Law Updates

United States District Court for the District of Maryland Denies Employer’s Motion to Dismiss in Sexual Discrimination Action because Plaintiff Showed that Supervisor was a Proximate Cause of her Termination

Vicino v. Maryland Dep’t of Natural Res., No. 12-2790 (D. Md. Nov. 8, 2013) | View pdf

(November 10, 2013) Wayne C. Heavener, Associate.

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In Vicino v. Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendant employer and supervisor, finding that the plaintiff employee had sufficiently alleged that sexual discrimination was a proximate cause of her termination. Writing for the Court, Judge James K. Bredar acknowledged that the facts of the case made for a close case, but that the plaintiff generated issues of material fact such that summary judgment was inappropriate.

Megan Vicino (“Plaintiff”) was hired by the DNR as a probationary park ranger at Seneca Creek State Park in July 2009. Plaintiff’s duties included managing daily park operations, and recruiting park volunteers. Plaintiff’s immediate supervisor was Mr. David Powell, who reported to the park manager, Kim Lloyd. Plaintiff was one (1) of two (2) full-time rangers working at Seneca Creek. Her colleague, Chris Czarra, was male. When Plaintiff began her employment, Mr. Powell did not make the same preparations for Plaintiff as he did for Mr. Czarra. Mr. Czarra’s work station was larger than Plaintiff’s work area, with more storage space. When Plaintiff requested similar improvements to her work station, Plaintiff was temporarily given two (2) drawers of file cabinets; Mr. Powell eventually removed those drawers. Mr. Powell and Plaintiff often found it difficult to communicate, whereas there was no such difficulty between Mr. Powell and Mr. Czarra. Mr. Powell was generally reluctant to provide any guidance to Plaintiff, but often offered suggestions to Mr. Czarra.

In October 2009, both Plaintiff and Mr. Czarra attended ranger school. Though Plaintiff received passing scores, there were two (2) incidents that led DNR Superintendant, Nita Settina, and Ms. Lloyd to discuss Plaintiff’s termination. The first incident involved Plaintiff injuring herself while walking in the dark. Plaintiff’s incident report regarding her injury did not reflect Plaintiff’s original story. In the second incident, Plaintiff found that Mr. Czarra had left a set of keys in the door of an unattended truck. Rather than informing Mr. Czarra, Plaintiff reported the issue to the school’s dean. The dean informed Plaintiff that her initial response should have been to return the keys to Mr. Czarra. As a result of these incidents — the latter in particular — Ms. Settina and Ms. Lloyd discussed the possibility of terminating Plaintiff. Ms. Lloyd, however, ultimately favored permitting the Plaintiff to return to Seneca Creek.

Upon her return to Seneca Creek, Plaintiff underwent an evaluation, in which Ms. Lloyd and Mr. Powell informed her that she was not meeting recruitment expectations. Later, in December, Plaintiff was again informed that she needed to increase in recruiting, and ultimately received an overall “meets standards” rating on her mid-cycle evaluation.

In April 2010, Plaintiff was approached by a female employee who felt that she was being sexually harassed by Mr. Powell. There was an issue regarding the employee’s schedule and a salary raise, which Mr. Powell corrected. After correcting the mistake, Mr. Powell informed the employee that “she was going to be his” for the rest of the summer, and that Mr. Powell would often stare at the employee. Plaintiff contacted Ms. Lloyd and arranged a time to speak about the employee’s complaint. Accounts differ as to the actual content of Plaintiff’s meeting with Ms. Lloyd. According to Plaintiff, she raised the issue of sexual discrimination to Ms. Lloyd. Ms. Lloyd, however, maintains that Plaintiff only raised the issue of the employee’s apparent scheduling mistake.

In May 2010, Ms. Lloyd reported to Ms. Settina that Plaintiff’s performance was declining, and recommended termination. The Superintendant was surprised that Ms. Lloyd made this recommendation, given that Ms. Lloyd had often felt that Plaintiff should not be terminated. Later, in June, Plaintiff participated in a year-end evaluation with Ms. Lloyd and Mr. Powell, in which Plaintiff’s rating dropped to the “needs improvement” range. Ultimately, Plaintiff was given the opportunity to resign, or face termination. On June 21, 2010, Plaintiff signed a letter of resignation. Plaintiff filed an Internal Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint (“EEO Complaint”) the following day. She filed suit against both the DNR and Mr. Powell (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging employment discrimination on the basis of sex and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Defendants moved for summary judgment as to all counts.

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied Defendants’ motion, finding that summary judgment was inappropriate given the factual disputes raised by Plaintiff. Regarding Plaintiff’s claim of sex-based discrimination, the Court noted that a plaintiff may avert summary judgment by either demonstrating that discrimination motivated the employer’s adverse employment decision, or showing that the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment under the McDonnell Douglasframework, see McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 798 (1973). In this case, Plaintiff argued that Mr. Powell’s discriminatory animus towards her was the motivation behind her termination. Because Mr. Powell could not directly terminate Plaintiff’s employment — rather, he was a subordinate employee to both Ms. Lloyd and Ms. Settina — the Plaintiff also needed to show that Mr. Powell’s discrimination was a proximate cause of her termination. The Court ultimately found that Plaintiff offered direct and circumstantial evidence of discriminatory animus resulting in her termination, thereby precluding summary judgment.

As to Plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the Court also held that summary judgment was inappropriate. The Court noted that, unlike discrimination claims, recovery for retaliation requires but-for causation. The Court noted that the McDonnell Douglasapproach was the appropriate analysis to undertake, and that a plaintiff can establish a prima facie case of retaliation by showing (1) plaintiff engaged in a protected activity, (2) plaintiff’s employer acted adversely against plaintiff; and (3) a causal connection between protected activity and the asserted adverse action. In this case, the Court held that, when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, a reasonable jury could determine that Plaintiff discussed sexual harassment with Ms. Lloyd, and thereby engaged in a protected activity. Similarly, a reasonable jury could hold that a causal nexus existed between Plaintiff’s protected activity and her termination. The Court noted, however, that the issue was a close one, and that “Plaintiff’s retaliation claim may well lose before a jury.” Vicino v. Maryland Dep’t of Natural Res., No. 12-2790, slip op. at 21 (D. Md. Nov. 8, 2013). Nonetheless, the Court found summary judgment inappropriate, and denied Defendants’ motion.