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June 16, 2010

Second Circuit rules failure to investigate discrimination complaint not adverse employment action

Second Circuit rules failure to investigate discrimination complaint not adverse employment action
Source: Jackson Lewis LLP. Reproduced with permission. Copyright © 2010, Jackson Lewis. Originally published by Jackson Lewis, LLP, at www.jacksonlewis.com. All rights reserved.

Affirming summary judgment for the employer in a race discrimination and retaliation action, the federal appeals court in New York has held that the employer’s failure to investigate a complaint of alleged employment discrimination is not an adverse employment action taken in retaliation for the filing of the same discrimination complaint. Fincher v. Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., No. 08-5013-cv (2d Cir. May 14, 2010). The Second Circuit has jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.

The Facts

Cynthia Fincher worked for Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (“DTCC”) as a Senior Auditor from 2004 until she resigned her employment on June 5, 2006. During that time, Fincher received several critical performance appraisals. In late March 2006, Fincher complained to Charles Smith, the Senior Director of Employee Relations at DTCC, that “black people were set up to fail at [the Auditing] department because they were not provided and given the same training opportunities as the white employees.” Fincher maintained that she asked Smith whether he planned to respond to her complaint, and Smith told her that he would not. In May 2006, Fincher claimed that her manager, Mark Hudson (“Hudson”), admitted to her that she did not receive proper training and that she was “discriminated against.” Fincher subsequently resigned, saying her resignation was due to racial discrimination, including inadequate training.

The Lawsuit

Fincher sued DTCC for, among other things, race discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and constructive discharge under the federal equal rights law (42 U.S.C. § 1981). DTCC moved for and the district court granted summary judgment on all claims. Fincher appealed and argued that: (1) DTCC’s failure to investigate her discrimination complaint constituted retaliation; (2) the failure to investigate her complaint created a hostile work environment; (3) she was constructively discharged based on the alleged hostile environment; and (4) the district court erred in failing to consider her testimony about Hudson’s alleged comment.

Appeals Court Decision

Addressing the retaliation claim, the Court noted that to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Section 1981, a plaintiff must show that: she engaged in protected activity; the employer was aware of this activity; the employer took adverse action against the plaintiff; and a retaliatory motive played a part in the adverse employment action.

An adverse action is one that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

The Court found that Fincher failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation because the failure to investigate her alleged complaint was not an adverse action. It noted that “[a]n employee whose complaint is not investigated cannot be said to have thereby suffered a punishment for bringing that same complaint” because the employee is no worse off than she would have been had she not complained or if the employer investigated the complaint and denied it. Accordingly, the Court affirmed summary judgment on Fincher’s retaliation claim.

Turning to the hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims, the Court stated that, to establish a hostile work environment, Fincher “must show that the workplace was so severely permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that the terms and conditions of her employment were thereby altered.” Rejecting Fincher’s argument that DTCC’s failure to investigate her alleged complaint created a hostile environment, the Court observed that “the failure to investigate did not by itself alter the terms and conditions of Fincher’s employment; rather, it preserved the very circumstances that were the subject of the complaint” and therefore could not have contributed to a hostile environment. Where “an alleged constructive discharge stems from an alleged hostile work environment,” the Court explained, “a plaintiff must show working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.” Because Fincher failed to establish a hostile work environment, her constructive discharge claim also failed.

Finally, Fincher argued that the district court did not give sufficient consideration to her testimony about Hudson’s alleged admission to her that she was the victim of racial discrimination. The Court noted that district court appeared to discredit her testimony regarding Hudson’s alleged statement even though district courts may not discredit a witness’s testimony on a motion for summary judgment because juries make credibility assessments. Nevertheless, the Court affirmed summary judgment on Fincher’s discrimination claim because the comment, even if true, did not provide an adequate basis to deny summary judgment. Rather, the alleged remarks were a mere “scintilla” of evidence in light of their “offhand, conclusory nature.” It further noted that the alleged remarks were a “purported concession that Fincher was discriminated against; they were not themselves discriminatory.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed summary judgment on this claim, as well.

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Jackson Lewis, LLP, comments: This case is a significant win for employers by confirming the failure to investigate an alleged complaint of discrimination is not, in itself, an adverse employment action and cannot serve as the basis for a retaliation claim. Further, the failure to investigate alone is insufficient to create a hostile work environment. The case also highlights a party’s evidentiary burden when attempting to defeat summary judgment, i.e., a “scintilla” of evidence is insufficient. This is highly fact-specific inquiry, however.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f4c71679-3bf6-43bd-9fcb-b89b9e59afc9/1/doc/08-5013-cv_opn.pdf#xml=http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f4c71679-3bf6-43bd-9fcb-b89b9e59afc9/1/hilite/

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