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Plaintiff sanctioned for dumping cell phone that was key evidence in suit over sexting

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Imposing monetary sanctions against a Title VII plaintiff who sued a university over sexually explicit text messages she exchanged with a department director in the hopes of getting a job, a federal district court in Mississippi pointed to evidence that she engaged in a pattern of deception and purposefully spoliated key evidence. For example, she deleted certain texts (which would have hurt her case) before giving the messages to the EEOC and she got rid of her cell phone even though she signed statements under oath that she had retained it. On the merits, the court granted summary judgment against her claims, finding that the director with whom she exchanged texts was acting outside the scope of employment and that he had no authority to hire anyone (Stewart v. Belhaven University, September 8, 2017).

Sexting for a job. In 2015, the plaintiff sought a job at Belhaven University in the online admissions department. She knew the director of that department through social channels and he had allegedly led her to believe there would be a vacancy. Thereafter, the two exchanged a series of sexually explicit text messages and photos. The director allegedly wanted sexual favors in exchange for a job offer, while the plaintiff kept up the flirtatious banter to try and get the job.

When no job offer materialized, she filed suit against the university and the director, alleging a variety of claims under Title VII and Mississippi law. The director, who was fired for his conduct, maintained that the messages were flirtatious and consensual, and the record bore that out to the extent that there was no evidence that he caused the plaintiff emotional distress. As a result, he was dismissed from the suit.

Motion for sanctions, summary judgment. The university subsequently filed a motion for sanctions, contending the case should be dismissed as a sanction for the plaintiff having disposed of her cell phone in disregard of her obligation to preserve relevant evidence. The university also moved for summary judgment on the grounds that there was no actual job vacancy, the director was not a “supervisor” under Title VII, and the plaintiff suffered no emotional distress.

Plaintiff knew texts were key. Granting the motions in part, the court pointed out that the case concerns text messages and photos sent between smartphones, so the parties’ phones were critical evidence. The plaintiff knew this because when the suit was filed, the university’s attorneys immediately sent her lawyer a letter demanding that she “preserve and sequester” her phone. And during discovery, she signed several documents, under oath, indicating she still had her phone and had not deleted or excluded any of its content from the defendants. The university was therefore understandably surprised to learn at her deposition that the phone was broken and no longer in her possession. She had taken it to a local AT&T store and bought a new phone.

Pattern of deception. The court also explained that a forensic examination of the plaintiff’s phone, had one been done, would likely have hurt her case because screenshots and testimony established that she had not shared all relevant messages with the EEOC (as the agency’s investigator had suspected). She could not explain how some texts were deleted before the messages were shared with the agency. While the plaintiff tried to blame opposing counsel for not getting stored copies of her texts from her iCloud account or her new phone, and had “the gall to ask the Court to award her attorney’s fees for having to respond to the motion,” the court found her arguments inexcusable. Furthermore, when the plaintiff finally searched her own iCloud (after her attorney responded to the motion), she identified new, important evidence, thereby contradicting her sworn statements that she had produced everything to the defendant.

Monetary sanctions. In light of the foregoing evidence of a “pattern of deception” on the plaintiff’s part, sanctions were appropriate. However, the court found that monetary sanctions, rather than dismissal, were in order because her claims failed on summary judgment anyhow. It ordered the plaintiff to pay $500 in attorneys’ fees and a $100 fine to the court.

Summary judgment granted. On the merits, the court granted summary judgment for the university on the Title VII claims because the undisputed evidence showed that the former department director did not have authority to hire anyone. Also, the negligent supervision claim failed because the director was not acting within the scope of employment while sexting. Finally, the plaintiff lacked any evidence that she suffered emotional distress, so those claims failed as well.