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U.S. District Court Examines Causation Standard for Unlawful Retaliation Claims

Millicent Carvalho-Grevious v. Delaware State University, John Austin, and Alton Thompson
No. 13-1386 (United States District Court for the District of Delaware, September 30, 2015)

by Richard J. Medoff, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

Available at:

In Millicent Carvalho-Grevious v. Delaware State University, John Austin, and Alton Thompson, a case involving a Motion for Summary Judgment of a Plaintiff’s claims of unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII'') and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that Plaintiff could not satisfy the required “but for” standard of causation. Thus, Judge Gregory M. Sleet granted Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.

By way of factual background, on August 16, 2010, Defendant Delaware State University (“DSU”) hired Plaintiff Millicent Carvalho-Grevious ("Grevious" or “Plaintiff”) as an Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Social Work. The faculty position was tenure-track, and the Chairperson position was a one-year appointment. Plaintiff’s duties as Chairperson included: "managing the academic department, administering department matters, running department faculty meetings and such other duties as customarily held by a faculty chair."

Plaintiff reported to Defendant John Austin ("Austin"), who was the interim Dean of the College of Education, Health and Public Policy, and Austin reported to Defendant Alton Thompson ("Thompson"), the University Provost. Not long after Grevious began working at DSU, conflicts arose between her and several Department faculty and staff. In the first three (3) months, Austin received written complaints from an Administrative Assistant, the Director of Field Instruction, and an Assistant Professor, who each felt that Grevious had attacked them personally and had questioned improperly their professional competence.

On January 20, 2011, Grevious asked to schedule a meeting with Thompson concerning Austin's "interference with departmental governance," and claimed that Austin had mounted a campaign to have her removed as Chairperson. On January 25, Grevious requested a meeting with Associate Provost Bradley Skelcher. In her email, she claimed that Austin's denial of her travel request form was "further proof that Dr. Austin was working an agenda to undermine the effectiveness of [her] role as department chair." Grevious did not make any mention of gender or race discrimination in her January 20 or 25 messages. On January 27, 2011, Grevious sent Thompson another email complaining about Austin's "unilateral and arbitrary management style." She claimed she had "experienced some retaliation" as a result of her attempts to discuss her concerns with Austin. When Grevious tried to discuss the issues with him, Austin allegedly responded that "his management style was meant to stop back biting among women, especially Black women." Thompson replied that he regretted the conflicts between Grevious and Austin, and that the behavior Grevious complained of was "not acceptable for a senior administrator." Thompson then met with Grevious on January 31, 2011.

On February 14, 2011, Thompson met with Austin to discuss Grevious' concerns. The next day, Austin completed a Chairperson Evaluation for Grevious. Grevious felt the evaluation was inconsistent with her actual performance and "full of personal misrepresentation and lies.” After she met with him to discuss the evaluation, Austin submitted a revised, more positive evaluation on February 16. On February 17, Thompson told Grevious that Austin had denied making inappropriate comments, but Thompson "encourage[d] him to always be very professional with [her] and other faculty and staff going forward." In a series of emails between February 8 and February 16, Grevious asked Thompson to intervene in the upcoming faculty vote on whether to remove her as Chairperson. Grevious again claimed that Austin was manipulating the election by asking faculty members to vote against her "without justified reasons, except to retaliate against [her]." She repeated her concerns with "Dr. Austin making inappropriate derogatory ethnic comments" and also claimed that Austin had "misappropriated departmental funds." She said the "retaliation" from Austin had "escalated," resulting in a Chairperson evaluation "that ignored all the work that [she had] done for the department." Thompson declined to intervene in the election, and on February 16, the faculty voted 5-4 to replace her as Chairperson.

On February 23, Grevious filed a formal grievance against Austin with the Office of the Provost alleging, among others things, that Austin retaliated against her for reporting sexual harassment by giving her a bad Chairperson evaluation. On March 22, the Office of the Provost closed its investigation, finding "no evidence of retaliatory action on Dr. Austin's behalf having seen no evidence to substantiate the claim." On April 1, Grevious received a formal offer for a renewable contract. On April 14, Grevious filed a Sexual Harassment and Retaliation complaint with Human Resources ("HR"). Her nine-page complaint largely outlined disagreements and disputes regarding Austin's management style and interference with her execution of her Chair duties. She repeated her earlier claims regarding Austin's derogatory statements about Black women, and claimed that he had undermined her and retaliated against her for "doing [her] job" because she "complained about his sexual harassment and retaliation." Grevious met with HR on May 3, 2011. The same day, Grevious was notified that by Thompson that DSU was dismissing her as Chairperson, effective May 6. This prematurely terminated her appointment, which would have ended when the newly elected Chairperson was set to assume the position on June 1, 2011.

On May 20, 2011, Grevious filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). She claimed that after her complaints to Thompson "about the demeaning comments that Dr. Austin made about women, Black women in particular," Austin "initiated a series of hostile actions to undermine [her] leadership and success as Chair." The Defendants became aware of the EEOC Charge around June 2011. On June 21, 2011, Grevious received a revised, terminal employment contract. When she received the contract, she emailed DSU President Harry Williams, asking why she had received a terminal contract in light of her "outstanding" performance as an Associate Professor. She was referred to Thompson, and asked him the "basis for revoking a contract that has already been issued and signed by all parties .... With all things considered, it appears punitive."

Grevious claimed that Thompson told her that her contract was revised "in retaliation for filing the EEOC complaint, May 24, 2011, and not for anything related to teaching, service or scholarship." Thompson, on the other hand, claims he met with her to give her the opportunity "to present any supporting documentation to indicate that she met or exceeded professional competence in teaching, research, or professional service." After reviewing her documentation, Thompson found that "in terms of research and teaching she met at least the minimum standards," but "in terms of service she has consistently displayed an inability to work collegially with her direct reports, peers, and the persons that she reports to; this feedback was consistent across all levels." Thompson claims his recommendation for a terminal contract was based on this documented interpersonal conflict. Austin was not involved in the decision to offer Grevious a terminal contract.

