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Williams v. Aeroflex Wichita, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 4, 2019




         The Court is presented with Defendants Aeroflex Wichita, Inc. (“Aeroflex”) and Lori Cromwell's Partial Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings for Counts 4, 6, 7, and 8 of Plaintiff Linda Williams' complaint (Doc. 17). For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[1]

         In 1999, Aeroflex hired Williams as a file clerk. In 2000, Aeroflex transferred her to the position of customer service representative, where she was under Cromwell's supervision. Williams alleges that, over the next 17 years, Cromwell repeatedly subjected her to racially targeted harassment, abuse, and general humiliation. This included racist comments about her hairstyle in front of her peers, derogatory remarks about her intelligence, and an incident where Cromwell threw a stack of papers on the floor and ordered Williams to pick them up. Williams further alleges that Cromwell enforced several company policies specifically against her, as when Cromwell repeatedly sent her home for violating the dress code while ignoring white employees who wore similar clothing. In addition to the dress code discrimination, Williams alleges that Cromwell denied her time off more often than her coworkers, monitored her work far more closely than that of the other employees, and falsely informed her that her coworkers had complained she was wasting too much time on lunch, when they had said no such thing. Williams also claims that Cromwell warned her, “I want you to know I am watching you, ” a threat in retaliation for her complaints. Even after Aeroflex gave her a new supervisor in 2017, Williams alleges that Cromwell has continued to harass her.

         Williams filed this suit against Aeroflex and Cromwell for violations of Title VII (Counts 1-3), Cromwell for intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count 4) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count 5), and Aeroflex for negligent retention/hiring, training, and supervision (Counts 6-8). The defendants now move for judgment on the pleadings on Counts 4, 6, 7, and 8 under Rule 12(c), arguing that these claims fail as a matter of law.

         II. Legal Standard

         The standard for evaluating judgment on the pleadings is the same as that for a motion under Rule 12(b)(6).[2] Under Rule 12(b)(6), a defendant may move for dismissal when the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[3] Upon such motion, the court must decide “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'”[4] A claim is facially plausible if the plaintiff pleads facts sufficient for the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.[5] The court is required to accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true, but is free to reject legal conclusions.[6] The plausibility standard reflects the requirement in Rule 8 that pleadings provide defendants with fair notice of the nature of claims and the grounds on which the claim rests.[7]

         III. Analysis

         A. Negligent Retention, Supervision, and Training

          Williams claims that Aeroflex was negligent in retaining and failing to train and supervise Cromwell, which caused her emotional and physical harm. Aeroflex moves to dismiss, arguing that Williams' status as an employee prevents her from recovering for negligent retention, supervision, and training.

         Every employer has a duty to “hire and retain only safe and competent employees.”[8] To establish a breach of this duty (negligent retention), the plaintiff must show that the employer had reason to believe that the employee's dangerous “quality or propensity” created an undue risk to others and kept the employee on anyway.[9] The harm sued for must have been within such risk.[10]

         Negligent supervision and training are in the same vein as negligent retention. Negligent supervision requires that the employer fail to supervise their employee while having “reason to believe that the employment of the employee would result in an undue risk of harm to others.”[11]Similarly, an employer may also be responsible for injury caused by the employee that could have been prevented with better training.[12]

         An employee who has been injured by a coworker cannot recover against her employer for negligent retention, supervision or training; recovery is generally limited to third parties.[13]This is based on the principle that “an employer is not responsible for its employee's unauthorized acts committed outside the scope of the employee's duties, ” and the employee's duties do not include the way she treats other employees.[14] For the same reason, harassment by a coworker will not constitute an actionable injury for the purposes of negligent supervision or training.[15]

         While the conduct she alleges is reprehensible, the fact remains that Ms. Williams is an employee and thus precluded from recovery. Williams attempts to distinguish her case from the general rule by noting that Cromwell was no ordinary worker, but a supervisor in a position of power over her. However, she cites no authority showing why this distinction is important. Indeed, the complained-of coworker was a supervisor in many of the cases holding that an employee cannot recover for negligent retention, supervision, or training.[16]

         For example, in Wood v. City of Topeka, [17] the court granted summary judgment to the employer on the employee's claim that the employer was liable for the negligent retention and supervision of a supervisor who discriminated against him based on his age. In Fiscus v. Triumph Group Operations, [18] the plaintiffs argued their employer negligently trained and supervised its employee with respect to sexual harassment. The court refused to recognize the employees' claims, because that would be an overexpansion of the law: “this cause of action, if recognized, ‘would necessarily arise any time a middle level supervisor engaged in discriminatory conduct. We think it unlikely that the Kansas courts would adopt a liability rule with such broad implications.'”[19] It is clear that Kansas law precludes recovery by an employee for the employer's negligent training, supervision, or retention. Aeroflex is thus entitled to dismissal on Counts 6-8.

         B. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

         Williams also claims that Cromwell has committed the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress against her. Cromwell responds that the allegations are not extreme and outrageous enough to support a finding of intentional infliction of emotional distress as a matter of law, and thus judgment should be granted in her favor.

         Intentional infliction of emotional distress requires four elements: “(1) The conduct of defendant must be intentional or in reckless disregard of plaintiff; (2) the conduct must be extreme and outrageous; (3) there must be a causal connection between defendant's conduct and plaintiff's mental ...

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