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City denied summary judgment in employee’s retaliation claim

Judge: question of fact on whether behavior ‘unreasonable’

Providence City Hall, where the plaintiff is employed in the Department of Inspection and Standards (Photo by Barry Bridges)

Providence City Hall, where the plaintiff is employed in the Department of Inspection and Standards (Photo by Barry Bridges)

A federal judge has denied a motion by the city of Providence seeking summary judgment in a Title VII retaliation lawsuit brought by one of its employees, concluding that conflicting evidence prevented the city from articulating a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for suspending the plaintiff.

The suit was mounted by state Sen. Ana Quezada, who in 2017 was suspended for five days from her job as a housing inspector for the city’s Department of Inspection and Standards, where she also served as a union steward. Quezada alleged the city wrongly retaliated against her for questioning management on why a Hispanic colleague had not been promoted.

The defendant countered that, in making her comments, Quezada “quite loudly” called the department director a racist in front of colleagues. In moving for summary judgment, the city said the resulting suspension “arose not out of the content of Ms. Quezada’s complaints, but the time, place and manner in which she chose to express them.”

But U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith in Rhode Island determined that the city did not make its case that Quezada’s purportedly “unreasonable” conduct constituted a nondiscriminatory reason for imposing the adverse employment action under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting paradigm. He pointed to the plaintiff’s deposition testimony to the contrary that she neither raised her voice nor accused the director of being a racist.

“The fact that plaintiff raised these concerns in an open office setting is not per se unreasonable, as ‘the law protects employees in the filing of formal charges of discrimination as well as in the making of informal protests of discrimination, including making complaints to management, … protesting against discrimination by industry or society in general, and expressing support of co-workers who have filed formal charges,’” Smith wrote in denying the motion and concluding that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s behavior.

The 13-page decision is Quezada v. City of Providence.

Joseph R. Daigle, who practices in North Kingstown, is representing the plaintiff in the litigation. James A. Musgrave of Providence is counsel for the city. Neither attorney was available for comment prior to press time.

Workplace exchange

The plaintiff and her co-workers belong to the Laborer’s International Union of North America, Local 1033, with the plaintiff serving as a steward helping to represent the rights of union members.

Quezada was also elected as a senator from Providence’s District 2 in 2016.

During a work day in June 2017, the plaintiff had a conversation with the director of her department, Jeffrey Lykins, in which she voiced her concern — in the presence of others — that a city electrical inspector, Rodis Rodriguez, had not been promoted to an open position because of his Hispanic ethnicity.

Lykins said the city had not selected a candidate for the job because it was instituting a new testing requirement.

Quezada responded that if Rodriguez were “a white electrical inspector” the department would not have imposed new criteria. She added that the department had previously discriminated against an African-American apprentice inspector, treating him less favorably than a white colleague.

The parties’ accounts of what else was said diverged at that juncture. Lykins said the plaintiff called him a racist within earshot of others in the office. Quezada countered that while she complained of perceived discriminatory conduct, she did not act inappropriately or call Lykins a racist and said there was no evidence to indicate that other employees were able to hear what was said.

Based on that interaction, the city brought a disciplinary action against Quezada, who after a hearing was suspended from her job for five days. That fact was reported in the local news.

The plaintiff brought suit seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the city, alleging that it violated Title VII and the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act by retaliating against her for opposing discrimination in the workplace. She also sought damages for the “humiliation and harm to her reputation” caused by the ensuing press coverage.

The defendant’s motion for summary judgment maintained that Quezada’s workplace conduct was unreasonable and further cited a lack of evidence that the city had leaked the news to the media.

Conflicting accounts

In weighing the city’s position, Smith opened his discussion with a refresher on the three-step McDonnell Douglas evidentiary framework used to analyze whether Title VII retaliation claims will survive an employer’s motion for summary judgment.

A plaintiff employee must first prove a prima facie case of discrimination based upon her opposition to an unlawful employment practice. The defendant employer must then articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action, and the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s stated reason is pretext.

There was no dispute that Quezada had established a prima facie case, as she was suspended from her job shortly after communicating her belief that the city had engaged in a form of employment discrimination.

However, in Smith’s view the city’s contention that the plaintiff was disciplined for the “time, place and manner” in which she expressed her opposition was not sufficient to meet its burden under the second step.

The city specifically contended that the plaintiff’s choice to “dress down” her supervisor “in a communal workspace before an audience of her co-workers and Mr. Lykins’ subordinates [that was] open to the public” was “patently unreasonable” and thus constituted a nondiscriminatory reason for her subsequent suspension. Better options, according to the defendant, included privately discussing her views with Lykins or going to human resources.

Smith conceded that if an employee’s conduct is unreasonable, even though borne out of legitimate protest, the disciplinary action does not violate Title VII.

But in the present case, the city’s argument was undercut by the parties’ different accounts of what happened. For example, Lykins said the plaintiff called him a racist “quite loudly,” while Quezada testified that she did not raise her voice during their “frank, informal conversation” and merely “questioned whether there was a ‘racial element’ to the department’s decision making.”

“Clearly, a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether plaintiff’s behavior was ‘unreasonable,’” Smith wrote in denying the motion.

Even if the plaintiff’s conduct was unreasonable, thus meeting the second prong of the McDonnell Douglas test, Smith concluded that a reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff’s suspension was pretextual in light of Lykins’ “unclear” statements about implementing new testing requirements for a position that already had been advertised, as well as disputed evidence in the record that the department had previously terminated an African-American apprentice inspector, but not a white apprentice, for failing a job-related test.

“This is all enough for a jury to conclude that the city’s stated reason was actually a pretext for retaliation against plaintiff for raising a complaint of discrimination against Mr. Rodriguez,” Smith wrote.

However, the defendant was successful in its request for partial summary judgment on Quezada’s emotional distress claim, as Smith agreed that she did not plausibly allege facts establishing that the city caused such alleged injuries by leaking news of her suspension.

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