Retaliation Claim, Based on Firing Shortly After Complaint About Sexual Harassment, Sufficiently Alleged For Default Judgment Purposes

In U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Key Management Partners, Inc., 2023 WL 4351337 (D.Md. July 5, 2023), the court granted plaintiff’s motion for a default judgment as to plaintiff’s retaliation claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

From the decision:

Title VII also prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee who engages in conduct protected under Title VII, to include complaining about unwanted sexual advances. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a); Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 62-67 (2006). To prevail, the employee must make a prima facie showing that she engaged activity protected under Title VII and subsequently faced an adverse employment action such that a causal connection exists between the two. See Pitter, 735 F. Supp. 2d at 395; see also Strothers v. City of Laurel, Md., 895 F.3d 317, 327-28 (4th Cir. 2018). If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the employer must articulate a non-retaliatory reason for the adverse action. Smith v. CSRA, 12 F.4th 396, 416 (4th Cir. 2021). If the employer makes such a showing, the burden shifts back to the employee to demonstrate that the stated reason for the adverse action is pretextual. Id.

When viewing the Complaint facts as true and most favorably to McKenzie, she engaged in protected activity when she complained to Key Management about Pedro’s sexual advances. ECF No. 1 ¶ 30. See Tinoco v. Thesis Painting, Inc., No. GJH-16-752, 2017 WL 52554, at *8 (D. Md. Jan. 3, 2017). Key Management next fired McKenzie a few short months later, despite her solid work performance for nearly two years. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 31, 33. See Williams v. Cerberonics, Inc., 871 F.2d 452, 457 (4th Cir. 1989) (finding an employee’s termination within three and a half months of engaging in a protected activity was sufficient to establish a prima facie case of causation); Allen v. Rumsfeld, 273 F. Supp. 2d 695, 708 (D. Md. 2003) (same). This—combined with Pedro’s confessed lie about having fired McKenzie at the behest of USDA, and the total absence of any legitimate ground for her termination—establishes liability. Default judgment shall issue as to the retaliation claim.

The court did, however, deny plaintiff’s motion for default judgment as to plaintiff’s sexual harassment claim, finding the alleged conduct “short-lived” and hence not “severe or pervasive.”

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