A former human resources director’s retaliation claim survived his former employer’s motion to dismiss after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia determined that the plaintiff’s allegations “sufficiently allege materially adverse employment actions.”
The defendant, Norfolk State University, was successful in dismissing an additional retaliation claim by the former employee.
The opinion in Watkins v. Norfolk State University (VLW 022-3-147) was written by U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young.
Sylvester Watkins was hired by Norfolk State University in May 2018 as the director of human resources, where his job duties included ensuring the investigation of all complaints or reports of conduct that could violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That summer, after a meeting with an outgoing female auditor where she alleged mistreatment and sex discrimination, Watkins directed employee relations manager Lisa Little to investigate the allegations against the chief audit executive.
Among the evidence obtained by Little was a “daily document” from the accuser that detailed her concerns. It included entries alleging harassment and bullying on the basis of sex. The investigation also revealed that the executive had been the subject of similar complaints in the past, including an EEO complaint by a second accuser that had never been investigated.
Per the opinion, Watkins and university counsel held a meeting on Sept. 5, 2018, where counsel “admonished Watkins, explaining that the Board of Visitors would not like Watkins investigating” the complaints and advised him to halt the investigations. Watkins refused and proceeded with the investigations despite disapproval from the university.
In the subsequent months, Watkins’ direct supervisor was changed. A consultant was hired to conduct a review of the department and Watkins’ job performance. The university also created a new position, “Chief Diversity Officer,” which would operate outside of the human resources department and handle all EEO matters, which “reduced Watkins’ authority as Director of HR.”
In May 2019, Watkins was told by his supervisor that he “may need to start looking for another job, as the Board of Visitors is going in a different direction.” One month later, Watkins was informed that the university was investigating two complaints made against him; he would remain on paid administrative leave and would be barred from NSU property.
In August 2019, Watkins was told that his contract would not be renewed. He was transferred to NSU’s Virginia Beach Higher Learning Campus and was “stripped … of his job title and all of his job duties.” Watkins remained at the Virginia Beach campus through February 2020 “sitting at a desk with nothing to do” until his employment was terminated.
Watkins filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, in June 2019 and filed a complaint in December 2020. The university filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in May 2021, which Watkins subsequently filed a response to.
Watkins claimed the university retaliated against him for opposing discrimination in violation of Title VII, arguing his investigation of the EEO complaints was a protected activity. Watkins further stated that his filing of an EEOC charge was a protected activity.
“Viewed through a ‘panoramic lens’ and in consideration of Title VII’s broad protection for victims of retaliation, Plaintiff’s alleged actions demonstrate that Plaintiff communicated to his employer that [the accusers] made complaints of sex discrimination — a form of discrimination prohibited under Title VII.”
— U.S. District Judge Roderick C. Young
In the opinion, Young determined that “the Court is satisfied that Plaintiff has alleged that he engaged in protected oppositional activity,” rejecting claims by the defendant that Watkins “failed to make any ‘oppositional communication.’”
“Viewed through a ‘panoramic lens’ and in consideration of Title VII’s broad protection for victims of retaliation, Plaintiff’s alleged actions demonstrate that Plaintiff communicated to his employer that [the accusers] made complaints of sex discrimination — a form of discrimination prohibited under Title VII,” Young wrote. The judge noted that the act of filing an EEOC charge is a protected activity as well.
Young added that being assigned a new supervisor would likely not rise to the level of an adverse employment action; however, “the cumulative effect” of all of the actions taken against Watkins “paints a different picture.”
“Given the sequence of events, a reasonable jury could conclude that the combined effect of these actions could dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination,” Young wrote.
Because of this, the judge said, Watkins’ allegations sufficiently alleged “material adverse employment actions,” meaning his claim of retaliation over investigating the EEO complaints survived the university’s motion to dismiss.
Watkins also claimed retaliation related to his filing of an EEOC charge in June 2019, while the university argued that Watkins admitted in his complaint and under oath that he had been told his employment would not be renewed before he filed the charge.
While the complaint alleges the university informed Watkins that his contract would not be renewed in August 2019, two months after filing his EEOC charge, Young wrote that “it is apparent from the Complaint that NSU made the decision not to renew Plaintiff’s employment contract before he filed his EEOC charge.”
“Plaintiff was informed that he ‘may need to start looking for a new job’ on May 3, 2019; then he was informed that NSU was ‘doing something different with’ his position and placed on administrative leave on June 4, 2019. Both of these events occurred before he filed his EEOC charge on June 21, 2019,” Young wrote.
Since Watkins “was well aware that NSU would not be renewing his contract before he filed his EEOC charge,” the judge found that Watkins had failed to state a causal connection between his termination and the EEOC charge, and granted the university’s motion to dismiss the second retaliation claim.