Employment Law Daily Spouses fired after complaining of retaliation from 20-year-old dispute advance suit
Thursday, November 30, 2017

Spouses fired after complaining of retaliation from 20-year-old dispute advance suit

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

A husband and wife who were fired less than three months after the husband complained of retaliation, and 20 years after the husband participated as a witness in other discrimination claims against a college, can proceed with their retaliation and discrimination claims, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled. By alleging that the college had told the husband that he was fired in part because of a letter of complaint from his attorney, they presented direct evidence of retaliation. They also alleged sufficient indirect evidence, including the temporal proximity between the letter and termination decisions and multiple comments made by the college’s administrators in the preceding months about the husband’s previous protected activities. The defendant’s motions to dismiss or to strike were denied (Brugh v. Mount Aloysius College, November 21, 2017, Gibson, K.).

Discrimination against black job applicant. According to the plaintiffs, the story of their termination began back in 1992 when a black coach was denied a position at the college because he was married to a white woman. Both spouses worked at the college at that time and the husband was privy to the Dean of Student’s statement that he would not hire the coach because of his race. The husband alleged that he immediately opposed that decision and later acted as a witness for both the coaching candidate and the Athletic Director, who filed suit alleging he had been retaliated against for opposing the decision. Both spouses filed discrimination charges against the college in 1997 and 1998, alleging retaliation.

Then, in 2011 and 2012, the plaintiffs alleged that their prior participation, which was apparently part of a report, was brought up by administrators in various conversations, including comments by the President and Vice President of the College, as well as the Vice President of Academic Affairs. The latter warned people away from the husband and his claims and made specific comments about the employee’s prior case.

Demotion and terminations. In the same time frame, the husband alleges that he was demoted from his position as Assistant Dean of Students. His attorney sent a letter to the college’s Board of Trustees alleging that the employee had been discriminated and retaliated against. Less than three months later, he was fired. One of the reasons given was the letter sent by his attorney. No performance-related reasons were given. Likewise, his wife was fired from her position as a game clock operator for basketball games, even though she had also been with the college for well over 20 years. After receiving “reasonable cause” determinations from the EEOC, the spouses filed suit, alleging violations of Title VII and state antidiscrimination law. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, a motion to strike.

Heading Two. Denying the motion to dismiss, the court explained that the employees’ complaint alleged a prima facie retaliation claim. First, they pleaded facts sufficient to give rise to a reasonable inference that they had engaged in a protected activity. They asserted that the husband’s attorney had sent the college a letter in late September 2012 alleging that the employer had unlawfully discriminated and retaliated against the employee because he had opposed race discrimination in the 1990s. The court read the letter and concluded that the employee had a good-faith and reasonable belief that the conduct in question violated Title VII. They also sufficiently pleaded adverse employment actions, including the husband’s demotion and both spouses’ terminations.

Finally, the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded a causal connection between those actions and their protected activities. First, they alleged direct evidence that they were retaliated against by alleging that the attorney’s letter was explicitly cited as one of two reasons for firing the husband (the other being that a family member had reneged on a promised donation). Second, they alleged indirect evidence by alleging that in the year prior to the terminations, various college administrators, including the President, made critical comments about the husband’s participation in the earlier discrimination cases, including his own previous case against the employer.

Attorney’s letter as protected activity. The plaintiffs’ evidence was in addition to the timing of the termination decisions. With respect to timing, the employer, apparently ignoring the attorney’s September letter and other protected activity that was more recent, focused instead on the cases from two decades before as providing the anchor for the retaliation claim. However, the employees did not allege a causal connection between only those decades-old activities—they also alleged a causal connection between their more recent protected activities and their termination. With regard to the more recent activities, the court found that the employees alleged sufficient facts to establish a causal connection, including the various comments made, even if the temporal proximity between the September letter and December termination was not close enough to imply direct causation alone. The court likewise found the employer’s statute of limitations argument (again, by focusing on the 1990s events) unpersuasive and “easily dismissed.”

Motion to strike denied. The court also denied the employer’s motion to strike allegations related to the case from the 1990s. Those allegations, the court explained, contain necessary background information and describe the employer’s motivation for retaliation. Although the allegations are “potentially damaging” to the college’s reputation, they were nevertheless “not redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous.”

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