Argued: March 21, 2018
from the United States District Court for the District of
Maryland, at Greenbelt. Paul W. Grimm, District Judge.
Keenan, Joseph Charlet, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW,
Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant.
Bock Karpinski, KARPINSKI, COLARESI & KARP, P.A.,
Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.
Stephen L. Braga, Appellant Litigation Clinic, UNIVERSITY OF
VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for
D. Lee, KARPINSKI, COLARESI & KARP, P.A., Baltimore,
Maryland, for Appellee.
GREGORY, Chief Judge, DIAZ, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.
GREGORY, CHIEF JUDGE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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. 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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
City fired Strothers the next day. J.A. 637. Koubek sent the
termination notice to Strothers, though the notice was
formally drafted by Piringer. ...