Retaliation Claim, Based on Sexual Harassment Complaint, Survives Summary Judgment

In Zaja v. SUNY Upstate Medical University/Upstate Healthcare Center, 5:20-CV-337 (MAD/TWD), 2022 WL 4465498 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2022), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s retaliation claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

Here, Defendant has met its burden of production to establish a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action. Defendant states that it received “constant complaints from other staffers of interpersonal conflict between Plaintiff and others in the laboratory.” Dkt. No. 32-8 at 21. Defendant further states that “Plaintiff was trying to tell [a supervisor] how to run the unit, which he found to be inappropriate.” Id. Lastly, Defendant also states that it decided not to renew Plaintiff’s employment contract because Plaintiff had informed it that he intended to take several months off to study for the MCATs.

Plaintiff asserts that these stated reasons are pretext. The Court agrees that there is evidence in the record from which a reasonable juror could conclude that but for Plaintiff’s formal sexual harassment complaint, his employment contract would have been renewed. Although temporal proximity alone cannot rebut a legitimate non-discriminatory reason, the Court notes that the decision not to retain Plaintiff was communicated to him ten days after he reported the alleged sexual harassment. Moreover, Defendant has not produced any records or email correspondences regarding Plaintiff’s alleged behavioral issues, or any complaints made against him by any other staff members. Instead, Plaintiff testified that his supervisor informed him he was terminated because of the complaint that Plaintiff filed. Plaintiff also emailed the investigator, Mr. Rosenthal, on the day he was fired. Plaintiff stated that his supervisor decided to not extend his contract because Plaintiff had “sent him several issues.” Lastly, Plaintiff also disputes that he requested significant time off and instead wanted to work two or three days a week.

Where, as here, “the parties have put forward several alleged causes of the plaintiff’s termination: retaliation, unsuitability of skills, poor performance, and inappropriate behavior,” the “determination of whether retaliation was a ‘but-for’ cause, rather than just a motivating factor, is particularly poorly suited to disposition by summary judgment.” Zann Kwan, 737 F.3d at 846 n.5. “[I]t requires weighing of the disputed facts, rather than a determination that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Id.; see also Joseph v. Owens & Minor Distrib., Inc., 5 F. Supp. 3d 295, 320 (E.D.N.Y. 2014). A reasonable jury could infer that Defendant did not retain Plaintiff because it received “complaints of interpersonal conflicts,” such as Plaintiff’s sexual harassment complaint. Plaintiff testified that his supervisor stated that “he wasn’t going to extend [Plaintiff’s] contract … because of [Plaintiff’s] complaint.” Dkt. No. 35-3 at 68. Moreover, Plaintiff was informed that he would not be retained only ten days after his complaint and contemporaneously reported to Mr. Rosenthal that he was told it was because of his complaint.

[Cleaned up.]

Based on this, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that defendant’s proffered reason is pretextual.

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