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A final termination decision made three days after the terminated employee filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge was sufficient to raise the question of pretext, a district court said, declining to grant summary judgment on a retaliation claim.
Judith Maloney was employed as the health director for the city of Bethlehem, Pa. She was suspended by the city in 2008 and asked to go for employee assistance counseling following multiple arrests, including one for driving under the influence. Several years later she was charged with simple assault in a domestic dispute with her boyfriend. Following that arrest, she was suspended with pay and placed on administrative leave.
Maloney’s boss recommended that she be terminated due to her lack of candor to the police about the incident, which he considered to be a Code of Ethics violation; her prior misconduct involving the drunk driving incident; and harassment charges involving her boyfriend and misuse of a city cell phone. In a memo to the mayor, her boss noted the incongruity of Maloney managing program grants for domestic violence in light of her public domestic partnership issues leading to criminal charge over the years. He also noted that three police officers had been dismissed a year earlier for lying during investigations, and said Maloney should be held to a similar standard.
City officials told Maloney that they wanted her to resign in lieu of termination and offered her several inducements to accept a settlement agreement. Maloney told them that she believed the city had treated several male employees involved in alleged domestic violence or similar incidents differently.
The parties continued negotiations over several months, with the city eventually offering Maloney a demotion in exchange for agreeing not to sue. Her attorney filed an EEOC complaint while Maloney was considering the offer. Maloney ultimately rejected the settlement terms and – three days after the EEOC complaint was filed – the city terminated her.
Maloney sued the city, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The court, finding that Maloney was an at-will employee and had no legitimate entitlement to continued employment as health director, granted the city’s request for summary judgment on the Fourteenth Amendment claim.
However, turning to the retaliation claim under Title VII, the court said that even if it were to find that the city had carried its burden to offer a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for Maloney’s termination, there is sufficient evidence to show pretext, permitting the conclusion that a discriminatory reason motivated the action. Evidence of pretext is found particularly in the lack of timely dismissal, with six months passing between the domestic incident and Maloney’s termination, the court said.
“Viewed individually, Plaintiff's allegations would likely fail to satisfy her burden of showing causation and material adversity,” the court said. “As a whole, however, a reasonable jury could find that Defendant's conduct was retaliatory and materially adverse.” The court denied summary judgment on the retaliation claim.
Maloney v. City of Bethlehem, E.D. Pa., Civil Action No. 13-7664 (Nov. 26, 2014).
Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.
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