Francine Smith v. State of Connecticut Judicial Branch
NNH CV 116018712
Decided: January 19, 2012
By motion and memorandum of law dated June 2, 2011, the defendant State of Connecticut has moved to strike each of the three counts of the complaint on the grounds that they fail to state a valid claim upon which relief may be granted. Specifically, the defendant contends that the plaintiff has failed in her complaint to state facts sufficient to support her claim of race and color discrimination under Gen.Stat. § 46a–60(a)(1), as alleged in Count One; of retaliation under Gen.Stat. § 46a–60(a), as alleged in Count Two; and of creating a hostile work environment under § 46a–60(a)(1), as alleged in Count Three. On June 30, 2011, the plaintiff filed her written opposition to the motion to strike. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to strike is denied.
At the outset, it is useful to take note of the standard by which the defendant’s motion to strike must be considered. “[I]f facts provable in the complaint would support a cause of action, the motion to strike must be denied ․ Thus, [the court must] assume the truth of both the specific factual allegations and any facts fairly provable thereunder. In doing so, moreover, [the court must] read the allegations broadly ․ rather than narrowly ․ If facts provable in the complaint would support a cause of action, the motion to strike must be denied.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Sturm v. Harb Development, LLC, 298 Conn. 124, 129–30, 2 A.3d 859 (2010).
In moving to strike Count One of the complaint, the defendant contends that the plaintiff “cannot establish that she suffered an adverse employment action or that there are facts from which an inference of racial discrimination can be drawn.” Defendant’s Memorandum, at 4. The court disagrees. With regard to the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s allegation of adverse employment action, Count One of the complaint is replete with references to conduct of the defendant which could be found to constitute adverse employment action. Given that the determination of adverse employment action involves a fact-specific inquiry, the court cannot conclude that plaintiff’s claims regarding the following are inadequate allegations of adverse employment action as a matter of law: her transfer to a less desirable job location, Complaint ¶ 9; the defendant’s refusal to re-transfer her to other preferred locations when openings there became available, or even to interview her for the vast majority of those positions; id., ¶¶ 11, 19; the diminished importance of her overall job responsibilities and the assignment to her solely of less favorable tasks not shared by others within her job classification; id., ¶¶ 14, 15, 17, 23; and defendant’s refusal to provide her with annual performance appraisals. Id., ¶¶ 17, 24.
Moreover, the court rejects the defendant’s contention that no inference of racial discrimination can be drawn from these allegations. These allegations of adverse employment action are joined in the complaint with the further claim that the plaintiff, an African American, suffered these adverse actions even though similarly situated Caucasian employees did not. Id., ¶¶ 15, 17(b); 17(d). Accordingly, the court concludes that the plaintiff has pled a legally sufficient cause of action in Count One.
As to Count Two of the complaint, the defendant argues that the plaintiff’s claim of retaliation is flawed due to the amount of time that passed between her alleged protected activity (the filing of an internal complaint with the defendant of sexual harassment in the workplace) and the alleged retaliatory conduct of the defendant. Specifically, the defendant asserts that, because a retaliation claim requires proof of a causal connection between the protected activity and adverse employment action, the three-month gap between these events in this case renders the plaintiff’s claim deficient as a matter of law. The court is not persuaded.
In the court’s opinion, the defendant’s contention is flawed for two reasons. First, although this passage of three months between the protected act and the retaliation as alleged here may ultimately undermine the plaintiff’s ability to prove the causal connection required in Count Two, this does not mean that the plaintiff’s claim at this juncture fails to support a cause of action and is subject to a motion to strike. Rather, as the plaintiff correctly points out in her brief, the existence or nonexistence of such a causal connection turns on more than merely the passage of time. As a result, further proceedings will be required before it may be determined whether such a causal connection may exist in the circumstances present in this case.
In fact, even if the court were to ascribe to the passage of time alone the great significance that the defendant does, the defendant’s claim would still fail. While it may be true that some courts have held a three- or four-month time gap (absent any other evidence) to be insufficient to prove causation, Defendant’s Memorandum of Law, at 6–7, other courts have upheld retaliation claims where significantly greater time periods were at issue. Plaintiff’s Opposition, at 3–4. Indeed, the ease with which cases may be found on both sides of this issue demonstrates that “the inquiry into whether temporal proximity establishes causation is factual in nature, [and][t]here is no ‘bright line’ to define the outer limits beyond which a temporal relationship is too attenuated to establish a causal relationship between [protected activity] and an allegedly retaliatory action.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ayantola v. Board of Trustees of Technical Colleges, 116 Conn.App. 531, 539 (2009). See Oquendo v. Margaritaville of CT, LLC, Superior Court, judicial district of New London, Docket No. CV 11–6007189 (June 24, 2011, Martin, J.), and cases cited therein. For these reasons, therefore, the defendant’s motion to strike Count Two of the complaint is denied.
Finally, the defendant challenges the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim set forth in Count Three of the complaint. As to this contention, the court again disagrees with the defendant. To establish a hostile work environment claim, the workplace must be permeated with discriminatory practices “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.” Brittell v. Department of Correction, 247 Conn. 148, 166–67 (1998). “In order to be actionable ․ [the] objectionable environment must be both objectively and subjectively offensive, one that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive, and one that the victim in fact did perceive to be so ․ [W]hether an environment is sufficiently hostile or abusive [is determined] by looking at all the circumstances ․” Id. at 167.
Here, the plaintiff has alleged that she was forced to endure a work environment in which, because of her race, her supervisor: (1) assigned her tasks that were less desirable, more difficult (if not impossible) to perform, and more hazardous than those given to similarly situated Caucasian co-workers; Complaint, ¶ 17; (2) required her to accept and perform work assignments directly from her Caucasian co-workers when they did not wish to perform the work; id., ¶ 14; (3) refused to grant her the same leave time as Caucasian employees; id., ¶ 17; and (4) required her to be “backup” for Caucasian employees who were absent from work, while refusing to require that Caucasian employees provide similar backup when she was on leave. Id., ¶ 17. These practices are alleged by the plaintiff, “the only African American employee in the [Meriden] office,” id., ¶ 15, to have “caused the creation of a hostile work environment between Plaintiff and all other employees (Caucasian) in the office.” Id., ¶ 16. In the court’s opinion, these allegations, if proven, could be viewed as both objectively and subjectively offensive, and as sufficiently severe to create an abusive working environment. As such, these claims support the cause of action contained in the third count of the complaint. The motion to strike this count must therefore be denied.
For the reasons stated, the defendant’s Motion to Strike is hereby denied in its entirety.
Gold, David P., J.