Birmingham AL Nov 22 2021 An Alabama security company must face a retaliation claim from a Black former employee who said she was reassigned and ultimately fired after complaining about discrimination by a white supervisor who threatened to hang her, the Eleventh Circuit found.
A three-judge panel issued the decision Tuesday, affirming a district court’s dismissal of Vanessa Dixon’s federal bias and hostile work environment claims against DTA Security Services but reviving her retaliation claim because she alleged she was given the boot just weeks after lodging a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Though the Middle District of Alabama said Dixon hadn’t firmly drawn a connection between her EEOC charge complaining of discrimination at work and her transfer and subsequent effective termination, the Eleventh Circuit noted the short six-week time frame between the events was enough to establish causation.
“She engaged in protected activity when she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, she suffered a materially adverse employment action when she was terminated by DTA, and, given the short time frame, these two events were … connected,” the panel said.
Representing herself, Dixon first sued in the Middle District of Alabama, filing an amended complaint in February 2018. She obtained counsel a few months later, according to the court docket.
Dixon was posted at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, for most of the year she worked for DTA, which is also known as National Security of Alabama, from 2014 to 2015, Tuesday’s ruling said.
A white woman became her supervisor in January 2015 and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dixon said, she threatened to “hang” and “drag” Dixon if she made paperwork mistakes. She also made Dixon run errands and get gas for her white co-workers, the ruling said.
When Dixon complained internally and lodged an EEOC charge, the supervisor’s threats continued, and she also started following Dixon around the workplace. Soon Dixon was transferred to another post, at a Montgomery warehouse, which she said was retaliatory though the company blamed it on cutting workers’ hours, according to the ruling.
Due to back problems, Dixon had trouble closing the warehouse door. She was never reassigned, despite her requests, the ruling said.
The district court in its summary judgment noted that the parties dispute whether Dixon “actually separated” from the company and if so, when.
The district court granted DTA’s August 2019 motion for summary judgment in May 2020, finding Dixon hadn’t laid out a sufficient discrimination case. The Eleventh Circuit upheld that finding.
It also upheld summary judgment on her hostile work environment claim, noting as the district court had that she hadn’t actually pled it in her amended complaint, and that she didn’t object to the district court saying so.
“Dixon’s amended complaint did not even include the words ‘hostile work environment,’ ‘harassment,’ or ‘abusive,'” the appellate court said.
Amardo Pitters, an attorney for the security company, said Wednesday that he counts the ruling as a win.
“We’re not 100% satisfied but at least we’re two-thirds satisfied, in terms of, we got two of the three slices of the pie,” he said, referring to the two dismissed claims the appellate court upheld.
U.S. Circuit Judges Jill Pryor, Robert Luck and Andrew Brasher sat on the panel for the Eleventh Circuit.
Counsel for Dixon and a representative for the security company did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Dixon is represented on appeal by K. David Sawyer.
DTA is represented on appeal by Amardo Pitters of A Wesley Pitters PC and Preston Presley of the Law Office of Preston L. Presley.
The case is Vanessa Dixon v. National Security of Alabama, case number 20-12040, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.