Employee’s Retaliation and Hostile Work Environment Claims Based on Rumor Spread in Workplace Survives Motion for Summary Judgment
In Baez v. Anne Fontaine USA, Inc., the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss a terminated employee’s retaliation claims under Title VII, New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law, and hostile work environment claim under NYCHRL.
On December 27, 2013, Plaintiff, a female regional sales manager for employer, a clothing retailer, learned that three female colleagues were spreading a rumor that, at a recent meeting with the CEO, Plaintiff wore a revealing shirt without undergarments. Plaintiff reported this rumor to the corporate controller, who issued a written warning to one of the employees without specifically addressing the rumor. On February 7, 2014, the employer terminated Plaintiff citing, among other reasons, that Plaintiff was associated with “too much drama.”
While the Court recognized that Plaintiff’s retaliation and hostile work environment claims were “not strong,” the Court nevertheless found that the employer listing “drama” as one of the reasons for termination coupled with the “temporal proximity” between Plaintiff’s complaint about the rumor and her termination was sufficient to create a “genuine dispute of material fact” as to whether the Plaintiff’s complaint was the “but-for cause” of termination. In addition, the Court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim because the gender-related rumor and the employer’s apparent reference to the incident as “drama” could lead a jury to find that Plaintiff was subjected to a hostile work environment under the low standard of the NYCHRL.
This case serves as a reminder to employers that an employee cannot be terminated or disciplined for communicating concern about what is perceived to be a discriminatory practice. Further, an employer must be cautious to not list anything as a basis for an employee’s termination that may be construed as “protected activity.”