Weston v. Commw. of PA, 99-1608

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Citation251 F.3d 420
Docket NumberNo. 99-1608,99-1608
Decision Date22 May 2001

Thomas M. Holland, Esq., Jeffrey Campolongo, Esq. (Argued), Philadelphia, PA, Counsel for Appellants.

Randall J. Henzes, Esq. (Argued), Office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, Counsel for Appellee.

Before: BECKER, Chief Judge, NYGAARD, and AMBRO, Circuit Judges.


NYGAARD, Circuit Judge.

Appellant Michael Weston filed a sexual harassment civil action against his employer, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("PDOC"), and Dolores Merithew, a co-worker. Weston alleged violations of Title VII, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), and Pennsylvania common law. Weston's Title VII claim was premised on a hostile work environment theory. Specifically, Weston asserted that he was subjected to a hostile work environment as a result of the PDOC's failure to discipline Merithew after she had physically touched Weston on two occasions, and as a consequence of the comments, jokes and jibes made by employees and inmates who had learned of the incidents. In addition, Weston alleged that, after he complained to the PDOC about this harassment, the PDOC retaliated against him by reprimanding him and transferring him to a less desirable position.

The District Court dismissed Weston's Title VII claim for "hostile work environment" sexual harassment as well as his state common law claims against the PDOC for failure to state a claim. The District Court granted summary judgment to the PDOC on Weston's retaliation claim. After a bench trial, the District Court entered judgment in favor of Weston and against Merithew on the remaining state law claims. Weston timely appealed. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1291.

In this appeal, Weston challenges the District Court's disposition of both his hostile work environment claim and his retaliation claim. With respect to the hostile work environment claim, Weston asserts that it was error for the court to dismiss for failure to state a claim, as his complaint's allegations sufficed to make out a hostile work environment claim, particularly in light of the liberal notice pleading requirements contained in FED. R. CIV. P. 8. We decide that Weston's allegations concerning the PDOC's response to the two incidents of physical touching were not adequate to state a Title VII hostile work environment claim, and we affirm the District Court's dismissal of that portion of Weston's complaint. However, we also conclude that Weston's allegations as to a hostile environment created as a result of the comments, jokes, and jibes made by co-workers and managers did meet the federal rules' liberal pleading requirements, and we therefore reverse the District Court's dismissal of that component of Weston's hostile work environment claim, and remand for further discovery and proceedings. Finally, in regard to Weston's averments as to a hostile environment created as a result of verbal harassment on the part of inmates, while we agree with the District Court that those allegations, as they currently stand, do not suffice to state a Title VII claim, we reverse the court's dismissal, and remand with instructions to grant Weston a specified period of time in which to amend (and amplify) that portion of his complaint.

With respect to the retaliation claim, Weston avers that it was error for the court to grant summary judgment, because he succeeded in creating a genuine issue as to the material fact that the PDOC took adverse action against him, in the form of two written reprimands and two suspensions without pay, as a result of his harassment complaints. We conclude that, under the circumstances present in Weston's case, the written reprimands do not constitute adverse employment actions. We further decide that Weston failed to present sufficient evidence to establish the requisite causal connection between the two suspensions and his complaints. Accordingly, we affirm the District Court's summary judgment grant on the retaliation claim.

A. Factual Background

Weston is a corrections officer at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, Pennsylvania. At the time of this action, he worked in the Food Services Department as a trainer. His duties included supervising inmates who worked in the prison's kitchen. Merithew is also a corrections officer and held a similar position in the prison kitchen. Although testimony indicates that Weston and Merithew did not have an amicable working relationship, on February 11, 1997, Merithew massaged Weston's back in the presence of inmates. Weston found this physical contact offensive and told Merithew to stop. Merithew laughed in response, but apparently discontinued the activity.

Three days later, Weston tore a visible hole in the seat of his pants. While his back was turned, Merithew placed her finger in the hole, touching his buttocks. As with the previous incident, this act occurred in the presence of inmates. Weston expressed his anger to Merithew and told her to leave him alone.

Weston complained to his supervisor about Merithew's actions, and she was given a written reprimand. Weston claimed that, as a result of Merithew's actions, he was subjected to offensive comments, jibes, and jokes made by co-workers, managers and inmates. According to Weston, the PDOC did not act in response to his complaints. In fact, Weston was reprimanded by the PDOC and transferred to a less desirable position.

B. Procedural Background

Weston sued both the PDOC and Merithew in the District Court. Weston alleged that the PDOC violated Title VII and the PHRA by failing to properly discipline Merithew after Weston's complaints and that Weston was subjected to repeated jokes, jibes, and offensive comments by co-workers, managers and inmates. He also claimed that the PDOC retaliated against him for complaining about Merithew's conduct by reprimanding him and transferring him to a less desirable position.

The PDOC first moved to dismiss Weston's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.1 See FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). On September 29, 1998, the District Court granted the motion to dismiss, in part. Specifically, the court determined that Weston's complaint failed to allege facts that showed the PDOC was negligent in disciplining Merithew, and it held that Weston failed to establish the PDOC's liability under respondeat superior. Further, the District Court found that the jokes and offensive comments Weston experienced after the incidents did not constitute a hostile working environment. However, the District Court denied the PDOC's motion to dismiss Weston's retaliation claim.

After limited discovery, the PDOC moved for summary judgment on the remaining retaliation claim. Although Weston may have suffered adverse employment actions, the District Court held that he had not shown a causal connection between these actions and his complaints about Merithew's conduct. Even if he had established such a connection, the District Court suggested that the outcome would have been the same because the PDOC offered a nondiscriminatory reason for its actions.2

II. Motion to Dismiss - The Hostile Work Environment Claims

We exercise plenary review when examining a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Lorenz v. CSX Corp., 1 F.3d 1406, 1411 (3d Cir. 1993). We accept the allegations of the complaint as true and draw all reasonable factual inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id. We will affirm a dismissal only if it appears certain that a plaintiff will be unable to support his claim. Wisniewski v. Johns-Manville Corp., 759 F.2d 271, 273 (3d Cir. 1985). Our review of Weston's complaint reveals two separate bases for hostile work environment sexual harassment -- one concerning the conduct and actions of the PDOC and Dolores Merithew and one concerning unidentified "coworkers, managers and inmates." Complaint, P 18.

A. Hostile Work Environment Claims

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act make it unlawful for an employer to "discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex or national origin." 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1).3 Hostile work environment harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with a person's performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Meritor Savs. Bank FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 65, 106 S. Ct. 2399, 2404, 91 L. Ed. 2d 49 (1986) (quoting 29 C.F.R. 1604.11(a)(3)). In order to be actionable, the harassment must be so severe or pervasive that it alters the conditions of the victim's employment and creates an abusive environment. Id. at 67, 106 S. Ct. at 2405; see also Spain v. Gallegos, 26 F.3d 439, 446-47 (3d Cir. 1994).

In Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 114 S. Ct. 367, 126 L. Ed. 2d 295 (1993), the Supreme Court clarified the elements of a discrimination claim resulting from a hostile work environment. In order to fall within the purview of Title VII, the conduct in question must be severe and pervasive enough to create an "objectively hostile or abusive work environment -- an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile -- and an environment the victim-employee subjectively perceives as abusive or hostile." Id. at 21-22, 114 S. Ct. at 370-71. In determining whether an environment is hostile or abusive, we must look at numerous factors, including "the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity;...

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