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Bias claims can’t withstand summary judgment

A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit brought by two women against their former employers, concluding at the summary judgment stage that the evidence was insufficient to allow their gender, age and disability discrimination claims to move forward.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. in Rhode Island found shortcomings in the seven-count complaint filed by plaintiffs Kathryn Galvin-Assanti and Linda Ricci-McNiel, who around the same time in 2015 each went on medical leave from the property management company where they worked. They were eventually terminated and replaced when they could not advise their employer, defendant Atlantic Properties, of a return date.

Lead counsel for defendants

Lead counsel for defendants

McConnell first explained that the plaintiffs had not established gender discrimination resulting in a hostile work environment by complaining of what amounted to stressful work situations.

“This court is conscious of the fact that an analysis of a hostile work environment claim is ‘fact specific’ and that the ‘determination is often reserved for a fact finder,’” he wrote. “But analyzing all of the undisputed material facts, the court finds that the evidence of defendants’ actions are not enough to establish that Ms. Ricci and Ms. Galvin faced an environment of severe and pervasive hostility based on their gender.”

Reaching a similar conclusion on Ricci-McNiel’s age discrimination count, McConnell pointed to the lack of “disputed evidence on which a jury could find that [she] was denied leave, terminated, or otherwise pushed out of her employment” based on her age.

And on the plaintiffs’ charge that they suffered retaliation for taking FMLA leave, the judge found they had failed to establish a causal connection between the leave and their termination.

The 23-page decision is Galvin-Assanti, et al. v. Atlantic Properties Management Corp., et al.

Stephen T. Fanning of Providence, who represented the plaintiffs, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Lead counsel for the defendants, Joseph L. Sulman of Waltham, Massachusetts, characterized the case as a “classic example of a meritless lawsuit from a group of disgruntled employees who quit on their employer and decided to sue.”

“Fortunately,” Sulman added, “Judge McConnell saw through the baseless allegations and ruled that the plaintiffs had no evidence to back up their claims of discrimination. My client is grateful for the decision.”

Medical leave

Galvin-Assanti and Ricci-McNiel began working in 2010 as a property manager and leasing agent, respectively, for Atlantic Properties and related entities that own and manage apartment complexes.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs generally described incidents when they felt harassed, overworked and underpaid compared to their male co-workers. They also alleged that they were denied opportunities to renegotiate their compensation, even though comparable male employees had more generous packages.

On April 19, 2015, Ricci-McNiel asked for four weeks FMLA leave due to severe muscle spasms and loss of range of motion. She submitted a certification from her chiropractor, but the defendants rejected her request because she had not been treated with manual manipulation.

With her subsequent attempt to complete the certification through another chiropractor unsuccessful, the defendants denied her request for FMLA leave and required Ricci-McNiel to return to the office by June 1, offering reasonable accommodations upon her return.

But she did not ask for any accommodations, and Ricci-McNiel was ultimately terminated on Aug. 7 when she was still unable to return to work.

Meanwhile, Galvin-Assanti on April 21 requested a four-week leave for stress, panic attacks and anxiety. She was told to get a second opinion and to call in every morning as required by the employee handbook. She did both, even though speaking with supervisors intimidated her. She submitted periodic doctor’s notes, which excused her absence until July 20. Galvin-Assanti did not return to work on that date, and she was terminated shortly thereafter on July 23.

During the plaintiffs’ medical absences, the defendants hired Karl Johnson and Ryan Glines to cover the work. Johnston, who had 10 years’ experience as a property manager, was hired to fill in for Galvin-Assanti with the plan to move him to a similar position when she returned. Galvin-Assanti testified that she believed the defendants permanently replaced her with Johnson two weeks after she went out on leave.

Glines filled in for Ricci-McNiel during her medical leave and remained on staff when she did not return.

The plaintiffs subsequently filed the current complaint against the defendants, alleging hostile work environment based on gender; age and disability discrimination; and retaliation for pursuing FMLA leave.

The defendants moved for summary judgment on all counts.

No ‘severe or pervasive’ harassment

After outlining the McDonnell Douglas analysis applicable to claims lacking direct evidence of intentional discrimination, McConnell sided with the defendants and granted their motion for summary judgment on all counts.

First, although McConnell found that the plaintiffs had satisfied some elements of a prima facie case of hostile work environment based on gender or age discrimination, their claims were lacking by not demonstrating severe or pervasive harassment.

On that front, McConnell explained that the 1st Circuit had “imparted a clear standard” to be considered hostile, the environment must be “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive work environment.”

The plaintiffs had cited instances of disparate treatment in which male employees were given better benefits and described offhand comments that were hurtful and disrespectful in an environment that was stressful and busy.

But that was not sufficient, McConnell said.

“Under any interpretation of the case law, none of these instances, individually or collectively, are enough to meet their burden,” the judge wrote. “[N]either plaintiff can demonstrate that any of this conduct was ‘objectively offensive’ such that it ‘interfered with [their] work performance to an extent that is unreasonable or that altered the conditions of [their] employment.’”

He added that occasional comments and a tense or uncomfortable working relationship with one’s supervisor are not, without more, pervasive enough to support a hostile work environment claim.

Ricci-McNiel’s claim that the defendants violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act met with the same fate.

Although she made out a prima facie case by showing that she was over 40, that she was terminated, that her job duties were assumed by another person, and that she was qualified to do her job, Atlantic Properties was able to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating her.

“Given defendants’ undisputed contention that it was understaffed after both Ms. Ricci and Ms. Galvin took medical leaves at the same time, the court finds that defendants have met their burden to show a legitimate reason for temporarily filling her position and then terminating her employment when she shared that she could not return,” McConnell wrote.

With the FMLA retaliation claim, the plaintiffs’ stumbling block was causation, with the judge pointing out that the company was having trouble functioning with two absent staff members who could not offer a return date.

“Defendants made the decision to move on from Ms. Galvin and Ms. Ricci,” he wrote. “While their termination occurred relatively close in time to the medical leaves, temporal proximity alone is often not enough to establish a causal connection, especially if the reality of the situation undercuts any claim of causation.”

Finally, the plaintiffs could not be deemed “qualified individuals” for the purpose of their disability discrimination claim under the ADA as they did not request reasonable accommodations to allow them to return to work.

“While the law protects employees with disabilities by requiring that their needs be accommodated if possible, it does not require employers affirmatively to craft the accommodation without an employee’s input and approval,” McConnell concluded. “That neither plaintiff met defendants halfway in proposing alterations to their essential functions that would suit their specific needs disqualifies them from arguing unlawful termination and failure to accommodate.”

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