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Bentley v. AutoZoners, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

August 19, 2019

Rachel Bentley, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
AutoZoners, LLC, AutoZone Northeast, LLC, Defendants-Appellees.

          Submitted: June 17, 2019

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut

         On appeal from a judgment entered in this diversity action in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Squatrito, J.), plaintiff challenges an award of summary judgment to defendants on her state law claims of sex discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment. Plaintiff argues that she adduced sufficient evidence to permit a factfinder to conclude that (1) defendants' proffered reason for her discharge-plaintiff's use of crude language toward a co-worker (also discharged) who disparaged women-was a pretext for sex discrimination and retaliation; (2) the offending co-worker was a supervisor, making defendants strictly vicariously liable for his creation of a hostile work environment; and (3) even if the offending co-worker was not a supervisor, defendants had notice of his misconduct, so as to be liable for negligently failing to remedy the hostile environment. Plaintiff particularly faults the district court for holding that parts of her deposition testimony could not raise genuine issues of material fact as to notice because of perceived contradictions with her earlier written and sworn statements.

         Affirmed.

          James V. Sabatini, Esq., Sabatini & Associates, LLC, Newington, Connecticut, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Michael P. Devlin, Esq., Berchem, Moses & Devlin, P.C., Milford, Connecticut; Tracey E. Kern, Esq., Jones Walker, LLP, New Orleans, Louisiana; Laurie Michele Riley, Esq., Jones Walker, LLP, Miami, Florida, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before: Winter, Cabranes, and Raggi, Circuit Judges.

          Reena Raggi, Circuit Judge

         In this diversity action, plaintiff Rachel Bentley sues her former employer AutoZoners, LLC, and related company AutoZone Northeast LLC, for sex discrimination, retaliation, and a sex hostile work environment in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act ("CFEPA"), Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60. She now appeals from an award of summary judgment entered on July 18, 2018, in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Dominic J. Squatrito, Judge) in favor of defendant AutoZoners, LLC ("AutoZone"). See Bentley v. AutoZoners, LLC, No. 16-cv-1506 (DJS), slip op. (D. Conn. July 18, 2018).[1] Bentley argues that she adduced sufficient evidence to raise triable issues of fact on the following questions: (1) whether AutoZone's proffered reason for her discharge-her use of crude language toward a co-worker who disparaged women (and who was also discharged)-was a pretext for sex discrimination and retaliation; (2) whether the offending co- worker was a "supervisor," making AutoZone strictly vicariously liable for the hostile work environment he created; and (3) whether, even if the offending co-worker was not a supervisor, AutoZone had sufficient notice of his misconduct as to be liable for negligently failing to end the hostile environment. Insofar as the district court concluded that she did not adduce sufficient evidence to defeat summary judgment, Bentley particularly faults its holding that parts of her deposition testimony could not raise genuine issues of material fact in light of contradictions and inconsistencies with her earlier signed or sworn statements. For reasons explained herein, we conclude that Bentley's arguments fail on the merits. Accordingly, we affirm the challenged judgment.

         Background

         I. Bentley's Employment and Termination

         From April 13, 2013, until her discharge on September 17, 2014, plaintiff Rachel Bentley worked for defendant AutoZone as a part-time sales associate in its Wallingford, Connecticut store. For the first 14 months Bentley worked at the store, the store manager position was unfilled. Personnel problems plagued the store, with three parts sales managers (two male, one female) and Bentley all fired within a two-year period for professional misconduct.

         A. AutoZone Employment Policies

         Bentley acknowledges that, at the start of her employment with AutoZone, she received and read an employee handbook detailing various policies, including one, pertinent here, which expressly prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment based on sex. The handbook further instructs employees promptly to report any such misconduct to a supervisor or a member of the human resources department ("HR"), either directly or by means of a toll-free hotline. The handbook also states that abusive language in the workplace is prohibited and that such misconduct can result in termination. Bentley acknowledges awareness of these policies at times relevant to this action.

         She also admits awareness of AutoZone's attendance requirements and its use of a point-system and progressive discipline to address attendance issues, with employees accumulating 12 or more points subject to termination.[2]

         B. Management of the Wallingford Store

         Although AutoZone stores usually have on-site store managers, that position was unfilled at the Wallingford location for much of the time Bentley worked there.[3] Thus, district manager David Campanile-responsible for overseeing eleven stores-would visit the Wallingford store from time to time to check on its operations and arranged for East Haven store manager Arif Mohamed to visit Wallingford approximately once a week for a few hours. Otherwise, Campanile relied on a store "management team," consisting of two parts sales managers ("PSM"), for the day-to-day running of the store. For the first few months of Bentley's employment, the Wallingford PSMs were Justine Case and Stuart Mertel. After Mertel was fired sometime in late 2013 for inappropriate conduct not specified in the record, Manny Valentin became the second PSM at the Wallingford store on January 28, 2014. Valentin's interactions with Bentley are the basis for her sex discrimination and hostile work environment claims.

