Court Rejects Worker’s Discrimination and Retaliation Claims

A federal appellate court recently upheld a trial judge’s decision to dismiss an employee’s claims of discrimination, hostile work environment harassment, and retaliation. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reached this conclusion based primarily upon the “extraordinary lengths” to which the employer went to investigate the employee’s complaints. Wood v. University of Pittsburgh, No. 09-4469, Third Circuit Court of Appeals (September 23, 2010).

Factual Background

Deborah Wood was employed as a systems analyst by the University of Pittsburgh and assigned to a project in the school’s Biostatistical Center. Wood received a retention letter that informed her that the continuation of her position was contingent on the renewal of non-university grants that funded the project.

In 2007, approximately 90 percent of the project’s funding was provided by grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH). In the spring of that year, the NIH announced that it would reduce funding of the project by over two million dollars. As a result, Wood was informed that she was one of 17 individuals selected for discharge as a part of a reduction in force.

On the day of her discharge, Wood served the University with a complaint alleging gender and race discrimination. Her claims were based upon incidents about which she had complained during the years preceding the reduction in force.

In 2005, Wood had become convinced that someone was tampering with her office computer, and reported her belief that the computer had been remotely accessed by an unknown user. She also claimed that someone was entering her office when she was not present. Her supervisor responded to these concerns by installing a lock on the office door, by installing software to monitor her computer, and by asking the University’s computer services department to review activity related to the computer. After months of investigation, including over 150 hours spent by the supervisor himself, no evidence of improper tampering was found.

Despite these efforts, Wood contacted the University’s HR department to express her dissatisfaction. The HR department then initiated its own investigation through the summer of 2006, providing a new computer to Wood, reformatting her hard drive, and reviewing additional event logs.

In November 2006, Wood alleged that someone had broken into her locked office. This led to an investigation by campus police, along with additional forensic work by the computer department. Again no evidence of inappropriate or unlawful activity was found. Wood again considered these efforts to be “inadequate,” and filed a charge of gender discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in December 2006.

In 2007, after learning of the NIH decrease in funding and the impending layoffs, the project director offered Wood an opportunity to interview for a new position in another section of the same project group. Wood declined the offer and later was discharged.

Legal Analysis

The trial judge dismissed Wood’s race bias claim prior to discovery because Wood had failed to assert that specific claim in her EEOC charge. After a period of discovery, the court also granted summary judgment in favor of the University on the remaining claims, and Wood appealed that decision.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Wood’s gender discrimination claim based on her failure to demonstrate that the University had retained similarly situated male employees (which would have raised an inference of discriminatory animus).

The court also dismissed her retaliation claim after finding that the University proffered evidence of a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for Wood’s discharge – undisputed evidence that the project’s budget was reduced when NIH funding was withdrawn, thereby necessitating layoffs.

Most interesting was the court’s response to Wood’s hostile environment claim, in which she argued that she suffered persistent harassment which “must have been” the result of gender bias. Upholding the dismissal of the claim, the court noted that the University “went to extraordinary lengths” to investigate Wood’s allegations. In fact, the court found no evidence to suggest that any aspect of the investigation was influenced by gender bias.

Practical Impact

According to Maria Greco Danaher, a shareholder in the firm’s Pittsburgh office: “The fact that the court was able to review and remark upon that evidence in such detail indicates that the University thoroughly investigated the incidents reported by Wood and fully documented its efforts. Employers must recognize that proper investigations and documentation are the cornerstones of an effective defense against claims of unlawful discrimination and hostile environment.”

Note: This article was published in the November/December 2010 issue of The Employment Law Authority.

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