Sexual Harassment Complaint Was Not a “Motivating Factor” for Adverse Actions; Retaliation Claims Properly Dismissed

In Holcomb v. State University of New York at Fredonia, 2017 WL 4511381 (2d Cir. Oct. 10, 2017) (Summary Order), the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s retaliation claims.

In sum, the court held that plaintiff failed to prove that she suffered an adverse action as a result of her sexual harassment complaint.

From the Order:

We agree with the district court that Holcomb has failed to meet her burden to show that a reasonable juror could conclude that her sexual harassment complaint was either the but-for cause of or a substantial motivating factor in the adverse employment actions taken against her. With respect to the initial set of sanctions imposed on Holcomb and David Rudge, Holcomb can point to no material distinction between the sanctions imposed on her versus the sanctions imposed on Rudge that would suggest that her sexual harassment complaint against Boelter was even a minor factor in the decision to sanction her. Indeed, the sanctions are practically identical, and the email sent to the rest of the faculty setting forth the changes for the 2011-2012 school year draws no distinction between the two. Instead, the evidence in the record supports Defendants’ position that Holcomb and Rudge were equally sanctioned in response to their unanticipated, unprecedented, and inflammatory email regarding the Concerto Competition.

Similarly, Holcomb has failed to meet her burden to show that a reasonable juror could conclude that the legitimate, non-retaliatory reason given by Defendants for Holcomb not having been reinstated to her prior position is pretextual. Holcomb has offered no evidence to support her claim that SUNY Fredonia refused to engage in a reconciliatory process with her. The bare assertion in her declaration that “no administrators” gave her the “opportunity to engage in a dialogue” conspicuously excludes counsel for SUNY. Defendants have provided an affidavit from SUNY’s Associate Counsel averring that Defendants were willing to engage in either EEOC mediation or mediation during district court proceedings with Holcomb but that Holcomb did not successfully avail herself of these processes. … Holcomb also places great weight on various statements by and emails from Boelter and others, none of which, either collectively or in isolation, suffice to satisfy Holcomb’s burden to show that Defendants’ explanation for her non-reinstatement is pretextual given the vast amount of evidence that shows that Holcomb, in contrast to Rudge, refused to take steps to ameliorate the situation between herself, her colleagues, and the SUNY Fredonia administration following the Concerto Competition debacle.

At the end of the day, we refuse to sit as a super-personnel department that reexamines an entity’s business decisions. … Whether Holcomb (and, by extension, Rudge) should or should not have been suspended for their inflammatory email regarding the Concerto Competition is not the question before us. Nor is the question of whether Holcomb should have been reinstated at some point between Fall 2011 and today, notwithstanding her lack of willingness to address the negative consequences of her actions. Instead, the question with which we are faced is whether Holcomb has met her burden to show that she was suspended and not reinstated because she was being retaliated against for her sexual harassment allegation against Boelter. This Holcomb has failed to do because she has failed to provide us with any evidence suggesting that her sexual harassment complaint was a motivating factor in the decisions to suspend and to not reinstate her, much less the but-for cause of those decisions.

Share This: