Rodriguez-Vives v. PR Fire Fighters Corps, No. 13-1587 (1st Cir. Feb. 18, 2014)

By Paul Mollica

Often, employees must fight and fight again to enforce their rights. A woman denied employment as a firefighter in 2001 sued to corps for sex discrimination in 2005. Four years later, she obtained a settlement to employ her as a “transitory” firefighter until a slot opened up in the training academy. But she was compelled to sue once again when her sergeant allegedly harassed her in retaliation for bringing the original complaint. The First Circuit holds that she states a claim for violation of the Title VII anti-retaliation section 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).

Rodriguez-Vives v. PR Fire Fighters Corps, No. 13-1587 (1st Cir. Feb. 18, 2014):

The First Circuit summarizes the first lawsuit:

“Rodríguez-Vives applied unsuccessfully to be a firefighter in the Corps in 2001. In 2005 she sued the Corps, alleging that the Corps’s failure to hire her was discriminatory. Her complaint asserted a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for denial of her right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and a claim under state law. Specifically, she alleged that, after meeting the minimum requirements to apply for a position with the Corps, she passed a physical agility test and was selected for several in-person interviews. Despite being placed on an eligibility list for admission to the next training session for new firefighters, known as a firefighter academy, she was not admitted.”

In 2009, she reached a settlement that would allow her to join the force as a “transitory” firefighter until the next training academy was held. If she completed the academy successfully, she would be hired to a career position as a firefighter.

Unfortunately, she allegedly faced harassment from her commanding officer, who “constantly said in front of [her] that he did not know why he had to end up stuck with her in his [s]tation” and “commented on various [occasions] that [she] was incompetent, dumb, inept, [and] that she did things backward.” He threw pots that she was using to cook dinner in the trash, disciplined her for writing entries in the station journal (despite that she was following procedures), and even threw that journal itself at her. She was assigned the grunt work (cooking, cleaning, keeping the journal) that was supposed to be evenly shared. She complained to her captain, but it made no difference. Finally, a male volunteer who was also transitional was allowed to report to incidents, while she was not.

Rodríguez-Vives filed an EEOC charge in 2009 for the follow-on retaliatory harassment, and filed a federal court complaint in 2011. In 2013, the district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim.

The First Circuit reverses, rejecting in turn each of the arguments the Corps makes to avoid litigating this case.

1. The 2009 Settlement: The Corps argued that plaintiff’s complaint essentially amounted to a breach-of-contract claim on the original settlement, and that her remedy was to reopen the original action to enforce the contract. The First Circuit responds that the post-settlement harassment constitutes its own claim under Title VII. “Suppose the Corps had intentionally run over Rodríguez-Vives with a truck to prevent her from being able to perform her new position. No reasonable person would argue that her remedies would be limited to filing a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. Like an action for assault and battery, a retaliation claim is a ‘separate and independent cause of action’ that stands or falls on its own.”

2. Allegation of a Title VII “Protected Activity”: The Corps then argued that the plaintiff was not engaged in “protected activity” under Title VII with her original lawsuit, because it was brought solely under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Commonwealth law. The First Circuit holds that opposition to workplace sex discrimination is protected under Title VII even if the employee never formally invokes that statute. “Though we are aware of no case directly on point, nothing in the language of the statute or common sense suggests that she was nevertheless required to mention Title VII in order to be protected from opposing the practices that Title VII renders unlawful.”

3. Materially Adverse Action: Finally, the Corps argued that the sergeant’s alleged behavior did not constitute a “materially adverse” action within the meaning of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006). Under Burlington Northern, In a retaliation case, a plaintiff need only “show that a reasonable employee would have found the challenged action materially adverse, which in this context means it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” And here, the First Circuit holds that allowing a male volunteer to perform core activities denied to the plaintiff, and the harassment itself, were materially adverse:

“In this regard, we note that several of the specific acts alleged by Rodríguez-Vives by themselves go quite a ways toward making out a claim. For example, the alleged refusal of Rodríguez-Vives’s superiors to allow her, like others, to travel on fire vehicles to get lunch might be an adverse employment action on its own. Similarly, Rodríguez-Vives’s allegation that she was assigned to cook and clean rather than to perform the same jobs as others in the station, depending on the surrounding facts, might make plausible a finding that there was an adverse employment action.”

Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings on the merits.