Plaintiff began working as Director of Talent Relations and Casting for Defendant in 2004. Among other responsibilities, Plaintiff was charged with booking talent for TV One shows, including TV One-on-One, hosted by TV One’s founder, chairperson, and board member Catherine Hughes. Ms. Hughes is also the mother of TV One Chief Executive Officer and President Alfred Liggins.
Plaintiff was subjected to a pervasive pattern of sexual harassment and gender discrimination by Ms. Hughes during the course of her employment at TV One. The crux of Plaintiff’s claim was that Ms. Hughes insisted repeatedly that Plaintiff take up a romantic relationship with Mr. Liggins. Ms. Hughes fueled workplace rumors that Plaintiff and Mr. Liggins were romantically involved. Once Ms. Hughes realized that Plaintiff was not going to marry Mr. Liggins, she began to “baselessly attack” Plaintiff’s job performance, including publicly berating Plaintiff in front of her co-workers; demanding that Plaintiff make requests for talent in a manner contrary to standard industry protocol; and chastising Plaintiff for taking time off for her wedding and honeymoon in 2012.
Plaintiff’s employment was terminated in late June 2014 following a dispute with Ms. Hughes regarding a missed opportunity for booking a performance for a music event. The Parties dispute the facts regarding a phone call between Plaintiff and Ms. Hughes, with each side accusing the other of yelling and speaking unprofessionally during the phone call.
Plaintiff then called and emailed Human Resources Vice President Sharon Alston complaining about harassment by Ms. Hughes. Meanwhile, Ms. Hughes contacted Jackie Kindall, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, and told her about the call with Plaintiff. Ms. Hughes indicated her desire to terminate Plaintiff. Thereupon, Ms. Kindall and Ms. Alston conducted an investigation into the events.
When Plaintiff spoke with Ms. Alston on the morning of June 24 regarding her voice message and e-mail sent on June 23, Plaintiff recounted the phone conversation with Ms. Hughes on June 22 and provided a full history of her treatment by Ms. Hughes at TV One. In response, Ms. Alston informed Plaintiff that she was being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
In the afternoon on June 24, Ms. Alston met with Ms. Kindall, Linda Vilardo, Radio One’s Chief Administrative Officer, and in-house legal counsel, to discuss her investigation of the dispute between Plaintiff and Ms. Hughes. According to Defendant, at that meeting, Ms. Vilardo determined that Plaintiff’s employment should be terminated for insubordination. Plaintiff was not notified of the decision to terminate her employment on June 24 because, on June 25, Ms. Kindall was preparing a severance package to be offered to Plaintiff. On the morning of June 26, Plaintiff sent to Ms. Alston a written complaint against Defendant for gender discrimination and harassment. Later that day, Plaintiff was informed by letter that her employment had been terminated effective June 24.
The Court iterated an important point of law within employment discrimination, namely, that Title VII protects activity in opposition not only to employment actions actually unlawful under Title VII, but also employment actions an employee reasonably believes to be unlawful.
In this case, the Plaintiff put forth sufficient evidence that, prior to her complaint on June 23, she was subjected to gender-based harassment in the workplace, including Ms. Hughes repeatedly urging a romantic relationship between Plaintiff and Mr. Liggins and Ms. Hughes publicly berating Plaintiff in front of co-workers once Ms. Hughes realized that Plaintiff was not interested romantically in Mr. Liggins. In light of the facts and record presented, the Court found that there was sufficient evidence that Plaintiff held a subjectively and objectively reasonable belief that Ms. Hughes’ offensive conduct, because of her refusal to marry Mr. Liggins, was an unlawful employment practice. Therefore, Plaintiff had put forth sufficient evidence that she engaged in protected activity when she made a verbal complaint to Ms. Alston on June 23.
Two additional important points involved Defendant’s timing and reason for termination.
1. Causal Connection between complaint of harassment and termination.
Defendant argued that even if Plaintiff engaged in protected activity (complaining about sexual harassment), Plaintiff cannot show that but for her protected activity she would not have been terminated because (1) regardless of any protected activity, Defendant would have fired Plaintiff for being belligerent and insubordinate to Ms. Hughes on June 22, 2014; and (2) Plaintiff’s alleged protected activity came after Defendant’s decision to terminate had been made on June 24.
The Court disagreed, noting that normally, very little evidence of a causal connection is required to establish a prima facie case. If the employer takes the adverse employment action shortly after learning about the protected activity, courts may infer a causal connection between the two. Where temporal proximity is the only evidence of causation, however, the temporal proximity must be very close, as it was in this case.
According to Defendant, the decision to terminate Plaintiff was made on June 24 and communicated to Plaintiff on June 26. Defendant argued that because it made a tentative decision to discharge Plaintiff on June 24, before Plaintiff submitted her written complaint on June 26, the fact that it proceeded with its decision to discharge Plaintiff does not demonstrate causality. Defendant’s argument failed, however, because even assuming that it made a tentative decision to terminate Plaintiff on June 24, that decision was made the day after Ms. Alston learned about Plaintiff’s complaint alleging harassment by Ms. Hughes on June 23. The Court found that there was sufficient evidence of a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. Therefore, Plaintiff had put forth sufficient evidence to support her retaliation claim.
2. Defendant’s “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for Plaintiff’s termination.”
Defendant set forth legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for Plaintiff’s termination, i.e., that she was terminated for being belligerent and insubordinate to Ms. Hughes on June 22. Thus, the burden returns to Plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant’s reasons were not its true reason, but were pretext for discrimination. Plaintiff argued, inter alia, that the fact that Ms. Hughes told Ms. Kindall that Plaintiff was to be fired proves that any subsequent investigation and conclusion were pretextual. Although Defendant insists that Ms. Kindall was the investigator into the dispute between Plaintiff and Ms. Hughes on June 22, and Linda Vilardo was the decision maker for Plaintiff’s termination, Plaintiff presented evidence that on June 23 — before Defendant’s alleged decision to terminate Plaintiff on June 24 – Ms. Hughes instructed Ms. Kindall to have Plaintiff fired.
Although the court does not sit as a kind of super-personnel department weighing the prudence of employment decisions, a complaining party may demonstrate that discrimination motivated an adverse employment action if the individual with the discriminatory animus possessed such authority as to be viewed as the one principally responsible for the adverse employment decision or the actual decision-maker for the employer. Here, although Defendant proffered non-discriminatory reasons for Plaintiff’s termination, Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that the reasons for her termination were pretext for discrimination. Therefore, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s retaliation claim was denied.