A former Downtown Partnership of Baltimore employee who brought a Title VII lawsuit alleging race discrimination based on her termination for purportedly sending a negative email to her entire office was not entitled to a trial, ruled U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Hollander in a January 15, 2020 Opinion.
The Plaintiff was an African American woman who was hired by Downtown Partnership in 2006 as an administrative assistant. Until her termination in 2017, Plaintiff had been repeatedly disciplined for failing to perform various job duties, including a 3-day suspension and placement on a 6-month probationary period for failing to file a large quantity of records.
The final straw came in November 2017, when the President of Downtown Partnership sent out a celebratory email to the entire office regarding the promotions of two other employees, and asking everyone at the office to “[p]lease be sure to congratulate them!” The Plaintiff “replied all” to this email, and offered congratulations to only one employee while conspicuously omitting the other employee. Concerned about impact on office morale, the President requested that Plaintiff send another email congratulating the employee she had omitted. After a series of meetings, the Plaintiff declined to do so.
Plaintiff was subsequently terminated for “(1) Failure to meet the standards and expectations established for this organization; (2) Misuse of email; and (3) Deliberate attempt to undermine morale.”
Plaintiff brought suit, and proceeded under a theory of disparate treatment under the McDonnell Douglas proof scheme, which requires that a Plaintiff must allege the following in order to make a prima facie case of discrimination:
- membership in a protected class
- satisfactory job performance
- adverse employment action
- different treatment from similarly situated employees outside the protected class.
Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that a non-African American employee had merely been referred to an employee assistance program (as opposed to being terminated) after sending a disrespectful email to the president and three other people. In granting summary judgment on the Title VII claims, the Court found a lack of similarities between Plaintiff and the comparator employee, as they held different jobs with different duties, reported to different supervisors, and had different employment histories (the comparator employee had disciplinary history that consisted of only one referral to an employee assistance program in 2015). The Court additionally noted that the comparator employee voluntarily apologized for his email, and that his email had been sent to only a few individuals as opposed to the entire office.
The Court rejected Plaintiff’s attempt to point to broad general similarities between herself and the comparator employee as a “retreat to a higher plane of abstraction,” and granted summary judgment for the Downtown Partnership, as Plaintiff did not meet her burden of making a prima facie case of discrimination. The Opinion is available here.