Third Circuits Allows Use of Circumstantial Evidence to Prove Retaliation Claims
On June 27, 2016, the Third Circuit vacated and remanded a Western District of Pennsylvania grant of summary judgment for Defendant Postmaster General of the United States. The District Court concluded that Plaintiff Hillary Kacian failed to put forth sufficient evidence demonstrating that she was fired in retaliation for complaining to her supervisors about sexual harassment.
Hillary Kacian starting working as a letter carrier for the Johnstown Post Office in March 2008. Starting in 2010, Kacian began complaining of instances of sexual harassment from her coworkers, specifically her supervisor George LaRue. Some of the instances of sexual harassment included LaRue asking Kacian for a copy of a photograph of her in a bikini, LaRue making comments about her weight and physical appearance, and LaRue making sexual comments such as telling Kacian to “stay off her knees”. After a year of these comments, Kacian complained to the Union President Joseph Sarosi and another supervisor Jeff Hauser about the harassment, and specifically mentioned the things LaRue had said to her. Kacian testified that Sarosi told her they were going to speak to the Postmaster General, Michael Olsavsky about her claims.
Five days after Kacian made the complaint, she was terminated from her position at the Post Office. LaRue had filed a disciplinary action against her for a driving safety infraction and recommended her termination to the Postmaster, based solely on that incident. Testimony showed that this was not the type of action that supervisors often disciplined, much less terminated someone for; furthermore, deposition testimony showed that LaRue only recommended termination of three employees for much different reasons, included falsifying scans.
Kacian filed a complaint alleging sexual harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who issued her a notice of her right to file a civil action. After Kacian filed suit for retaliation, the District Court granted summary judgment, holding that Kacian could not establish that LaRue knew about the sexual harassment complaint, and that all evidence was speculation based on Sarosi’s testimony.
On appeal, the Third Circuit found that Kacian made a prima facie case of retaliation because she had an objectively reasonable belief the activity she opposed constituted unlawful discrimination under Title VII, and that there was sufficient evidence to raise an inference of a causal connection between the complaint and the termination. Postmaster General argued that there could be no inference of a causal connection, because both LaRue and Olsavsky testified they lacked knowledge of the complaint, and Kacian did not present direct evidence indicating otherwise. The Third Circuit stated that a lack of direct evidence establishing knowledge does not bar a retaliation claim, and that case law allows a plaintiff to establish knowledge through circumstantial evidence. In this case, temporal proximity, combined with circumstantial evidence such as LaRue’s termination recommendation history and the Post Office’s previous disciplining policies.
Kacian v. Postmaster General of United States, 2016 WL 3509564 (3rd. Cir. 2016)