         AutoZone PSMs wore gray uniform shirts, signifying management. They were responsible for opening and closing stores, giving employees daily work assignments, and imposing informal discipline as warranted. Formal discipline, however, appears to have required higher management.[4] PSMs were also not empowered to hire, fire, promote, or demote employees. Indeed, termination could not be ordered by a store manager, or even a district manager; it required the action of a regional manager. Nor could PSMs set employee work schedules. That task was usually performed by a store manager but, for the time in 2013-14 when that position was unfilled at Wallingford, that store's employees' work schedules were set by East Haven store manager Mohamed.

         C. Bentley's Attendance Record

         Almost from the start of Bentley's employment with AutoZone, she had attendance problems. The record indicates that in 2013, i.e., before Valentin was employed at the Wallingford store, Bentley was late for work on May 18, absent from work on June 29, late on September 3, absent on September 7, absent on September 24, absent on October 1, and late on December 4. The October absence prompted a formal "written warning," advising Bentley that she had accumulated 9.5 points, and, that if her attendance performance did not improve, she faced further corrective action, including termination. The December tardiness prompted a "serious violation" notice.

         Bentley's attendance problems persisted into 2014, such that by March 7, 2014, she had accumulated 13 points, enough to warrant her termination under company policy. AutoZone, however, did not terminate her. Rather, Mohamed submitted, and HR manager Nuno Antunes approved, another serious violation notice, which Campanile discussed with Bentley at a meeting on March 12, 2014. Subsequent attendance concerns were similarly addressed through discipline short of termination.

         D. Bentley Clashes with Valentin

         During her employment, Bentley clashed with various coworkers. She testified that, after about a month on the job, PSM Case (who had served as a reference for Bentley on her employment application with AutoZone) told Bentley she was "not going to last long" on the job and was "a bad employee." App'x 91. In December 2013, when Antunes was investigating another employee's complaint about PSM Mertel (which resulted in Mertel's termination), Bentley told Antunes that Mertel had "gotten into [her] face," telling her she "didn't know what [she was] doing." Id. at 111. It is only her subsequent interactions with Valentin, however, that Bentley claims were informed by sex-based animus.

         In her sworn deposition testimony, Bentley stated that, within a week of Valentin starting at the Wallingford store in January 2014, and on more than 20 occasions thereafter, he made vulgar and disparaging comments about women's job performance, calling them "lazy," and suggesting that they should be home "bak[ing] cookies." Id. at 93-94. In moving for summary judgment, AutoZone does not dispute that Valentin made such remarks. Rather, it disputes having notice of the misconduct before August 2014.

         Bentley, however, testified at her deposition that she contemporaneously reported each occasion when Valentin made sexist remarks to HR manager Antunes. Indeed, she recounted reporting Valentin's very first sexist remark to Antunes on the January day that it was made, sending Antunes a text message from the Wallingford sales floor, which contained "the exact comment." Id. at 94. She testified to sending Antunes similar text messages in February and March reporting Valentin's further sexist comments, as well as making such reports by telephone. Bentley had no record of these text messages or calls, explaining that she had disposed of the cell phone used to send them soon after her termination. When confronted with a record of her text messages to Antunes as retrieved from his phone-none of which complained of sexist comments by Valentin-Bentley retracted her earlier testimony about giving notice by text. She maintained, however, that she called Antunes to report Valentin's misconduct, but to no effect.

         The single text message in the record showing Bentley complaining to Antunes about Valentin is dated May 21, 2014. It states, "Nuno I'm about to quit this job [M]anny [Valentin] is being so ridiculous and making up lies and trying to make me go home. And he threatened to slap me." Id. at 239. Bentley now asserts that, in connection with this incident, Valentin was "saying some really sexist things, but I just didn't say it" in the text. Id. at 105. That same day, she complained orally to District Manager Campanile about Valentin. Campanile's contemporaneous email to Antunes, copied to regional manager Charles Blank, states: "I have an incident" at the Wallingford ...


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