Retaliation Claim Survives Summary Judgment; Termination Followed Sexual Harassment Complaint

In Harlow v. Molina Healthcare, Inc., 5:20-CV-1382, 2024 WL 1126736 (N.D.N.Y. March 15, 2024), the court, inter alia, denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on her retaliation claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law.

After summarizing the “black letter” law, the court applied it to the facts as follows:

Next, Harlow brings a claim for retaliation under Title VII and the NYSHRL (Counts III, IV). Compl. ¶¶ 92–95. According to plaintiff, Molina retaliated against her when it terminated her for complaining about Browne’s sexual harassment. Pl.’s Opp’n at 16–18. Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because plaintiff has not demonstrated that its reason for terminating her was pretext for retaliation. Def.’s Mem. at 14.

Like Harlow’s race discrimination claims, retaliation claims brought under Title VII and the NYSHRL are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Carr v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 76 F.4th 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2023). “To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (i) she was engaged in protected activity; (ii) the alleged retaliator knew that she was involved in protected activity; (iii) an adverse decision or course of action was taken against her; and (iv) a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action.” Gamble v. Fieldston Lodge Nursing & Rehab. Ctr., ––– F. Supp. 3d ––––, 2023 WL 6393739, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2023).

As relevant here, “[p]roof of causation can be established either “(1) indirectly, by showing that the protected activity was followed closely by discriminatory treatment, or through other circumstantial evidence … or (2) directly, through evidence of retaliatory animus directed against the plaintiff by the defendant.” Tafolla v. Heilig, 80 F.4th 111, 125 (2d Cir. 2023) (quoting Gordon v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 232 F.3d 111, 117 (2d Cir. 2000)).

Once plaintiff has established her prima facie case, defendant must provide a “legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the allegedly retaliatory action.” Carr, 76 F.4th at 177 (citing Chen v. City Univ. of N.Y., 805 F.3d 59, 70 (2d Cir. 2015)). The burden then shifts back to plaintiff to prove that “the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action.” Id. (quoting Chen, 76 F.4th at 70).

Upon review, Harlow has established a prima facie case of retaliation. It is undisputed that plaintiff engaged in protected activity—filing a sexual harassment complaint—and that Molina was aware it. Pl.’s Resp ¶ 12. It is also undisputed that plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action when she was terminated. Id. ¶23.

Harlow has also demonstrated a fact question as to the causal link between these two events. Plaintiff made her sexual harassment complaint in December 2018 and was terminated approximately two months later, on February 21, 2019. Pl.’s Facts ¶¶ 11, 16; Pl.’s Resp. 23. This short timeline is well within the outer limits imposed by the Second Circuit to establish causation. Housel v. Rochester Inst. of Tech., 6 F. Supp. 3d 294, 308 (W.D.N.Y. 2014) (quoting Gorzynski v. JetBlue Airways Corp., 596 F.3d 93, 110 (2d Cir. 2010)).

At step two, the burden shifts back to Molina to offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Harlow and defeat the presumption of retaliation. Defendant again asserts that it terminated plaintiff because of her “continued unacceptable behavior and poor performance.” Def.’s Mem. at 14. Thus, the burden returns to plaintiff to demonstrate that these reasons were pretext for defendant’s retaliation.

Upon review, Harlow has marshalled evidence from which a fact finder could conclude that Molina’s reason for terminating her to retaliate against for her protected activity. For instance, Hendrix testified that Human Resources had been actively “building a case” against plaintiff in the month prior to her termination to make it look like she had not been fired in retaliation for her sexual harassment complaint. Pl.’s Opp’n at 17; Pl.’s Resp ¶ 19; Ex. 7 at 6–7. This evidence, coupled with the temporal proximity between plaintiff’s termination and her sexual harassment complaint, is more than sufficient to defeat summary judgment.

Based on this, the court held that summary judgment was not warranted.

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