Third Circuit Also Rejects Employee’s Retaliation Claim

The federal appellate court with jurisdiction over New Jersey recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by a fired professor who claimed that she was retaliated against after complaining about gender inequity in the funding of sports programs. According to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, claims based on issues of funding are not predicated on activities protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Atkinson v. Lafayette College, No. 03-3426, Third Circuit Court of Appeals (2006).

In 1989, Dr. Eve Atkinson was hired by Lafayette College as Director of Athletics. From the start of her employment, Atkinson raised issues of gender equality within the college’s athletic program.

In November of 1998, Atkinson claimed, she had an argument about athletics funding with her supervisor, Dean of Students Herman Kissiah. She later complained to the college’s Vice President of Human Resources and General Counsel that she was being discriminated against because of the allocations she wanted to make to the men’s and women’s sports programs. On November 4, 1999, Atkinson was notified that she would be fired effective June 30, 2001. The termination was effective more than one year later due to the College’s notice procedures.

On May 2, 2000, Atkinson filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) alleging that she was terminated and denied the opportunity to appeal this decision based on her gender. Atkinson also filed a similar complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Atkinson later filed suit and the College asked that the case be dismissed, which the trial judge granted.

On appeal, Atkinson argued that the College retaliated against her in violation of Title VII and state law. The Third Circuit found that Atkinson had not mentioned retaliation in her PHRC complaint, but had raised the issue in her response to an EEOC questionnaire. This type of retaliation, the court continued, may violate Title IX but not Title VII, which does not cover issues of funding. Thus, the court concluded that Atkinson’s Title VII retaliation claim was properly dismissed.

The court also found that the College articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision, namely that the Athletic Department needed new leadership. To rebut this defense, Atkinson must show that this reason was a pretext for bias. Rather than contest the College’s reasons, Atkinson suggested that the College’s beliefs about her management style and inadequacies were influenced by Kissiah. The court found, however, that these allegations were “pure conjecture” and “wholly insufficient.” Thus, her bias claim was dismissed.  

Note: This article was published in the Dec/Jan 2007 issue of the New Jersey eAuthority.

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