A federal judge from the Western District of Pennsylvania has denied a college’s motion for summary judgment in a case where the school was sued for discrimination on the basis of race within its athletic department, and retaliation after it fired the long-time clock operator for its basketball games.
In so ruling, the court ruled that the plaintiffs — the clock operator and her spouse — successfully alleged facts that “plausibly support a finding that the defendants unlawfully discriminated against (them) and retaliated against them for engaging in protected employment activities.”
Plaintiffs Larry Brugh and Suzanne Brugh are husband and wife. Mr. Brugh worked for the defendant Mount Aloysius College from 1985 until Dec. 10, 2012, when Mount Aloysius terminated his employment. Ms. Brugh was hired by Mount Aloysius in 1988, and served as the game clock operator for the college’s basketball games from 2008 until 2012, when Mount Aloysius terminated her employment. The plaintiffs alleged that Mount Aloysius violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by terminating their employment in retaliation for engaging in protected activity and also violated the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) by discriminating against them.
“The events pertinent to the instant dispute began in 1992,” wrote the court. “That year, Mount Aloysius had plans to hire an African-American man as the Head Coach of the Men’s Basketball Team. Mount Aloysius decided not to hire the applicant when it discovered that his wife was white (according to the complaint). Mr. Brugh, who ‘was present when the Dean of Students indicated that the coach would not be hired because of his race, … ‘immediately objected to and opposed’ Mount Aloysius’ decision not to hire the African-American coaching candidate because, in his mind, ‘such a decision would constitute illegal discrimination.’
“Subsequent to Mount Aloysius’ decision not to hire the African-American coaching applicant, Mount Aloysius terminated the Athletic Director. The former Athletic Director then sued Mount Aloysius for discrimination, claiming that he was terminated in retaliation for opposing racial discrimination relating to Mount Aloysius’ decision not to hire the coaching applicant. Mr. Brugh acted as a witness in the Athletic Director’s case and filed an affidavit in support of his retaliation claims. The rejected coaching candidate also sued Mount Aloysius for discrimination. Mr. Brugh acted as a witness in his case, and was willing to testify in support of the candidate’s discrimination claims. Mount Aloysius had knowledge of Mr. Brugh’s participation in the discrimination cases filed by the former Athletic Director and the coaching candidate.”
The plaintiffs then filed discrimination charges against Mount Aloysius in 1997 and 1998, alleging that it retaliated against them because they opposed the alleged discrimination against the African-American coaching candidate, and because they supported the retaliation and discrimination claims brought by the former Athletic Director and the coaching applicant.
Fast forward to 2011 and 2012, when administrators for Mount Aloysius repeatedly commented on Mr. Brugh’s participation in the racial discrimination claims brought by the former Athletic Director and the coaching candidate, according to the complaint.
On June 8, 2012, Mount Aloysius reappointed Mr. Brugh to the positions of Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Director of Career Counseling, effective July 1, 2012, and continuing through June 30, 2013. However, in August 2012, Mount Aloysius “demoted” Mr. Brugh by removing him from the position of Assistant Dean of Students, according to the complaint. That same month, President Foley met with Mr. Brugh and mentioned Paul Farcus, who had presided over a previous hearing concerning Mr. Brugh’s involvement in allegations of racism and retaliation at Mount Aloysius. During the meeting, Foley allegedly stated that “anyone who would call a lawyer doesn’t deserve the courtesy of a meeting with the President.”
The situation continued to deteriorate with Mr. Brugh’s attorney ultimately sending a letter to Daniel Rullo, the Chairperson of Mount Aloysius’ Board of Trustees, alleging that Mount Aloysius had discriminated and retaliated against Mr. Brugh.
On Dec. 10, 2012, Mount Aloysius terminated Mr. Brugh.
The court wrote that Mount Aloysius “gave two reasons for its decision to fire Mr. Brugh: (1) the letter that Mr. Brugh’s attorney sent to Mount Aloysius on September 21, 2012 and (2) the revocation of a donation to Mount Aloysius by a relative of Mr. Brugh.” There were no performance-related reasons for Mr. Brugh’s termination.
As noted above, Ms. Brugh was hired by Mount Aloysius in 1988. Ms. Brugh worked in various capacities, including as the game clock operator for basketball games beginning in the 2007-08 season. Mount Aloysius terminated Ms. Brugh from her position before the 2012-13 season, despite there being no performance-related reasons for doing so. A fellow game clock operator was not terminated.
Plaintiffs filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). On May 6, 2016, the EEOC concluded that “reasonable cause” existed for the plaintiffs’ claims. Seven months later, the plaintiffs were given Notices of Right to Sue from the EEOC.
The plaintiffs filed their two-count complaint on April 28, 2017. In Count I, they alleged that Mount Aloysius retaliated against them for participating in protected conduct, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Count II, they alleged that Mount Aloysius and Foley discriminated against them in violation of the PHRA.
In analyzing the arguments, the court noted that to establish retaliation under Title VII, “a plaintiff must proffer evidence to show that (1) she engaged in activity protected by Title VII; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against her; and (3) there was a causal connection between the plaintiff’s participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment action. Collins v. Kimberly-Clark Pennsylvania, LLC, No. 17-1942, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17784, 2017 WL 4074535, at *4 (3d Cir. Sept. 14, 2017) (citing Moore v. City of Philadelphia, 461 F.3d 331, 341-42 (3d Cir. 2006)).
“The plaintiffs have satisfied their prima facie burden at the motion to dismiss stage,” the court continued. “(T)hey have pleaded sufficient facts to support a reasonable inference that (1) they engaged in activity protected under Title VII, (2) the defendants took adverse employment actions against them, and (3) these adverse employment actions were casually connected to the plaintiffs’ protected activities.”
The court went on to note that it was unpersuaded by the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs “have not pleaded a causal connection between their protected activities and their terminations. The gist of Defendants’ argument is that, because the plaintiffs engaged in protected activities in the 1990s—decades before their terminations in 2012—the plaintiffs cannot establish a causal connection between their engaging in those activities and the defendants’ termination of their employment.
“The first problem with the defendants’ argument is that it ignores the fact that the plaintiffs have also alleged that their terminations resulted from their protected activity in 2011 and 2012—most importantly, the letter that Mr. Brugh’s attorney sent to Mount Aloysius, dated September 21, 2012, which alleged that Mr. Brugh had been unlawfully discriminated and retaliated against because he opposed what he believed to be unlawful discrimination at Mount Aloysius. Thus, contrary to the defendants’ contention, the plaintiffs do not merely allege a causal connection between their protected conduct in the 1990s and their terminations in 2012; they allege a causal connection between the plaintiffs’ protected conduct in 2011 and 2012 and their terminations later that year.”
The court went on to find flaws in the defendants’ “alternative” arguments as well.
Larry Brugh and Suzanne Brugh v. Mount Aloysius College and Thomas Foley; W.D. Pa.; Case No. 3:17-cv-71, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191970; 11/21/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) James W. Carroll, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Rothman, Gordon, Foreman & Groudine, Pittsburgh, PA. (for defendants) Steven W. Zoffer, LEAD ATTORNEY, Thomas H. May, Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, Pittsburgh, PA; Terri Imbarlina Patak, LEAD ATTORNEY, Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., Pittsburgh, PA.