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Strothers v. City of Laurel

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 6, 2018

FELICIA STROTHERS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
CITY OF LAUREL, MARYLAND, (Mayor & City Council), Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: March 21, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Greenbelt. Paul W. Grimm, District Judge. (8:14-cv-03594-PWG)


          Megan Keenan, Joseph Charlet, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Kevin Bock Karpinski, KARPINSKI, COLARESI & KARP, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Stephen L. Braga, Appellant Litigation Clinic, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Sandra D. Lee, KARPINSKI, COLARESI & KARP, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, DIAZ, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.


         From day one of her employment at the City of Laurel, Felicia Strothers was singled out for harassment by her direct supervisor, Carreen Koubek. When Strothers complained to the director of her department, he revealed that Koubek had wanted to hire someone of a different race than Strothers, who is black. Strothers then submitted an informal memo detailing what she described as "harassment" and a "hostile environment." She soon told the City that she intended to file a formal grievance. The City fired Strothers the very next day, before Strothers could submit her grievance. Strothers then filed a retaliation claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The district court dismissed the claim on summary judgment under the burden-shifting framework for failure to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.

         On appeal, we are asked to determine whether a reasonable jury could find that Strothers complained about conduct she reasonably believed to be a Title VII violation and that her complaint caused her firing. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Strothers, we conclude that Strothers engaged in protected activity under Title VII when she complained about what she reasonably believed to be a hostile environment and that her engagement in protected activity caused the City to fire her. Accordingly, Strothers has established a prima facie case of retaliation, and the district court's grant of summary judgment was improper. We therefore reverse the district court's decision and remand for further proceedings.



         In August 2013, the City of Laurel interviewed Felicia Strothers, a black woman, for an administrative assistant position in the City's Department of Communications. She was interviewed by four representatives from the City, including Peter Piringer, the Communications Director, and Carreen Koubek, the Community Services Officer. Director Piringer would later reveal to Strothers that Koubek did not want to hire Strothers and that Koubek "wanted someone of a different race." J.A. 91. Despite Koubek's opposition, Piringer and others thought Strothers, who had over 20 years of experience, was the strongest and "most qualified" applicant and hired her anyway. J.A. 245. This case centers on Koubek's alleged harassment of Strothers starting from her first day on the job.


         When Piringer offered Strothers the job and before she accepted, Strothers informed him that she could not report to work until 9:05 a.m. each morning because of her children's bus schedule. Because the workday normally began at 9:00 a.m., Strothers offered to make up the five-minute difference by shortening her lunch break. Piringer accepted the proposed arrangement, and Strothers began as a six-month probationary employee, with her retention thereafter subject to evaluation. J.A. 72-73, 180.

         Strothers' troubles began on day one and indeed, ten minutes before her start time. On her first day, October 7, Strothers reported to Koubek, her direct supervisor, at 9:05 a.m. Unbeknownst to Strothers, Koubek already marked her tardy. Although Koubek knew that Piringer approved Strothers' modified work schedule, she decided that Strothers had to be in the office by 8:55 a.m. Indeed, Koubek effectively superseded the director's decision and had begun keeping a detailed log of Strothers' daily arrival time. J.A. 545- 50. Koubek then told Strothers that she would have a few weeks during which she could arrive at 9:05 a.m. but would then have to find alternative arrangements for her children. J.A. 73, 545-46.

         Despite purporting to give Strothers a few weeks to adjust her schedule, Koubek faulted Strothers for every arrival after 8:55 a.m., including on Strothers' first day. J.A. 545. According to the arrival log that Koubek maintained, Strothers arrived between 8:54 a.m. and 9:06 a.m. each day, with four occasions on which Strothers called ahead and arrived five to twenty minutes later than usual.[1] J.A. 545-50. Koubek submitted the arrival log to Strothers' personnel file and told human resources, Piringer, and other City officials about Strothers' perceived tardiness. J.A. 545, 555. Koubek's memo indicated that every entry, including arrivals before 9:00 a.m., exemplified problematic behavior. J.A. 545.

         Koubek's notes also revealed that she tracked and faulted Strothers' every absence from her desk, including bathroom breaks. For instance, Koubek once noticed that Strothers had stepped away from her desk at 11:15 a.m. on a Wednesday and began to search for Strothers throughout the office before finding her in the bathroom. J.A. 670 ("Went out looking and she was in the bathroom. Reminded her to please let me know when she steps away from the desk."). Koubek then reportedly told Strothers, "Didn't I tell you to tell me when you leave your desk?" J.A. 575. Koubek's notes confirm that Strothers would call, as instructed, before using the bathroom and that Koubek would record these breaks. J.A. 671-75. Even when Strothers received permission to use the restroom, Koubek faulted Strothers for not reporting when she was done. J.A. 669. Similarly, Koubek also tracked and timed Strothers' lunch breaks, as well as errands and other appointments.

