Retaliation Claim Revived After Employee Recharacterized Firing

By Jeffrey Rhodes Apr 12, 2017
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A Pennsylvania federal court reconsidered its dismissal of an employee's retaliation claim after the employee amended his allegations to state that he was fired in retaliation for filing a complaint of gender discrimination. Based on the new allegations, the court found the retaliation claim legally sufficient to proceed.

Penn Village Facility Operations LLC had a predominately female staff for its skilled nursing facility in Selinsgrove, Pa., when it hired Ralph Oberdorf as a nurse at the facility. During his employment, Oberdorf was supervised by April McFern, the assistant director of Nursing. Oberdorf claimed that McFern made derogatory gender-based comments to him during his employment, including that he must be gay because he is a male nurse, that she could not believe he was straight, that he had a "nice butt" and that his girlfriend must enjoy giving him lap dances. He claimed that these comments were made repeatedly over the course of a year and that he was treated in a rude and condescending manner and disparately disciplined compared to female co-workers.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

Oberdorf alleged that he complained multiple times to management about his treatment and that management failed to investigate or resolve the issue. Rather, management treated him even more rudely and nitpicked his work. Additionally, an administrator told him to "suck it up" and "put on your big boy pants." Oberdorf was eventually terminated in February 2015.

He brought a federal court complaint alleging a hostile work environment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Penn Village filed a motion to dismiss those claims for legal insufficiency, which was granted by the court. In granting the motion, the court allowed Oberdorf to amend his complaint to add factual allegations that could help support his legal claims. In response, he filed an amended complaint.

This amended complaint stated that Oberdorf complained of gender discrimination less than a week before he was fired. It also stated that the only justification that he received for his firing was a vague explanation concerning his alleged interaction with a patient in February 2015. Oberdorf alleged that this explanation was a pretext for discrimination because a female nurse failed to give a patient medication but was not terminated for her conduct.

Penn Village filed a motion to dismiss the retaliation claim (but not the hostile work environment claim) from Oberdorf's amended complaint. The court considered his new allegations under the federal pleading standard that was made stricter in 2007. According to that standard, a plaintiff's factual allegations must demonstrate the "plausibility" of his or her claims and the plaintiff cannot rely on formulaic legal conclusions.

The court noted that a Title VII plaintiff can state a sufficient claim of retaliation through either an unusually suggestive closeness in time between his or her complaint and the allegedly retaliatory action or a pattern of antagonism coupled with timing to show a causal link.

In Oberdorf's first complaint, he did not include dates for his complaints to supervisors and his termination, nor did he describe the allegedly pretextual reason for his termination. In his amended complaint, however, he claimed that he made his last complaint of gender discrimination approximately one week before he was fired and that he was not given a specific reason for his firing. Oberdorf claimed that he was provided only a vague explanation about his interaction with a plaintiff shortly before he was fired, which did not make sense because a female nurse was not fired when she failed to properly administer medication to a patient.

The court found that these new allegations were sufficient to make his retaliation claim plausible and thus satisfied the federal court pleading standard for stating a valid claim. The court thus denied Penn Village's motion to dismiss.

Oberdorf v. Penn Village Facility Operations LLC, M.D. Pa., Case No. 4:15-cv-01880 (March 3, 2017).

Professional Pointer: Termination decisions should always be well-supported and explained in sufficient detail to the employee to prevent him or her from legitimately claiming that the firing was unjustified. Failing to do so may open a company up to a lawsuit from a former employee who can allege that the reason given to the court is a pretext for discrimination.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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