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Lesser Evidence Burden Allowed Professor to Continue Pursuing Her Title VII Retaliation Case, Third Circuit Rules

The case of a Delaware professor, who claimed that her employer fired her in retaliation for making a sexual harassment and discrimination complaint, got new life after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the matter recently. Although the case might require proof that the employer would not have fired her but for the complaint, that level of proof wasn’t required to make a prima facie showing of retaliation, so she should have been allowed to proceed.

The employee who sued was the chair of the Department of Social Work at her university. In early 2011, she contacted a provost and asserted that a dean had made discriminatory remarks, specifically stating that he formulated his management style in a manner to stop female employees, especially African-American women, from “back-biting,” or “fighting amongst themselves to their own detriment.”

Less than a month later, the dean gave the professor a negative performance evaluation. The following April, the professor made a formal complaint, alleging sexual harassment, race discrimination, and retaliation. Less than a month after that, the university removed the professor from the department chairperson role. The university also altered the terms of the professor’s contract and, after the end of the 2011-12 academic year, ended the professor’s employment.

The professor then sued for retaliation in violation of Title VII, alleging that she was demoted and ultimately terminated because she asserted claims of sexual harassment and race discrimination against the dean. The university argued successfully for a summary judgment in its favor at the trial court level, but the professor successfully revived her case in the court of appeals.

The appeals court, whose rulings affect Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, explained that, in cases like this professor’s, the plaintiff must, in order to succeed, show “but-for” causation, which means that, but for the plaintiff’s engaging in a protected activity (like making a claim of discrimination or sexual harassment), the adverse employment consequences wouldn’t have occurred. In other words, the plaintiff must show that, if she hadn’t complained about the alleged discrimination and harassment, she wouldn’t have had her contract revised or have been fired.

At the initial stage of establishing a prima facie case of retaliation, however, the hurdle was not so high. The appeals court announced “that at the prima facie stage the plaintiff must produce evidence ‘sufficient to raise the inference that her protected activity was the likely reason for the adverse [employment] action.'”

The professor’s proof that she presented was enough to meet this burden with regard to her contract revision claim. The university claimed that it revised the contract and ultimately fired the professor due to her “inability to work collegially” with others in her department, but that inability had been evident long before the university decided to revise the professor’s contract, which raised the possibility that the collegiality issue was not the true one. The professor also had evidence potentially indicating that the provost admitted that the university’s actions were in retaliation for the professor’s filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. This, while perhaps not enough in the ultimate case, was enough for a prima facie showing.

Whether you are pursuing your discrimination case in the federal or New Jersey courts, you need experienced and determined counsel who are familiar with these cases. The skilled New Jersey retaliation attorneys at Phillips & Associates have been assisting employees with discrimination actions in both state and federal courts for many years. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled and experienced attorneys to find out how we can help you.

More blog posts:

New Jersey Township’s First Female Police Officer Receives $355,000 Sex Discrimination Award, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, May 4, 2017

New Jersey Supreme Court Upholds $1.4M Emotional Damage Award in Race Discrimination Case, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 16, 2017

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