         Inexplicably, Koubek also faulted Strothers for lack of teamwork because Strothers did not ask her if she would like to have a massage appointment. Strothers had apparently cancelled her own appointment and made one for Director Piringer instead. Taking offense, Koubek wrote, "Nothing was said to me if I wanted to be included. Seems petty, but speaks volumes to lack of team work[.]" J.A. 668. Based on the record, there is no indication that the appointment was intended to be a group or work-related event.

         Finally, Koubek confronted Strothers regarding Strothers' dress on casual Fridays at the office. On casual Fridays, City employees could wear "business casual," which meant "no capris, no leggings, [and] no sweats," though jeans were permitted. J.A. 288. On one such casual Friday, Strothers wore a pair of black pants that she asserted were jeans but that Koubek insisted were leggings.[2] According to Strothers, Koubek grabbed and tugged Strothers' pants without asking permission to do so. J.A. 103-04. Koubek also allegedly circled Strothers, lunged at her, and loudly berated her in front of the entire office for wearing those pants. J.A. 574. Though Strothers maintained that she had worn the same pants on past casual Fridays without incident, she offered to change her pants. Koubek then required that Strothers deduct from her personal leave time the amount of time it took for her to go home and change. J.A. 575. Koubek also reported the dress code incident to other City officials. The head of human resources for the City noted that he had never received a dress code complaint about anyone else. J.A. 288-89.

         Koubek then cited lateness and dress-code violations when giving Strothers a negative three-month performance evaluation. J.A. 561. However, at her deposition, Koubek conceded that Strothers did everything she was asked to do. J.A. 513-14. Indeed, Piringer, despite letting Strothers go, wrote a laudatory recommendation letter for her. He wrote, "[A]s the very first Administrative Assistant in this position, her background, life experiences and ability served her well and she was an asset to our organization during her short tenure with the office. She made friends quickly, has great interpersonal skills, is well-organized and can work independently. . . . She would be an asset to any employer." J.A. 12. The director also refused to endorse Koubek's negative evaluation of Strothers.

         Strothers had several meetings and exchanges with Director Piringer and other City officials about Koubek's behavior. During one of these interactions, Piringer disclosed that Koubek had wanted to hire "someone of a different race," even though Piringer and the head of human resources thought Strothers was the strongest candidate. J.A. 91, 245, 354. Strothers also raised her concerns with City Council Member Frederick Smalls, who is black. J.A. 110-13. She told Smalls that Koubek was being hostile towards her because of her race. Smalls reportedly indicated that he was going to speak with the Mayor because he did not want a discrimination suit to come out of the dispute.

         During Strothers' employment with the City, she was the only black employee that Koubek supervised. J.A. 445-47, 455, 504-05. However, in 2015, Koubek did supervise another black employee, Joan Anderson. Koubek admitted that Strothers and Anderson, her only two black subordinates, were the only two employees that she had ever disciplined or reported to her superiors. J.A. 121, 530-31. Joan Anderson also told Strothers her belief that Koubek did not like black people and recommended that Strothers speak with Council Member Smalls about the harassment. J.A. 110. Oliver Willford, a former part-time employee who is also black, similarly told Strothers that Koubek would treat him and his wife, who volunteered for the City, "like scum," and that they had previously complained to the City. J.A. 118-19.


         On February 26, 2014, Strothers sent an internal memorandum to Piringer complaining about Koubek's actions. J.A. 574-76. The memo cited the dress code dispute as well as what Strothers perceived to be nonstop harassment from her first day, including Koubek's enforcement of the desk and bathroom policy. Strothers also objected to Koubek's submission of negative evaluations to her personnel file without her knowledge. Strothers characterized Koubek's actions as "harassment" and claimed that Koubek created a "hostile environment," one that she has never been subjected to in twenty years of office experience. J.A. 575-76. She indicated that Koubek's actions had made going to work "difficult" and "unbearable." J.A. 575. This memo did not cite Piringer's comment about Koubek's preference for a white candidate during hiring.

         After Strothers submitted the memo, she and Piringer negotiated over whether he would investigate whether she was being unfairly targeted. J.A. 578-79. Strothers also indicated that Koubek was "trying to railroad" her. J.A. 567. The record does not show that any investigative steps were in fact taken. Strothers then sent Piringer an email expressing her intent to file a formal grievance against Koubek and requested the relevant forms. J.A. 580 ("Please have the grievance forms for me to complete upon coming in tomorrow morning.").

         The City fired Strothers the next day. J.A. 637. Koubek sent the termination notice to Strothers, though the notice was formally drafted by Piringer. ...

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