Monday, January 29, 2007

Atkins v. Winchester Homes (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (not approved for publication)

Decided January 26, 2007. Memorandum and Order by Judge Catherine C. Blake. (Not approved for publication)

Atkins, a Maryland resident of Native American national origin, filed suit against Winchester (his former employer), Weyerhaeuser Company (Winchester's parent company) and three manager/supervisors, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §2000e, et seq. and 42 U.S.C. §1981. All defendants moved to dismiss Atkins' amended complaint, raising both procedural and substantive arguments in support of their motions.

Atkins alleged that for years he had been subjected to daily racial harassment and that the manager/supervisors witnessed or knew of the harassment, but did nothing to prevent it. He also alleged that he was subjected to adverse actions on account of his national origin or in retaliation for asserting his civil rights. The alleged adverse actions included being called into a supervisor's office, being disciplined when a non-Native American peer was not, and ultimately being discharged.

Procedural Arguments: Atkins did not oppose Weyerhaeuser's motion, and the court dismissed all claims against Weyerhaeuser. In doing so, the court noted that Atkins did not adequately allege that Weyerhaeuser was his employer, stating that without "allegations of common management, interrelation of operations, centralized control, or degree of financial control, the mere fact of a parent-subsidiary relationship is not sufficient to sustain" an action for discrimination.

Winchester argued that the Charge of Discrimination that Atkins filed with the EEOC lacked sufficient detail to be effective and that Atkins did not provide sufficient detail until after the 300 days for filing a charge had passed. The court pointed out that the "function of a charge is to initiate the investigatory and conciliatory procedures contemplated by Title VII." Here, the initial charge contained enough information for EEOC to begin its investigation. Moreover, EEOC regulations provide that later amendments to a charge relate back to the date of initial filing.

The manager/supervisors alleged that they were not properly served within the 120-day window provided by F.R.C.P. 4(m). Process was served on a co-worker and not on the individual defendants. The defendants, however, had actual knowledge of the suit and did not assert that they were prejudiced in any way by the failure to serve them individually. For that reason, the court liberally construed the rules and declined to dismiss the suit.

Substantive Arguments: Winchester challenged Atkins' claims of disparate treatment, retaliation and harassment/hostile work environment. The court found that neither being called into a meeting with a supervisor about allegations of discrimination nor a counseling session with a supervisor arose to the level of an adverse employment action sufficient to support a claim of discrimination. Termination of employment, however, clearly was such an adverse action. As for retaliation, Atkins failed to plead sufficient facts showing that his protected activity was the cause of his termination, and too much time passed between the activity and his dismissal to establish a causal connection without such specifics. On the harassment/hostile work environment claims, the allegations that the manager/supervisors witnessed the acts harassment and that Atkins had made complaints about the acts were sufficient to impose liability on his employer.

Because Title VII does not authorize claims against individuals, the Title VII claims against the individual defendants were dismissed. In addition, the court dismissed all of the Section 1981 claims against the individual defendants, except the claims against the manager/supervisor who fired Atkins. In reaching this result, the court reasoned that the acts attributed to the other manager/supervisors did not rise to the level of adverse employment actions, but that termination of employment did. In addition, the court ruled that allegations that the manager/supervisors failed to investigate or to prevent harassment by Atkins' co-workers were not sufficient to impose liability under Section 1981.

The memorandum is available in PDF The order is also available in PDF

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