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Lack of causal connection dooms retaliation claims

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//March 13, 2023

Lack of causal connection dooms retaliation claims

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//March 13, 2023

Where a former employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency alleged that she was terminated in retaliation for protected activity, but she failed to causally connect the termination to her protected activity, the NGA prevailed on the retaliation claims.


Plaintiff was employed at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, from June 15, 2015, until Oct. 18, 2019. He asserts claims for retaliation under Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA. Defendant moves for summary judgment on various grounds.

He first argues that plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case for ADEA or Title VII retaliation, as the undisputed evidence shows: (1) plaintiff did not suffer an adverse action and (2) even assuming she suffered an adverse action, there is no causal link between those actions and her protected activity. He also avers that the undisputed evidence shows legitimate, non-retaliatory bases for the purported “adverse actions” that plaintiff identifies.


Defendant does not appear to contest that plaintiff “engaged in a protected activity.” The parties agree that in determining whether plaintiff suffered an “adverse action,” the court must apply the standard from Burlington N. & Santa Fe R. R. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006). While there are genuine disputes of material fact concerning some potential adverse actions that plaintiff suffered, it is undisputed that plaintiff was (at least for some time) not paid for time that she took off in December 2017.

Although plaintiff has shown that there is a genuine dispute over whether she suffered an adverse action, she cannot show that there is a causal link between her protected activity and the various adverse actions that the court has credited. All she can suggest in support of this premise is the “fact” that “the individuals who undertook the adverse actions against plaintiff were on notice of her protected activity. The mere fact that certain coworkers and/or supervisors knew about her EEOC activity does not “suggest that the adverse employment action occurred because of the protected activity,” nor is it indicative of “regular acts showing animus or antagonism.”

She does not present any direct evidence that indicates the adverse actions occurred because of her protected activity. Nor can she rely on temporal proximity: before May of 2018, the latest protected activity she engaged in was in December of 2016, which is a year or more removed from the adverse actions she experienced. That passage in time vitiates any inference of causation due to temporal proximity. Finally, while plaintiff did engage in protected activity on May 11, 2018, there is only one potential adverse action after that date (the delay in starting her JDA), which is not sufficient on its own to be a materially adverse action.

Even if there were sufficient bases to establish the causal link between the adverse actions and plaintiff’s protected activity, defendant has presented legitimate bases for those adverse actions. Plaintiff cannot show that defendant’s offered explanations are pretext.

Defendant’s motion for summary judgment granted. Plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment denied as moot.

Widmer v. Austin, Case No. 1:21-cv-748, Feb. 27, 2023. EDVA at Alexandria (Alston). VLW 023-3-093. 24 pp.

VLW 023-3-093

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