Retaliation Claim, Arising From Complaints of Sexual Harassment, Survives Dismissal

In Alwan v. Rustic Gem, LLC, 1:21-cv-01508, 2022 WL 1591299 (N.D.Ohio May 18, 2022), the court held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged a unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio law, arising from plaintiff’s complaints of sexual harassment.

The court summarized the black-letter law as follows:

To make out a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must show that (1) she engaged in a protected activity under Title VII, (2) the protected activity was known to the defendant, (3) the defendant took an adverse employment action against the plaintiff, and (4) there was a causal connection between the adverse employment action and the protected activity. The prima facie requirement for making a Title VII claim is not onerous and poses a burden easily met. However, a prima facie case is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement. The liberal pleading standard applicable to civil complaints does not require that a retaliation complaint set forth specific facts establishing a prima facie case, but it must allege facts that establish a plausible claim to relief. [Cleaned up.]

Applying the law, the court explained:

The Court concludes that Alwan sufficiently pleaded her retaliation claims in Counts Five and Six. Her Amended Complaint asserts factual allegations that make out a plausible claim for relief. She alleged that she complained to at least two coworkers and then proceeded to be “vocal about [Moennich’s] harassment with other employees.” Alwan further alleged that Moennich “became aware of”—i.e., that Moennich gained actual knowledge of—Alwan’s complaints of sexual harassment. Alwan also alleged that Moennich worked as Rustic Gem’s Golf Manager and that he had “the authority to hire, fire, and make employment decisions regarding [Alwan’s] employment.” Finally, Alwan alleged that Moennich indeed fired her on August 31, 2020, allegedly in retaliation for complaining to her coworkers about Moennich’s alleged persistent sexual harassment. Taken together, these allegations set forth a plausible claim for retaliation: Alwan engaged in protected activity by complaining about Moennich’s alleged sexual harassment, Moennich learned of Alwan’s protected activity, and Moennich—acting under the authority vested in him by Rustic Gem—fired Alwan, allegedly because she engaged in protected activity.

Defendants’ various arguments in favor of dismissal are not persuasive. First, though Alwan’s allegation regarding Moennich’s knowledge of her complaints is indeed spare, when the Court applies the liberal pleading standard, rather than the more rigorous prima facie evidentiary burden, the Court is persuaded that Alwan plausibly alleged retaliation. See Carrethers, 698 Fed. App’x at 271-72. Second, Defendants almost exclusively rely upon cases decided well past the pleading stage. … Alwan need not prove her prima facie case at the pleading stage.

Finally, Defendants’ assertion that Moennich’s alleged actual knowledge of Alwan’s complaints cannot be imputed onto Rustic Gem, the “relevant decisionmaker,” is not well-taken. Defendants’ insistence that Alwan “does not allege in any fashion that Rustic Gem – the relevant decision maker for the retaliation claims – was aware of her alleged protected activity prior to” Alwan’s termination borders on absurd. Rustic Gem” is a company that operates golf courses, not a person. Moennich was one of Rustic Gem’s managers. The company Rustic Gem vested Moennich with the authority to hire and fire employees on Rustic Gem’s behalf. The Court agrees with Alwan’s argument that “[t]here is no way for Rustic Gem to have actual knowledge of a complaint other than through its decisionmakers, such as Moennich.”

[Cleaned up]

The court noted that plaintiff – unlike the plaintiff in a case that the court distinguished – did not ask the Court to infer that Rustic Gem had actual knowledge; rather, “Alwan clearly alleges that Moennich gained actual knowledge of Alwan’s protected activity, and shortly after learning of Alwan’s complaints about his continued alleged harassment, fired Alwan.”

Based on this, the court denied defendant’s motion.

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