E-Alert Case Updates
Plaintiff’s Allegations of Gender Discrimination Were Undermined by Defendant’s Efforts to Improve Her Work Performance
Cacie Biddle v. Fairmont Supply Company
In a recent opinion, the United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia held that the plaintiff did not adduce evidence sufficient to establish her various claims relating to workplace discrimination and retaliatory discharge. Plaintiff was hired by Defendant as a warehouse manager in 2009. In 2011, her supervisors became concerned by certain aspects of her job performance, including improper maintenance of the warehouse, untimely responses to inquiries by employees and clients, and inaccurate inventory packing for customer deliveries. As a result, her supervisors implemented a Performance Improvement Plan, and counseled her approximately twenty (20) times over the next thirteen (13) months regarding her performance. When her performance did not improve by February 2013, Defendant fired Plaintiff.
Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant alleging: gender discrimination, retaliatory discharge, and hostile work environment. She alleged that Defendant asked her to engage in questionable conduct with which she expressed disagreement, including refraining from listing employees with Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) charges and not filing an incident report for a broken light bulb. She also alleged that her supervisor yelled at her, referred to her as “sweetheart,” and assigned her secretarial tasks. Furthermore, Plaintiff alleged that, one week before her termination, she contacted Defendant’s human resources manager and expressed that she felt harassed and disagreed with her supervisors’ assessments of her work performance. The human resources manager informed her that she could file a complaint and that an investigation could be conducted, but Plaintiff never filed a formal complaint.
After discovery, Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiff did not establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination, and even if she did, that Plaintiff was fired for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, namely her deficient work performance. Moreover, Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge claim was baseless because Plaintiff was fired over a year after she engaged in a protected activity, and that there was no proof of a hostile work environment.
The District Court granted Defendant’s motion. The Court concluded that Plaintiff did not establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination, as the record reflected that Defendant had approximately twenty (20) discussions with Plaintiff regarding her deficient performance in the thirteen (13) months preceding her discharge. The Court stated: “It would be quite unusual for an employer engaging in discriminatory conduct to pursue such corrective and positive endeavors for the benefit of the plaintiff.” Furthermore, even if Plaintiff had established a prima facie case, the record contained ample uncontradicted evidence demonstrating that Defendant had fired Plaintiff for the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason that her work performance was deficient. In so concluding, the Court noted that evidence that Plaintiff presented indicating that her coworkers thought she had done a good job was irrelevant, as it was only the perception of the decisionmaker, i.e., Plaintiff’s supervisors, which mattered in determining whether the employee’s work performance was adequate.
With respect to Plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge claim, the Court concluded that Plaintiff’s expressions of disagreement with Defendant regarding listing an employee with a DUI charge and not filing an incident report regarding a broken light bulb did not constitute protected activities sufficient to establish a claim for retaliatory discharge. Even if they did, the expressions occurred over a year before Plaintiff was fired and were inconsequential in nature, which undermined any inference that her eventual discharge was related to the incidents. Regarding Plaintiff’s conversation with the human resources manager, the Court concluded that merely talking with the manager did not constitute a protected activity where Plaintiff’s supervisors were unaware that the conversation had occurred at the time they fired Plaintiff. Had Plaintiff actually filed a complaint for harassment, however, she may have been able to establish a prima facie case in this regard.
Finally, regarding Plaintiff’s claim that Defendant created a hostile work environment, the Court determined that Plaintiff’s allegations were “questionable at best” and unsupported by the evidence adduced in discovery. Plaintiff’s coworkers never observed any instance of harassment as alleged by Plaintiff; and the work that Plaintiff was asked to do was no more “secretarial” than the work other managers did. Moreover, Plaintiff’s discussion with the human resources manager involved feeling harassed as a result of her work performance, not her gender. This crucial distinction undermined Plaintiff’s claim that Defendant fostered a work environment hostile to her because of her gender. As a result, the Court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to all of Plaintiff’s claims.
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