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Benedict v. State, Department of Corrections

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

September 19, 2017




         I. Introduction

         This is an employment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights case. Plaintiff Ashley Benedict is suing defendants[2] the State of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Corrections, the Thumb Correctional Facility, William Rhulman, Lori Gidley, and Frank Bernstein making claims under state and federal law related to her employment with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at Thumb Correctional Facility (TCF). Rhulman is proceeding pro se. Gidley is the Deputy Warden at TCF. Bernstein is a corrections officer.

         The Second Amended Complaint asserts the following claims:

Count I: Violation of the Michigan ELCRA - Hostile Work Environment (all defendants)
Count II: Violation of the Michigan ELCRA - Disparate Treatment (all defendants)
Count III: Violation of the Michigan ELCRA - Unlawful Retaliation for Engaging in a Protected Activity (all defendants)
Count IV: Equal Protection Violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (14th Amendment) (Bernstein, Gidley, and Rhulman)
Count V: Substantive Due Process Violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (14thAmendment) (Bernstein, Gidley, and Rhulman)
Count VI: Violation of Title VII - sex discrimination - against State of Michigan, MDOC and TCF
Count VII: Violation of Title VII - hostile work environment - against State of Michigan, MDOC, and TCF
Count VIII: Violation of Title VII - retaliation - against State of Michigan, MDOC and TCF

         Before the Court is the State of Michigan, MDOC, TCF, Gidley and Bernstein's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 59) and Rhulman's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 57). For the reasons that follow, Benedict's claim against Bernstein for an Equal Protection violation under Count IV is DISMISSED. Benedict's substantive due process claim under Count V is also DISMISSED. The case continues on Counts I, II, and III, IV (against only Rhulman and Gidley), VI, VII, and VIII.

         II. Background

         The material facts as gleaned from the record follow.[3]

         Benedict, a female, began working for the MDOC on March 12, 2006. She received good performance reviews and held the position of Resident Unit Officer in the Exxex Unit. Rhulman was her supervisor. According to the deposition testimony of Kenneth McCall, a retired employee of the MDOC who worked with Benedict and Rhulman, Rhulman was favored by Gidley.

         Beginning in 2009 and for years, until April 22, 2012, Benedict says she was sexually harassed by Rhulman. Rhulman would send sexually explicit e-mails, Facebook messages, and text messages. The record contains some of the messages sent by Rhulman to Benedict which are sexual in nature. Rhulman also requested sexual favors, which Benedict says she expressly opposed. In one particular incident, on September 23, 2011, Rhulman sent Benedict a picture of his genitals in a text message. Rhulman testified at deposition that the behavior was consensual.

         In addition to written correspondence, Benedict says that Rhulman would verbally harass her on a regular basis. In the Fall of 2012, for example, Rhulman called Benedict into his office after she informed him she was upset because a close friend had died. Rhulman replied that he had keys to every room and would “make her feel better.” Benedict refused and left his office and reported the incident to her work partner at the time, corrections officer Floyd Fuller. She also told Fuller that Rhulman was becoming increasingly vulgar in his messages and pictures to her. Fuller allegedly advised Benedict to report the matter to Bernstein, who was Benedict's Lieutenant. It does not appear that Benedict reported the incident and Rhulman's behavior to Bernstein at this time.

         After the Fall of 2012 incident, Benedict was transferred from the Exxex Unit to the Cord Unit. Although the date of the transfer is not clear from the record, Benedict says it was “immediately after” the Fall 2012 incident. In the Cord Unit, Benedict held a rover position where she assisted other corrections officers. Benedict was told by Bernstein that Rhulman directed the transfer because she allegedly was not doing enough shake downs and not taking enough contraband out of the inmates houses (Benedict denies this). Rhulman, however, testified that it was Gidley's decision to transfer Benedict but admitted he had the authority to recommend transfers and that he discussed Benedict's transfer with Gidley.

         Benedict's partner in the Cord Unit was McCall, who was also a union representative prior to his retirement. He testified that he would have been upset being transferred as Benedict was because such transfers are not common. McCall also testified that Rhulman remained in contact with Benedict after the transfer, including speaking to inmates in the Cord Unit about Benedict. Anther corrections officer that worked with Benedict in the Cord Unit, Kendra Patillo, testified that she believed Benedict was transferred because of Rhulman and that she viewed Benedict's transfer as a demotion.

         Sometime after the transfer, Benedict reported to Bernstein, her Lieutenant, that Rhulman had been sending her sexual messages and that she believed she was transferred because she would not “make out” with Rhulman as he requested. According to Benedict, Bernstein said to her “don't tell me anymore, I have to report it.” Meanwhile, on December 15, 2012, Benedict was told she would be assigned to the front gate for her shift. Benedict allegedly became upset by the assignment, told her supervisor she was quitting, and left the facility. Benedict also allegedly used inappropriate language at the visitor's desk and nearby visitors. Apparently, Gidley directed the assignment out of a concern for Benedict's safety when a “kite and shank” were found with Benedict's name on it. Benedict, however, alleges the change in assignment was unwarranted and other male employees who were alleged to have been threatened were given an option to transfer to another assignment.

         On February 23, 2013, the Warden, David Bergh, recommended a three day suspension for Benedict's conduct on December 15, 2012. Benedict believes the discipline was unfounded and points to McCall's deposition testimony in which he states he was not aware of another employee receiving a three day suspension for similar conduct. McCall also testified that a three day suspension was “pretty suspicious” given Benedict's complaints about Rhulman.

         Regarding formal complaints, Benedict filed the following EEO complaints within the MDOC:

         On February 26, 2013, Benedict filed a Sexual Harassment complaint against Rhulman in which she stated, “I have three years' worth of unwanted emails from a supervisor that were inappropriate and unwanted. These emails and my lack of responding to them are negatively affecting me at work and causing me unwanted problems.” On March 1, 2013, Benedict filed a complaint for Disparity of Treatment against Rhulman in which she stated, “Because was removed off my regular assignment without explanation other than there was a shank and letter threatening me. This is not what they have done to male employees who work here who have been threatened by a letter or even seriously assaulted.” This relates to the disciplinary incident discussed above in which Benedict received the three day suspension.

         On March 1, 2013, Benedict filed a complaint alleging Harassment and Defamation of Character against Rhulman and Gidley in which she stated, “Defendant Rhulman investigated and questioned prisoners in my assignment and concluded I was hanging with ‘heavyhitters' of a flint gang. There ...

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