In an opinion issued on March 26, 2015, Federal District Court Judge Martha Vazquez granted Albuquerque Public Schools' Motion for Summary Judgment on a former employee's claims of Title VII discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment discrimination.  This thorough opinion clarifies several areas of Title VII law and provides favorable guidance for employers facing discrimination and retaliation claims.

Plaintiff's Claims

This lawsuit was brought by a female coordinator in the APS Charter and Magnet School Department.  Plaintiff's first supervisor, a woman, drafted a "coaching note" in the spring of 2008, which instructed Plaintiff to obtain approval before taking certain actions, such as contacting high-level APS employees or responding to requests from outside organizations.  In September 2008, the supervisor prepared a formal corrective action memo regarding Plaintiff's pattern of acting outside of her authority, in violation of the coaching note.

Around this time, APS hired a male as Plaintiff's new direct supervisor.  By early 2009, the new supervisor had received written complaints from charter school principals regarding Plaintiff's unprofessional behavior during site visits. The supervisor prepared a corrective action memo regarding these complaints, but Plaintiff's conduct did not improve.  The supervisor prepared several more corrective action memos during 2009 and 2010 regarding Plaintiff's inappropriate attitude during school visits and persistent failure to comply with the 2008 coaching note.

On March 31, 2010, Plaintiff filed an internal discrimination and retaliation complaint against her supervisor with APS's Office of Equal Opportunity ("OEO").  On June 18, 2010, the OEO determined that the claims were unsubstantiated.  APS placed Plaintiff on administrative leave on June 21, 2010, and terminated her on July 1, 2010, based on her history of performance problems.  Thereafter, Plaintiff pursued her claims with the EEOC and in federal court.

Plaintiff Failed to Establish Worse Treatment than a Similarly Situated Male Employee

Plaintiff attempted to state a claim for Title VII discrimination based on her belief that she received less favorable treatment than a similarly situated male employee in her office.  The Court rejected this argument because the male employee did not engage in any misconduct of "comparable seriousness" to Plaintiff.  This decision was based on the following determinations:

  • The male employee's alleged misconduct (e.g., working on personal matters at work, over-sharing personal information during one charter school site visit) "did not rise to the level of insubordination whereas Plaintiff persistently violated her supervisors' directive[s] . . . despite receiving one coaching note and five corrective action memoranda."  The male employee "understood the chain of command," corrected conduct issues that were called to his attention, and did not violate written directives.
  • There was no evidence that Plaintiff's supervisor was aware of most of the alleged misconduct of the male employee. 
  • Plaintiff's misconduct, such as attitude problems during school site visits, "had a real-world inter-office negative impact on the APS charter school office's relationships with third parties," whereas the male employee's misconduct "raised only intra-office productivity-related concerns," and "did not create inter-office tension, impact the charter school office's ability to accomplish its mission, or embarrass the charter school office in front of third parties."

Plaintiff Failed to Show that Her Termination was Retaliatory

Plaintiff also argued that she was terminated in retaliation for opposing her supervisor's conduct.  The Court rejected this argument because there was no evidence to support a causal connection between Plaintiff's opposition and any materially adverse action.  Of particular interest, the Court explained that any temporal relationship between Plaintiff's March 31, 2010 OEO complaint, the OEO's June 18, 2010 determination, and Plaintiff's July 1, 2010 termination did not support an inference of causation, because Plaintiff "had a history of disciplinary issues" dating back to May 2008, and "failed to follow her employer's directives in the weeks between her March 31, 2010, complaint and her July 1, 2010, termination."  Relying on Argo v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield, 452 F.3d 1193 (10th Cir. 2005), the Court explained:

Causation does not exist where an employer contemplates a particular action before a plaintiff's protective activity and proceeds along lines previously contemplated after the protected activity. . . . 

Moreover . . . Plaintiff received additional discipline during the interim period between her protected activity and the subsequent adverse employment action.  On June 15, 2010, Plaintiff received a written reprimand for repeated misconduct, and this reprimand, as in Argo, was sufficient to break any causal connection[.]

Plaintiff Failed to Establish a Hostile Work Environment

Finally, the Court rejected Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim, which was primarily based upon a single incident in which Plaintiff's supervisor allegedly yelled a string of profanities ending in a derogatory female reference in a hallway.  The court explained that, although the derogatory female reference can be suggestive of sexual harassment under Tenth Circuit authority, it did not constitute harassment in this case, because (1) it was an isolated incident, (2) Plaintiff was separated from her supervisor by a closed door and a partition at the time of the comment, and (3) Plaintiff was not a party to the supervisor's conversation directly preceding the comment and, thus, there was no evidence the comment was directed to or about her.

The Court also rejected Plaintiff's argument that her supervisor engaged in sexual harassment by giving preferential treatment to attractive women.  The Court noted that such behavior does not constitute Title VII discrimination because "treating one category of women differently from another category of women based upon their appearance constitutes differential treatment because of appearance and not . . . because of sex."