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Young v. State

Superior Court of Maine

June 5, 2017




         Defendant State of Maine has filed a Motion For Summary Judgment on plaintiff Michelle Young's Complaint for retaliation in violation of the Maine Whistleblower Protection Act ("MWPA") (Count I); creation of a hostile work environment (Count II); and retaliation under the Maine Human Rights Act ("MHRA") (Count III). Plaintiff opposes defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment as to Counts I and III, but does not oppose the Motion as to Count II.

         Oral argument was held on June 1, 2017. Based on the parties' arguments, the summary judgment record, and the reasons discussed below, the court grants defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Count II of plaintiffs complaint, and denies defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Counts I and III.

         /. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was employed on a seasonal basis as a park ranger at Mt. Blue State Park every summer from 2007 through 2014, usually from late May to late August. In the summer of 2014, a new customer representative assistant was hired to work at Mt. Blue State Park. Prior to August 7, 2014, this new employee engaged in conduct toward plaintiff that she found strange, but not threatening. (Def's Supp'g S.M.F. ¶ 37.) On August 7, 2014?, however, the new employee offered plaintiff some almonds and made a sexual comment. (Id. ¶ 43.) Following this incident, plaintiff reported some of the employee's conduct, including the sexual comment of that day and a previous incident where the employee put his arms around plaintiffs neck, to her supervisor, Bruce Farnham, the park manager. (Id. ¶ 64.)

         After receiving the plaintiffs complaint, Farnham contacted his supervisor and human resources personnel who promptly investigated plaintiffs allegations. (Id. ¶¶ 81-82, 91-93.) In Farnham's email reporting the incident, he stated that Jason Cuthbertson, the head ranger at the Park, made a comment to Farnham "that he could see a sexual harassment situation developing and that [plaintiff] made some questionable comments to £the new employee] as well." (Ex. 1 to Farnham Dep.) Farnham writes that he was not aware of the specific comments, but that plaintiff informed him Cuthbertson was present on the occasion when the new employee grabbed plaintiffs neck. (Id.)

         Following the investigation, the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry ("Department") issued a written reprimand to the employee plaintiff had complained about. (Def's Supp'g S.M.F. ¶ 97.) Immediately after the written reprimand, Daryl Touchette, a Human Resources Manager for the State's Natural Resource Service Center conducted a one-on-one training session with the employee about the State's workplace harassment policy. (Id. ¶ 104.)

         Plaintiff testified that after she reported the claim, Farnham's tone towards her changed and Farnham would avoid her. (Young Dep. 168.) She opined that Farnham likely avoided her because he was uncomfortable about what happened and that it was an uncomfortable situation. (Id.) She testified that Farnham stopped his periodic practice of coming by to where she was working for informal conversation. (Id. at 168-169.) Plaintiff further testified that when she told Farnham she was going to take vacation time after her complaint, he seemed relieved. (Id. at 174.) Plaintiff speculates that Farnham was relieved because he wouldn't have to deal with plaintiffs situation while she was on vacation. [Id.)

         On August 19, 2014, Farnham wrote plaintiffs seasonal performance evaluation in which he assessed her performance as satisfactory and meeting expectations, and recommended her to receive a merit increase. (Def.'s Supp'g S.M.F. ¶ 108.) Gary Best, then acting regional manager, and Ron Hunt, then acting director of operations, also signed and approved plaintiffs performance evaluation in January 2015. (Id. ¶ 109.)

         During the off-season, Farnham and Cuthbertson would discuss who would be returning on staff for the upcoming summer. (PL's A.S.M.F. ¶ 26.) Cuthbertson and Farnham worked together consistently for the last eight years. (Id. ¶ 25.) Early in the following year, often in February, the Department sent letters to employees who are on seasonal layoff asking them to respond and indicate whether they intend to return to their jobs for the next season. Def.'s Supp'g S.M.F. ¶ 111.) As a seasonal employee, Plaintiff received such letters each year from 2008 to 2015. (Id. ¶ 112.) Generally, the letters did not include a proposed schedule for the upcoming season. (See Farnham Dep. 38.) Indeed, Farnham testified that over the years he may have sent out a proposed schedule with the letters to seasonal employees on one or two instances, but otherwise did not do so. (Id. at 40.)

         In 2015, the first page of the letter plaintiff received, dated February 4, 2015, was identical in form to the letters she had received in prior years. (Def.'s Supp'g S.M.F. ¶ 119.) The second page of the letter, however, included a proposed schedule for the upcoming season and was sent only to plaintiff and another seasonal ranger who also was a teacher. (Id. ¶ 129; see Farnham Dep. 60-61).) The letter offered plaintiff the opportunity to return to work for the 2015 season, specified that her season would be 13 weeks long, would start on May 31, 2015, and end on August 29, 2015. (Id. ¶ 120.) The proposed schedule was not sent to other park employees on seasonal layoff. (Id.)

         Farnham testified that the proposed schedules were sent in 2015 because the year before the other seasonal ranger who worked as a teacher suddenly said she would not be available for most of the first three weeks due to her teaching schedule. (See Farnham Dep. 41-42.) Usually Farnham would make a schedule accommodation for a week or possibly two where the employee worked some evenings, worked the weekends, and used some accumulated vacation time that resulted in an adjustment of only a day or two. (Id. at 42.) In 2014, however, the other seasonal ranger who worked as a teacher had to take three weeks off at the start of the season and only wanted to work a couple days during that time. (Id.) Farnham further testified that he believes he told the other seasonal ranger towards the end of the season that her schedule could become a problem. (Id.) He testified that the other seasonal ranger was aware of the problem because she had a friend who faced the same problem a few years ago. (Id. at 42-43.)

         When plaintiff received the February 4, 2015 letter, she already knew she would not be able to work during school hours for at least the first two weeks of June 2015, and possibly longer, because the last day of school is determined based on the number of snow days occurring during the school year. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 121.) Nevertheless, plaintiffs response to the letter indicated she would be able to work the full season as specified in the letter. (Id. ¶ 122.)

         Plaintiff testified that she called Farnham in the spring of 2015 to tell him that while she indicated she could work the full season in the letter, "I can't obviously work it because I'm in school...." (Young Dep. 160.) Plaintiff testifies that she told Farnham she could probably work on "June 9th or beyond that" and that she was "willing to come in after seven hours and work an eight-hour shift, I begged him, I'm willing to do whatever it takes... to keep this job." (Id.) Farnham asked plaintiff ...

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