Title VII Retaliation Claim Survives Summary Judgment; Threat (and Settlement) of Sexual Harassment Claim May Qualify as Protected “Opposition”

In Gibbs v. Megan J. Brennan, Postmaster General of the Unites States Postal Service, 2021 WL 3661277 (D.N.J. Aug. 18, 2021), the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s retaliation claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This decision is instructive as to the interpretation and application of the “opposition” clause of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision. What makes this case Additionally, this case is arguably unique, in that the alleged harassment against plaintiff was carried out by her subordinate.

From the decision:

This case does not fit neatly into the typical “opposition” case, where a plaintiff has complained to management about discrimination or a discriminatory practice and is punished as a result. I nevertheless conclude that filing a civil case against one’s harasser on the basis of sexual harassment, or threatening to do so and then settling with the alleged harasser, may fit the definition of protected “opposition” under Title VII.

Taking the words at their plain meaning, pursuing a civil claim against one’s harasser for their harassing conduct is clearly “resisting,” “confronting,” or “contending against” sexual harassment. Crawford, 555 U.S. at 276. Such an interpretation is consistent with the legislative intent behind the anti-retaliation provision in Title VII, which was aimed at prohibiting employers from punishing employees for resisting sex discrimination. To hold otherwise might discourage employees from standing their ground against harassment by fellow employees.

[Third Circuit case law] makes it clear that no hard-and-fast rules apply and that each case must be analyzed on its own merits. Cases have held that protected opposition may take the form of pursuing criminal charges against an alleged harasser. Likewise, there is protection against retaliation for negotiating and securing a settlement against one’s employer for sex discrimination.

[Citations omitted.]

Here, plaintiff did not actually file a formal complaint or lawsuit, but merely threatened to do so. Under the circumstances, and through the lens of applicable precedent (and the summary judgment standard, which required the court to credit the non-movant plaintiff’s version of events), the court concluded that there was an issue of fact as to whether plaintiff engaged in protected opposition to sexual harassment.

The court proceeded to evaluate the remaining elements/aspects of plaintiff’s retaliation claim – namely, whether plaintiff suffered an “adverse employment action”, whether there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action, defendant’s proffered legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for their conduct, and pretext – and found that a jury could likewise find in plaintiff’s favor, mandating denial of defendant’s motion..

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