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Fourth Circuit Revives Employer’s Claims for Retaliation Over Supervisor’s Alleged Abuse

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion reversing summary judgment for the employer and allowing an employee’s claims for retaliation in connection with reporting her supervisor’s abuse to proceed to trial. The case was Strothers v. City of Laurel, Maryland.

The plaintiff in the case is Felicia Strothers, an African-American woman who was hired to work as an administrative assistant in the Department of Communications for the City of Laurel, Maryland. When she interviewed for the position in August 2013, three of the four interviewers found her to be the strongest and most qualified applicant, whereas the fourth interviewer, Carreen Koubek, expressed her disapproval of hiring Strothers because Koubek “wanted someone of a different race.”

Before starting work in October 2013, Strothers requested and received approval for a modification in her schedule to arrive at 9:05 a.m. and take a shorter lunch break, which would better accommodate her children’s bus schedule. At 8:55 a.m. on her first day of work, Koubek marked Strothers tardy despite her reporting for work at the approved time. Koubek knew about the approved schedule modification, but she still demanded that Strothers start arriving at 8:55 a.m. Koubek then started tracking Strothers’ daily arrival times in a logbook and faulted her for “problematic behavior” for frequent tardiness despite the logbook also evidencing Strothers habitually arriving at or before her officially approved time.

Koubek’s logbook also tracked every instance when Strothers was away from her desk, including bathroom breaks. The logbook recorded occasions when Koubek scolded Strothers in the bathroom for failing to report before leaving her desk. On other occasions, Koubek’s logbook faulted Strothers for not reporting when she returned. Koubek’s logbook also faulted Strothers for many other things, including a demand for Strothers to take PTO to go home and change for wearing jeans on casual day. Koubek then cited tardiness and dress-code violations as the bases for giving a negative three-month performance evaluation to Strothers despite Koubek also explaining that Strother “did everything she was asked to do.” Koubek later admitted that the only employees she had ever disciplined were Strothers and one other person, who happened to be the only two African-Americans Koubek ever supervised.

On February 26, 2014, Strothers sent an internal memo to the City’s Director of Communications that complained of Koubek’s constant harassment as creating a hostile work environment. On March 6, 2014, Strothers requested forms needed to file a formal grievance against Koubek. The City then did not investigate the matter and fired Strothers the next day. The City’s only stated basis for the termination was the alleged tardiness. Strothers then filed suit claiming that the City discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of Title VII. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed the discrimination claim and granted summary judgment in favor of the City on the retaliation claim. The District Court found that Strothers’ internal reports of Koubek’s harassment was not protected activity because the City was not aware that Koubek’s alleged harassment was attributable to racial animus.

Strothers appealed the grant of summary judgement, and the Fourth Circuit held in her favor. The Court agreed that Strothers’ case should continue to trial because she had “demonstrated a genuine dispute of material fact as to her reasonable belief that Koubek created an abusive environment that altered the ‘terms, conditions or privileges’ of her employment with the City.” The Court also found that a reasonable jury could find that Strothers engaged in protected activity and reasonably believed the City would be liable for Koubek’s actions. Finally, the Court also reasoned that the temporal proximity between Strothers’ internal complaints about Koubek and her termination sufficiently established a causal connection to support her retaliation claim. Thus, the Fourth Circuit remanded the case back to the District Court, where Strothers will be able to continue litigating her claims that the City retaliated against her in violation of Title VII.

The attorneys at CCLB represent clients of all types and sizes – particularly in the healthcare industry – in connection with employment-related matters, including those brought under Title VII and similar employment discrimination and retaliation matters. For any questions, or if we can be of any assistance with such a matter, please contact us at (404) 262-6505 or sgrubman@cclblaw.com.