Letter Carrier’s Retaliatory Hostile Work Environment Claim Against USPS Survives Summary Judgment

In Atencio v. United States Postal Serv., No. 14 CIV. 7929 (AJP), 2016 WL 4145930 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 4, 2016), the court granted defendant USPS’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s reasonable accommodation claim, but denied its motion on plaintiff’s retaliation claim under the Rehabilitation Act (a federal statute applicable to claims of disability discrimination by federal employees).

Plaintiff alleges “that USPS violated the Rehabilitation Act when it failed to engage in an interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation of her disability, and subjected her to retaliatory harassment because she sought an accommodation.”

After reviewing the legal standards for claims of retaliation and hostile work environment, the court applied the law to the facts:

Atencio has satisfied the first, second and fourth prongs of her prima facie case. Atencio alleges that she sustained a back injury in approximately 2002, and that until August 2011 she encountered few difficulties with her supervisors, who generally made a good faith effort to provide her assistance when needed. Once Atencio sought a formal accommodation in October 2011, however, she claims that her supervisors would “abuse and provo[ke]” her, most often when she requested assistance. Atencio’s supervisors allegedly referred to her as “useless,” “lazy” and a “fake,” and called her claim of limitation “bullshit” in an open area among other USPS employees. Although Atencio admittedly is vague in her description of the offending “supervisors,” the record reflects that Towns and Buono supervised Atencio during the relevant time period, and, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party, they each had the ability to take tangible employment actions against Atencio. A specific basis thus exists for imputing their conduct to USPS.  Atencio accordingly has shown that she engaged in a protected activity by seeking an accommodation of her disability, that USPS knew about the requests for accommodation, and that a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the hostile environment, which Atencio states began only after October 2011 and generally occurred when she asked for help to accommodate her disability. USPS does not dispute these elements.

USPS does dispute the severity and pervasiveness of the alleged harassment. Atencio’s allegations, while vague, appear to relate to the entire time period from October 18, 2011 to her last day of work on January 10, 2013, a total of approximately fifteen months. Although Atencio gives no concrete dates when each instance of abuse occurred, she states that she “frequently” was subjected to harassment when asking for help, and outlines what she believes to be a typical “pattern” of abuse on a near day-to-day basis during the entirety of the relevant time period. … Atencio’s supervisors, she claims, insulted her limitations, and “literally scream[ed] at” her if she would ask for help, and made such comments in front of other USPS employees. Atencio additionally states that her supervisors imposed restrictions on her requests for help by requiring her to use the Form 3996, only to deny her access to the forms as a “method to torment” her.  Atencio subjectively perceived the work environment to be abusive, and states that the abuse from her supervisors left her embarrassed at work and in tears nearly every evening. The Court concludes that, given the alleged frequency, severity, and humiliating nature of the alleged harassment, Atencio has satisfied her burden of proving a prima facie case of retaliatory hostile work environment that altered the conditions of her employment and occurred because of her disability. USPS does not proffer any legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the supervisors’ treatment of Atencio. It is a close call, and Atencio may (or may not) prevail on the retaliation claim at trial, but USPS is not entitled to summary judgment on Atencio’s retaliation claim.

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