Retaliation Claim, Arising From Alleged Transfer Denial Following Complaint of Racial Slur, Sufficiently Alleged

In Grant v. Baltimore City Police Department, Civil Action No. RDB-21-2173, 2022 WL 16746703 (D.Md. Nov. 7, 2022), the court, inter alia, held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

A plaintiff alleging unlawful retaliation must show that there exists a “but-for” connection between the protected activity in which she engaged and the adverse employment action which she suffered. Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 360 (2013). Causal connection may be established “through two routes.” Roberts v. Glenn Indus. Grp., Inc., 998 F.3d 111, 123 (4th Cir. 2021) (quoting Johnson v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 839 F. App’x 781, 784 (4th Cir. 2021)). The plaintiff may provide evidence of (1) temporal proximity or (2) “the existence of other facts that alone, or in addition to temporal proximity, suggests that the adverse employment action occurred because of the protected activity.” Johnson, 839 F. App’x at 784.

A plaintiff may not assert a causal connection in a conclusory fashion, but the presence of a “close” temporal relationship between the protected activity and the alleged adverse action can be sufficient to establish a causal connection at the pleading stage. See Clark County Sch. Dist. v. Breeden, 532 U.S. 268, 273 (2001) (holding that alleged “temporal proximity” must be “very close” to satisfy this third element). If the employer did not know of the protected activity, then even temporal proximity cannot save a plaintiff’s claim. Price v. Thompson, 380 F.3d 209, 213 (4th Cir. 2004) (explaining that the employer must know the employee engaged in protected activity as a prerequisite to establishing a causal connection). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has not set forth a specific timeframe for what constitutes “very close.” Pascaul v. Lowe’s Home Centers, Inc., 193 F. App’x 229, 233 (4th Cir. 2006).

In cases where the temporal proximity is “missing,” “courts may look to the intervening period for other evidence of retaliatory animus.” Lettieri v. Equant, Inc., 478 F.3d 640, 650 (4th Cir. 2007) (internal citation omitted). “Specifically, evidence of recurring retaliatory animus during the intervening period can be sufficient to satisfy the element of causation.” Id. Where intervening events between the protected event and the adverse action occur regularly and can “reasonable be viewed as exhibiting retaliatory animus,” there is a sufficient causal link. Id. at 651.

Under the second route to establish causation, Plaintiff’s Second Amended Complaint has established “recurring retaliatory animus during the intervening period” which is sufficient for a prima facie showing of causation. In particular, the sequence of events between Plaintiff’s complaint concerning Major Handley’s use of a racial slur on August 1, 2019, and Plaintiff’s denied transfer to the Homicide Unit were expressly linked to Sergeant Kevin Brown’s explicit statement that Plaintiff “would not be selected for that position due to her previous complaints against Major Handley.” (ECF No. 20-1 at 13-14.) Further, Plaintiff alleges that both Gillis and Harrison made explicit comments to Plaintiff discouraging her to speak out about the incident, amounting to the type of “recurring retaliatory animus” necessary to show causation at this stage. Additionally, and more generally, Plaintiff has established a pattern of denied transfer opportunities in close temporal proximity to filed complaints.

Based on this, the court held that plaintiff’s Title VII retaliation claim was sufficient, at the dismissal stage, and hence denied defendant’s motion.

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