipping Manager Dan Lueders (Lueders) and Director of Human Resources Mi Jess[4] (Jess) met with Clayton to obtain her account of the encounter. Doc. 14 at ¶ 45; Doc. 19 at ¶ 45. Clayton was advised to report this type of conduct to management should it occur again to allow management to initiate appropriate review. Doc. 14 at ¶ 45; Doc. 19 at ¶ 45. Wulf received a Final Conduct Corrective action on December 18, 2014, for sharing rumors and disrupting the workplace by asking Clayton if she was a lesbian. Doc. 14 at ¶ 47; Doc. 19 at ¶ 47. On December 19, 2014, Clayton received a Final Conduct Corrective Action for conducting her own investigation in a threatening manner. Doc. 14 at ¶ 46; Doc. 19 at ¶ 46.

         In January 2015, co-worker Ibrahim Ibrahim (Ibrahim) was speaking Arabic on the phone to his mother overseas. Doc. 14 at ¶ 49; Doc. 15-1 at 35. After Ibrahim ended the conversation, Clayton said: "Why can't you just talk English so we can understand?"[5] Doc. 15-1 at 35. On February 10, 2015, following an investigation into this incident, Clayton received a Final Conduct Corrective Action for making inappropriate statements. Doc. 14 at ¶ 50; Doc. 19 at ¶ 50.

         Clayton, in her brief in opposition to summary judgment, pointed to three other incidents she discussed in her deposition to support her claims. Doc. 20 at 2-3, 4. As to the first incident, Clayton asserts "Employer generated (Randy Iverson) (false) accusation of breaking the leg of a Plains Express driver." Doc. 1 at ¶ 10; Doc. 15-1 at 28. Clayton testified in her deposition that someone asked her if she broke a driver's leg because Iverson said she did. Doc. 15-1 at 28. Clayton confronted Iverson, and he said it was a joke. Clayton stated that she did not find the comment funny. Doc. 15-1 at 28. Iverson apologized, and Clayton never heard the accusation again. Doc. 15-1 at 28.

         Second, Clayton testified in her deposition that co-workers were tampering with her work area. Doc. 15-1 at 29. Clayton stated that co-workers would unplug wires to her computer and take candy out of her desk when she was away from her desk. Doc. 15-1 at 29. Clayton did not report any such incidents to HR because she considered them to be minor. Doc. 15-1 at 30.

         Lastly, Clayton asserts she was accused of performing surveillance operations directed against co-workers Greg Pina (Pina) and Kristen Grout (Grout). Doc. 1 at ¶ 10; Doc. 15-1 at 28-30. Clayton said she timed Pina when he went outside to see how long it took him to perform a task because she believed he was smoking outside. Doc. 15-1 at 30. Clayton also took a picture of Pina breaking into a different co-worker's desk as a joke. Doc. 15-1 at 29. Clayton did not bring this picture to HR but instead posted it on Facebook. Doc. 15-1 at 29. Regarding the accusation from Grout, Grout approached Clayton and accused her of taking pictures of her, which Clayton denied. Doc. 15-1 at 28. However, Clayton took pictures of cigarette butts, gave the pictures to HR, and reported different co-workers for smoking on the premises. Doc. 15-1 at 28.

         In early 2015, Sioux Steel assigned Clayton and three other co-workers to different positions. Doc. 14 at ¶ 3; Doc. 19 at ¶ 3. Clayton was moved to an administrative position with the warranty and transportation department. Doc. 14 at ¶ 4; Doc. 19 at ¶ 4. On February 23, 2015, Jean Simonton (Simonton) was moved from Sioux Steel's Lennox, South Dakota facility to take over Clayton's shipping clerk position in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota facility. Doc. 14 at ¶¶ 5-6. Clayton was assigned to train Simonton on her new position. Doc. 14 at ¶ 7; Doc. 19 at ¶ 7. Clayton stated that she was not going to let Simonton mess up the process she had in place. Doc. 15-1 at 12.

         On the morning of March 26, 2015, Clayton and Simonton had an altercation. Doc. 14 at ¶ 11; Doc. 15-1 at 16; Doc. 19 at ¶ 11. Clayton entered Simonton's office to tell her she "messed up the schedule." Doc. 15-1 at 16; Doc. 16-1 at 1. As Clayton entered the office, she approached Simonton who was sitting at her desk. Doc. 15-1 at 17. Clayton came around the desk to look at Simonton's screen and asked her to pull up the schedule. Doc. 15-1 at 17. Clayton asked her three times what was wrong with the schedule and then explained to Simonton what was wrong. Doc. 16-1 at 1; Doc. 15-1 at 17. At the end of the encounter, Clayton told Simonton to stop telling people that she was not training her. Doc. 15-1 at 16. Clayton was angry with Simonton because she had heard that Simonton was complaining to other co-workers about her training. Doc. 14 at ¶ 14; Doc. 19 at ¶ 14. Simonton felt that Clayton's words and conduct were threatening and sent out a facility-wide page asking for help from HR or the chief operating officer. Doc. 14 at ¶ 13; Doc. 15-1 at 18. Simonton reported that she felt unsafe after the conversation with Clayton escalated. Doc. 14 at ¶¶ 11-12; Doc. 16-1 at 1.

