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Harassment and Retaliation Claims Dismissed Against Mayor of Baltimore

Jennifer Coates v. Mayor & City Council of Balt.
Civil No. JKB-10-3419 (D. Md.) (February 14, 2012)

by Kevin M. Cox, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

Plaintiff, Jennifer Coates (“Coates”), sued her former employer, the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (“MCCB”), claiming employment discrimination in the form of hostile work environment and retaliation. Coates was formerly the Director of the Office of Council Services in Baltimore, Maryland. She alleged she was ordered by MCCB to fire one of her subordinates, Richard Krummerich (“Krummerich”), who was white and in his 50’s. Coates did not fire Mr. Krummerich, and alleged that then-Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her chief of staff, Kimberly Washington, created a hostile work environment for her. Coates also alleged that her resignation on August 6, 2008 was a constructive discharge in retaliation for her actions. She claimed in her Complaint, in creating the hostile work environment, MCCB was motivated by age and race. MCCB filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which Plaintiff filed no response thereto.

Coates claimed two (2) kinds of discrimination: hostile work environment and retaliation. Because she offered no direct evidence of discriminatory intent, she had to rely upon indirect proof to establish her case under the burden-shifting scheme established by the Supreme Court. To prove a complaint of hostile work environment, Coates had to establish that she suffered work place harassment that was (1) unwelcome; (2) based on race [or other factors improper under antidiscrimination laws], and (3) sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere.” To prove her allegation of retaliation, she had to prove that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) her employer took adverse employment action against her; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. Under either theory, if a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, then the burden shifts to the employer to produce evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision. If the employer satisfies this burden of proof, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to show “’by a preponderance of the evidence that the legitimate reasons offered by the defendant were not its true reasons, but were a pretext for discrimination.’”

The Court found that Coates’ Answers to Interrogatories and deposition testimony was evidence that no conduct or statements attributable to Rawlings-Blake or Washington were motivated by age or race. Rather, it was clear that then-President Rawlings-Blake desired to upgrade the performance and professionalism of the Office of Council Service, that Krummerich was reasonably perceived by her to be performing below par, and that Coates was unable to exercise sufficient supervisory skill to improve Krummerich’s performance. Though Coates seemed to be concerned about how it would look if she were to fire the only white analyst under her purview, since the other three analysts were African-American, her speculation as to that potential perception could not be attributed to either Rawlings-Blake or Washington as evidence of an improper motive on their part.

Moreover, the Court found no evidence of harassment. It was evident to the Court that Rawlings-Blake was dissatisfied with the lack of resolution to her concern, and as time went by with no progress being made, indicated that Coates should not continue in her capacity as Director of Council Services. An employer’s desire to rectify an unsatisfactory situation by terminating the employee responsible for, but seemingly incapable of, solving the problem cannot be considered, without more, harassment.

The preceding analysis provided the backdrop for the Court’s analysis of Coates’ retaliation claim. To succeed on a retaliation claim, Coates was required to prove that she engaged in a protected activity under the employment discrimination laws. Although it is not necessary that an employee’s underlying discrimination claim be meritorious to succeed on a retaliation claim, it is necessary that an employee have an objectively reasonable belief that the employer committed an unlawful employment practice. Because Coates had no colorable claim that MCCB possessed an illegal motive for seeking Krummerich’s discipline or termination, she had no basis for claiming that MCCB engaged in an unlawful employment practice. Under the circumstances, it was objectively unreasonable for Coates to believe that MCCB was attempting to discriminate against Krummerich. Consequently, her resistance to cooperate with MCCB regarding Krummerich does not constitute protected activity. Therefore, her claim of illegal retaliation failed as well.