4th Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Race Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

By Jeffrey Rhodes July 5, 2022
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Takeaway: To survive dismissal, a Title VII claim must raise an inference of discrimination above a speculative level. This can be done, however, with a handful of facts that suggest discriminatory motives for employment decisions.

​The plaintiff, a Black man, worked for the Maryland Military Department, a state employer. He was hired in 2014 as the program coordinator/deputy director of Freestate Challenge Academy, a residential education program for at-risk adolescents. Until 2016, he reported to a program director and was a top performer and regularly received outstanding evaluations.

In June 2016, the program director was dismissed, and the plaintiff was promoted to acting program director and then program director. After his promotion, the plaintiff began to have problems with the HR director, a white man. According to the plaintiff, the HR director refused to work with him and required him, unlike other directors, to take his concerns to the deputy HR director, a Black woman.

In early 2018, the plaintiff learned that he was being paid around $5,000 less annually than the prior program director. The plaintiff raised the pay issue with the HR director, who agreed that he was not being paid fairly but did not rectify the disparity. In February 2018, the plaintiff filed his first Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint alleging discrimination and a hostile work environment by the HR director. Mediation resulted in a settlement agreement.

The HR director later contacted one of the plaintiff's subordinates and asked if she felt safe under the plaintiff's leadership. On March 1, 2018, the plaintiff filed his second EEO complaint against the HR director. Mediation resulted in another settlement agreement.

The plaintiff then began experiencing problems with the new chief of staff, who replaced his prior chief of staff in January 2018. In May 2018, the new chief of staff admonished him for not working with the HR director and honored the HR director at an employee recognition program. The chief of staff then issued the plaintiff a disciplinary performance evaluation for mismanaging the Freestate budget. The plaintiff alleged that the budget officer, a white man, was responsible for budget oversight, yet was not disciplined. So the plaintiff filed his third EEO complaint.

In a June 2018 meeting, the chief of staff allegedly yelled at and berated the plaintiff, and demanded to be addressed as "sir," even though white employees did not do this. The chief of staff said he knew of the plaintiff's complaint against the HR director and would be involved. Shortly thereafter, a climate survey was sent to the plaintiff's subordinates and the chief of staff contacted his subordinates questioning his whereabouts during the workday.

Two months later, the plaintiff was told that the state had found no evidence to substantiate his EEO complaints. He was fired six days later because of budget issues and for low enrollment numbers. He was replaced by a white woman who was paid at least $10,000 more than him.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging unlawful termination, a hostile work environment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff's claims for failure to state a valid claim. The district court granted the defendants' motion and dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice due to failure to allege a "prima facie" case of discrimination, lack of evidence of a hostile work environment and the fact that he was fired months after his final EEO complaint.

The plaintiff appealed the decision to the 4th Circuit. On appeal, the 4th Circuit considered the complaint to decide if its allegations supported a nonspeculative inference of discrimination. The court found the allegations sufficient to support a plausible claim of discriminatory discharge based on the allegations that the plaintiff was treated differently than white employees and that Freestate did not give him a performance improvement plan before termination.

The 4th Circuit also found that the chief of staff's statements after the plaintiff's last EEO complaint and before his termination could help establish retaliation. However, it agreed with the district court that the hostile work environment claim was too weak to survive dismissal.

The 4th Circuit thus reinstated the plaintiff's Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims.

Holloway v. State of Maryland, 4th Cir., No. 20-1958 (April 25, 2022).

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.

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