         Jess immediately began an investigation into the incident. Doc. 14at¶15;Doc. 16at¶2. Jess first met with Simonton and Clayton separately so they could both explain their side of the encounter. Doc. 14 at ¶ 16; Doc. 16-1 at 1-2. Next, Jess, Sioux Steel Chief Operation Officer Mike Steele (Steele), and Operations Manager Shane Weber (Weber) interviewed two employees who witnessed the encounter. Doc. 14 at ¶ 17. Doc. 16-1 at 2-3. One employee reported during the interview that he perceived Clayton as being "out of line" with Simonton based on her tone and interaction with Simonton, and at one point, it appeared Clayton took steps towards Simonton which prompted Simonton to send out the facility-wide page.[6] Doc. 14 at ¶ 19; Doc. 16-1 at 2. The other employee reported that Clayton was "pissed" and "she was very rude when working with Jean [Simonton]." Doc. 21 at¶ 19. Doc. 16-1 at 3.

         That same day, Clayton, Simonton, Steele, Weber, Production Supervisor Terry Luden (Luden), and Jess met to discuss the incident. Doc. 14 at ¶ 22; Doc. 16-1 at 3; Doc. 15-1 at .19-20. Simonton expressed during the meeting how she did not feel safe around Clayton based on how the encounter that morning escalated. Doc. 14 at ¶ 22; Doc. 16-1 at 3. Simonton added that the encounter was not the first time Clayton raised her voice or had shown anger or rage towards her. Doc. 14 at ¶ 24; Doc. 16-1 at 3. Clayton responded that she used her normal voice and did not think others would perceive it as being loud. Doc. 14 at ¶ 25; Doc. 16-1 at 3.

         At the end of the meeting, Steele told Simonton and Clayton not to communicate with each other while the investigation continued into the matter. Doc. 15-1 at 20; Doc. 16-1 at 4. Clayton specifically recounted that Steele stated, "if we saw each other in the hallway, one is supposed to go the other way." Doc. 14 at ¶ 27; Doc. 19 at ¶ 27. Later that same day and on the following day of March 27, 2015, Clayton sent several emails to Simonton. Doc. 14 at ¶ 28; Doc. 15-1 at ¶ 28; Doc. 19 at ¶ 5. Clayton admits that she contacted and communicated with Simonton even though Steele told her not to. Doc. 14 at ¶ 29; Doc. 19 at ¶ 29. Simonton reported to HR and management that Clayton continued to contact her through email. Doc. 14 at ¶ 30; Doc. 16-2 at 5.

         On March 27, 2015, Jess, Weber, and Shipping Supervisor Travis Finn (Finn) met with Clayton. Doc. 14 at ¶ 31; Doc. 19 at ¶ 31. They told Clayton that they finished their investigation and had decided to terminate her employment. Doc. 14 at ¶ 32; Doc. 19 at ¶ 32. Sioux Steel decided to terminate Clayton's employment for insubordination due to Clayton violating a directive not to communicate with Simonton, as well as for having multiple incidents where co- workers felt threatened or uncomfortable by her comments.[7] Doc. 14at¶33;Doc. 15-2at9;Doc. 19 at ¶ 33. Before the incident with Simonton, Clayton had a series of write-ups and warnings for behavioral issues at Sioux Steel. Doc. 14 at ¶ 41; Doc. 19 at ¶ 41. Sioux Steel had previously warned Clayton about unprofessional conduct and violating workplace policies. Doc. 14 at ¶ 41; Doc. 19 at ¶ 41. The same day Clayton was terminated, Simonton's employment also was terminated as part of a reduction in force based on a decision made before the March 26, 2017 incident. Doc. 14 at ¶ 35; Doc. 19 at ¶ 35.

         On May 29, 2015, Clayton filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Sioux Falls Human Relations Commissions alleging sexual discrimination against Sioux Steel. Doc. 1 at ¶ 5; Doc. 14 at ¶ 51; Doc. 19 at ¶ 51. Clayton claimed that she had been subject to sexual harassment while employed at Sioux Steel, but made no mention of racial discrimination or harassment. Doc. 14 at ¶ 52; Doc. 19 at ¶ 52. The Human Relations Commission made a no-probable-cause finding. Doc. 14 at ¶ 53; Doc. 19 at ¶ 53. On September 30, 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) issued Clayton a notice of the right to file suit within 90 days. Doc. 14 at ¶ 53; Doc. 19 at ¶ 53.

         Clayton then filed this suit against Sioux Steel under Title VII, asserting claims for racial discrimination, sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. Doc. 1. Clayton sought compensatory damages, all damages allowed under Title VII, punitive and exemplary damages, as well as attorney fees ...

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