Fourth Circuit Reverses, Reinstates Title VII Discrimination Claim

Employment Law


Title VII permits retaliation claims even when the plaintiff is not the party against whom the initial discrimination was directed, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit has ruled, reversing the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a white jail captain.

Jeffrey Kengerski, a captain at the Allegheny County Jail, filed a written complaint with the warden against Robyn McCall, a white female major at the jail. He detailed an event when he was discussing his grandniece Jaylynn with McCall and a few other officers.

Kengerski said he and his wife were preparing for the possibility that they would take Jaylynn under their care. McCall reportedly said, “What kind of name is Jaylynn? Is she black?” When Kengerski replied that Jaylynn is biracial, McCall reportedly responded that Kengerski would “be that guy in the store with the little monkey on his hip” like another jail employee with a biracial child. Kengerski asked McCall not to speak like that and left the room.

With his complaint, Kengerski attached several racially offensive text messages that McCall sent him after the conversation and stated that he felt like he was “in a hostile environment.”

McCall was placed on administrative leave and resigned three months later. Just a few months later, the county terminated Kengerski. It said he mishandled a sexual harassment complaint.

Kengerski sued the warden and the jail. He alleged race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII. A Pennsylvania federal court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, holding that Kengerski’s retaliation claim failed as a matter of law because he was not the subject of the negative comments.

Kengerski appealed, and the Third Circuit reversed.

“Title VII protects all employees from retaliation when they reasonably believe that behavior at their work violates the statute and they make a good faith complaint,” the federal appellate panel wrote. “Because a reasonable person could believe that the Allegheny County Jail was a hostile work environment for Kengerski, we vacate the District Court’s grant of summary judgment.”

The court was not persuaded by the defendants’ argument against associational discrimination, which can “affect the behavior of countless employers and employees in situations ranging from interracial marriage to intra-office friendships” and is not limited to close or substantial relationships.

“Employees … may not be discriminated against because of their interracial relationships with distant relatives such as a grand-niece,” the court said.

Multiple other circuits have recognized associational discrimination claims under Title VII, the Third Circuit noted, including the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh Circuits.

The court also ruled that a reasonable person could conclude that Kengerski’s work environment was hostile given the totality of McCall’s conduct.

“While the county incredibly attempts to argue that the comment about Kengerski’s grand-niece (and another jail employee’s child) being monkeys was merely a harmless ‘zoomorphism,’ it is clear that this term was used in a racist manner,” the court wrote. “McCall’s behavior was clear and consistent: she expressed racial animosity toward jail employees who either were black or associated with black persons.”

The e court declined to decide whether the comment made about Jaylynn was sufficiently severe on its own to engender a hostile work environment, however it found that the subsequent, numerous racist comments in text messages over a period of several months “could have bolstered Kengerski’s reasonable belief that McCall’s conduct toward him was grounded in racial animosity and created a hostile work environment.”

“The crux of a retaliation claim is reasonableness: employees are protected from retaliation whenever they make good-faith complaints about conduct in their workplace they reasonably believe violates Title VII,” the panel concluded. “Here a reasonable employee could believe that McCall created a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII, by calling Kengerski’s biracial relative a ‘monkey’ and then sending Kengerski a series of text messages with offensive racial stereotypes.”

The court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded.

To read the opinion in Kengerski v. Harper, click here.

Why it matters: The court joined other circuits to find that associational discrimination (here, racial comments about the plaintiff’s grandniece) were enough to keep a retaliation claim alive.

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