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January 2011

New York Employment Team Prevails on Summary Judgment in Retaliation Case

New York Partner Mercedes Colwin obtained summary judgment on a Title VII retaliation claim on behalf of a national insurance company in the U. S. District Court of the Northern District of New York.  The Plaintiff claimed she was subjected to approximately 19 discrete acts of "retaliation" by various supervisors of the insurance company over a nearly nine year period, and was eventually discharged after having filed a claim of sexual harassment against the insurance company in 1999.  Notably, the supervisor alleged to have sexually harassed the Plaintiff was demoted at the time Plaintiff's claims were made and died shortly thereafter. 

In rendering its decision, the Court first agreed with Defendant's assertion that the continuing violation theory under Title VII did not apply to claims of retaliation.  Therefore, events occurring more than 300 days prior to the date in which the Plaintiff filed her Charge of retaliation with the EEOC were outside the statute of limitations and could not be considered as part of Plaintiff's claim.  As a result, the defense team greatly reduced the number of alleged acts of retaliation the Court had to consider. As to the acts Plaintiff alleged were retaliatory that did fall within the statutory time frame, the Court concluded that three of them were not adverse actions because the Plaintiff was not harmed or injured by any of the actions, nor was she dissuaded from filing internal complaints, and in fact did subsequently file.

Plaintiff's remaining allegations of retaliatory conduct included an allegedly biased investigation of her claims by human resources and resulting discipline, reviews given by her new supervisor, temporary exclusion from certain training, and a subsequent probation and termination.  The Court concluded that these events could be considered adverse actions and, as they all occurred within a six month window from the Plaintiff's most recent complaint of unlawful conduct, a fact finder could potentially infer a causal connection between the complaints and the actions.  Consequently, Plaintiff could establish a prima facie case of discrimination. 

However, the Court further concluded that the employer had sufficiently established legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for the alleged adverse actions, namely a pattern of poor performance, thereby properly establishing its next burden and necessitating that Plaintiff establish pretext in order to overcome the Defendant's  motion.  Although Plaintiff claimed she could establish pretext for each of the remaining allegedly adverse actions, the Court concluded she could not, in fact, do so.  In particular, the Court concluded that the employer conducted a thorough investigation of Plaintiff's claims of retaliation when it interviewed 19 individuals in three departments and prepared an eight page report.  Moreover, even if the investigation was flawed, as the Plaintiff claimed, that is not in and of itself, evidence of pretext.  Similarly, the Court found that Plaintiff's claim that she was not sufficiently provided feedback during her review prior to her termination to be without merit as the evidence clearly established that the Plaintiff was given both verbal feedback and written documentation about her performance.  

Overall, Plaintiff presented no credible evidence to refute the substantial findings supporting the employer's determination that Plaintiff was inadequately performing her job.  As a result, Plaintiff had not satisfied her burden of demonstrating pretext sufficient to overcome the Defendant's motion for summary judgment. 

Mercedes Colwin