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Jones v. Educational Affiliates Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

December 21, 2017



          Kenneth M. Hoyt, United States District Judge.


         Pending before the Court is the defendant's, Education Affiliates Inc. (“EAI”), motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 20). The plaintiff, Lawanda Beasley Jones (“Jones”), has filed a response in opposition to the motion (Dkt. No. 23) and EAI has filed a reply (Dkt. No. 25). EAI has also objected to certain facts contained in Jones' response (Dkt. No. 26).[1] After having carefully considered the motion, response, reply, the record and the applicable law, the Court determines that the defendant's motion for summary judgment should be GRANTED.


         This is an employment case in which Jones, a former employee, alleges that EAI terminated her employment in violation of the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). In September 2013, Jones began employment with EAI as Director of Admissions of the Houston North campus. (Dkt. No. 23, Ex. 4 ¶4). Glen Tharp, Regional Vice President for EAI (“Tharp”), recommended Jones for the job. Id. Jones was hired by and reported to Arturo Cervantes, Campus President of the Houston North campus (“Cervantes”). Id. As Director of Admissions, Jones managed the entire Admissions Department, which consisted of eight employees. (Dkt. No. 23, Ex. 3 at 210).

         Jones contends that on February 24, 2014, two of her non-Hispanic subordinates, Carrin Wenzel (“Wenzel”) and Jennifer Rollie (“Rollie”), communicated to her that they felt discriminated against by Cervantes. (Dkt. No. 23, at 3). On February 27, 2014, two anonymous Houston-North campus employees called EAI's employee hotline. (Dkt. No. 20, Ex. 3 at ¶9). The first caller claimed that she felt bullied by some of the Hispanic employees. Id. The second caller alleged that Cervantes gave preferential treatment to Hispanic employees in the Admissions Department. Id. It is undisputed that Jones never personally called the employee hotline.

         Shortly thereafter, EAI selected Sidney Carey, Texas Area Manager and President of the Houston-South campus (“Carey”), to investigate the anonymous phone calls. Id. As part of his investigation, Carey interviewed 14 employees, including the plaintiff. (Dkt. No. 20, Ex. 1). At the conclusion of his investigation, Carey compiled an investigation report. (Dkt. No. 20, Ex. 3-B). Carey's report found that the allegations made on the phone calls were without merit. Id. In a subsequent conversation, Jones contends that Cervantes informed her that he was aware of the identity of the anonymous callers. (Dkt. No. 23, Ex. 1 at 215). On February 26, 2014, Cervantes suggested that Jones encourage all employees not to speak Spanish at work unless necessary for business reasons. Id. at 320-21.

         Jones claims that from March 5-10, 2014, Cervantes began to treat her negatively as a direct result of Carey's investigation. Id. at 216. Jones cites to instances of Cervantes yelling at her and slamming her office door as examples of the negative treatment. Id. at 218-19. Jones further alleges that Cervantes turned the Spanish speaking employees against her, which undermined her authority. Furthermore, she believes that her subordinates began to disrespect her and treat her negatively after she requested that they refrain from speaking Spanish. Id. at 224.

         On March 18, 2014, Shaterrell Adkins, an Instructor at the Houston-North campus (“Adkins”), reported to her supervisor that Jones had made some inappropriate remarks to her while at work.[2] (Dkt. No. 20, Ex. 4 at ¶5). On that same day, Adkins sent an email to upper management, including Cervantes, advising them of Jones' comments and summarizing the entire conversation.[3] Id. Cervantes then forwarded the email to Carey and Tharp. Id. Adkins was asked to provide a signed statement swearing to the truthfulness and accuracy of the purported remarks and she complied. Id. at ¶6.

         EAI claims that upon conducting an independent review of the statement provided by Adkins, Tharp decided to terminate Jones. (Dkt. No. 20, Ex. 4 at ¶7). Tharp provides four reasons for his decision: “(1) he honestly believed Beasley had made racially inappropriate and divisive comments to Adkins; (2) her comments were unacceptable, especially for someone in a leadership role; (3) her comments were insubordinate, as they indicated she had an intentional and deliberate desire to undercut Cervantes's authority; and (4) her comments indicated she wanted to use an unlawful and discriminatory factor (race) when making hiring and employment decisions in the Admissions Department.” Id. Tharp then provided the evidence and his findings to Tom Kartelius, Vice President of Admissions (“Kartelius”) and Penny Hosey, Director of Human Resources (“Hosey”). Id. Upon their independent review, Kartelius and Hosey agreed that Jones' statements warranted her termination. Id. On March 20, 2014, Tharp and Carey met with Jones and informed her that her employment had been terminated. (Dkt. No. 23, Ex. 1 at 235).

         On June 9, 2014, Jones filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. (Dkt. No. 20, Ex. 8). In it, she alleges that EAI terminated her “for being a witness in an internal discrimination complaint against Cervantes.” Id. On April 4, 2016, Jones commenced this lawsuit against EAI in state court alleging a claim for retaliation under the FLSA. The case was removed to this Court on June 24, 2016, on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. EAI now moves for summary judgment on Jones' claim.


         A. EAI's Contentions

         EAI argues that Jones was discharged as a result of her divisive and racial comments made to a co-worker. In addition, she was insubordinate and her comments indicated a desire to undercut the campus president's authority. As such, EAI asserts that Jones' retaliation claim fails because she is unable to demonstrate that she engaged in “protected activity” within the meaning of the FLSA. EAI also contends that Jones cannot establish a “but for” causal connection between her alleged protected activity and termination. Further, EAI avers that Jones is unable to demonstrate that EAI's legitimate, ...

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