On August 4, 2011, HR notified Grevious that it was closing its investigation into her sexual harassment claims because nobody corroborated her allegations of inappropriate comments by Austin. HR further stated that during the investigation "most of the information [she] shared actually had to do more with the academic practices of the Social Work Department and staff operations, rather than the allegations of the initial complaint." On September 28, Grevious filed a second EEOC Charge based on the issuance of the terminal contract.

On August 2, 2013, Grevious filed a Complaint against DSU, Austin, and Thompson (collectively, "Defendants"). Grevious filed a First Amended Complaint on September 25, 2013, and a Second Amended Complaint on October 27, 2014. Grevious alleged that the Defendants unlawfully retaliated against her, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. as to DSU, and in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 as to Austin and Thompson. On June 5, 2015, the Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment asserting that Grevious could not succeed on her claims because she could not satisfy the "but for" standard of causation.

Title VII provides that "it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees ... because [the employee] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). Section 1981 also prohibits retaliation for complaints of illegal discrimination. See, e.g., Daughtry v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 819 F.Supp.2d 393, 403 (D. Del. 2011). The Court explained that the substantive elements of a claim under § 1981 are “generally identical” to a claim under Title VII, so the Court treated those claims jointly. See Brown v. Kaz, Inc., 581 F.3d 175, 181-82 (3d Cir. 2009). The Court further explained that a plaintiff's retaliation claims under Title VII and § 1981 are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, under which a plaintiff is first required to establish a prima facie case of retaliation by showing: "(1) protected employee activity; (2) adverse action by the employer either after or contemporaneous with the employee's protected activity; and (3) a causal connection between the employee's protected activity and the employer's adverse action." See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973); Kachmar v. SunGard Data Sys., 109 F.3d 173, 177 (3d Cir. 1997).

If the plaintiff meets this burden, the Court further explained, the burden then shifts to the defendant to articulate one or more legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions, and if the defendant produces sufficient reasons for its actions, the plaintiff is then required to demonstrate that the defendant's asserted rationale is pretextual. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. The Court noted that if the plaintiff cannot carry this burden, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment.

The parties did not dispute that Grevious had satisfied the first two (2) elements of the prima facie case. The Court noted that Grevious engaged in protected activity when she filed harassment and discrimination complaints against Austin to the Provost's Office, HR, and the EEOC, and that Grevious suffered adverse employment decisions when she was removed as Chairperson and when she was offered a terminal contract. The parties' disagreement centered on whether or not Grevious could successfully establish the third element, causation.

Grevious argued that the timing between her complaints and the adverse employment actions was evidence of retaliation by the Defendants. The Court explained that close temporal proximity between an employee's protected activity and the alleged retaliatory action “may provide an inference of causation where the timing is unusually suggestive of retaliatory motive,” Shaner v. Synthes, 204 F.3d 494, 505 (3d Cir. 2000), but a plaintiff must still prove retaliation using but-for causation, which "requires proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer." Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2533 (2013).

On the issue of causation, the Court found that Grevious failed to show any causal link between her protected activity and Austin's actions. The Court noted that Plaintiff’s relationship with Austin had soured before she ever reported harassment. Plaintiff first reported antagonism from Austin on January 20, 2011, and first complained that she was experiencing "retaliation" and “harassment” from Austin on January 27. The Court further found that any retaliation Plaintiff faced on January 27 predated her Title VII protected activity and seemed to have centered on her conflicts with Austin and his management style. The Court noted that throughout her complaints, Grevious echoed many of the same concerns with Austin's "interference with departmental governance." Because Grevious complained of retaliation from Austin before he learned of her informal complaints, the Court found it “difficult to characterize his actions as unlawful retaliation.”

The Court further concluded that Grevious also failed to establish causation for the Defendants' other adverse employment decisions. The Court noted that Grevious first complained of harassment on January 27, 2011, filed a complaint with HR on April 14, and an EEOC Charge on May 20. On May 3, Plaintiff was informed that her term as Chairperson was being cut short. The Court found that this extended period of over three (3) months between Plaintiff’s first harassment complaint against Austin and the termination of her Chairperson position, did “not lead to a strong inference of retaliation.” Further, the Court noted that the faculty had voted her out in February, which made it even more difficult for Grevious to prove that the Defendants would not have removed her as Chairperson "but for" her complaints. Grevious further argued that Thompson personally told her that she received the terminal contract in retaliation for her EEOC complaint, but the Court was not persuaded, noting that Grevious lacked corroboration for that allegation.

Further, Defendants Thompson and DSU offered a nonretaliatory explanation for their decision. The Court noted that a contemporaneous memorandum from Thompson, which was written before the conversation in which he allegedly told Grevious he was retaliating, indicated that Plaintiff’s terminal contract was issued because of her "inability to work collegially" with others. To raise an issue for trial, the Court explained that Grevious was required to demonstrate that Thompson's explanation contained "weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions" sufficient for a reasonable juror to conclude that it was a pretext for retaliation. Rumanek v. Indep. Sch. Mgmt., Inc., 50 F. Supp. 3d 571, 581 (D. Del. 2014). The Court found, however, that Grevious failed to do so. The Court explained that Thompson's explanation was supported by ample evidence on the record that Grevious had many quarrels with her coworkers during her short time at DSU, and that those conflicts predated any claims of harassment or discrimination.

Accordingly, the Court held that Grevious could not show that her harassment complaints were the but-for cause of the Defendants' actions as a matter of law. Thus, the Court granted Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.