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Cox v. Brennan

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Marshall Division

April 4, 2017

KIMBERLY L. COX, Plaintiff,
v.
MEGAN J. BRENNAN, Postmaster General of the United States, U.S. Postal Service, Defendant.

          ORDER

          RODNEY GILSTRAP, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is the Report and Recommendation filed by Magistrate Judge Roy Payne on March 6, 2017 (Dkt. No. 55) recommending that Defendant Megan J. Brennan's (“Brennan” or “Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 35) be denied. Having considered the objections (Dkt. No. 64), the Recommendation is ADOPTED and the objections are OVERRULED for the reasons set forth below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2011, Plaintiff Kimberly L. Cox (“Ms. Cox” or “Plaintiff) worked in the Kilgore Post Office along with Joe McQuiston, then Kilgore postmaster, and Cynthia Freeman, then a Customer Service Supervisor. (Dkt. No. 42 at 3-5.) Ms. Cox now alleges that Ms. Freeman created a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII, and that Mr. McQuiston fired her in retaliation for reporting this claim. (Dkt. No. 35 at 6-7.)

         On January 1, 2017, Brennan filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on both claims. (Dkt. No. 35.) Magistrate Judge Payne granted said motion with regard to the hostile work environment claim and denied with regard to the retaliation claim. The issue before the Court here is whether summary judgment is appropriate on the retaliation claim.[1]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion for summary judgment is appropriate where “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). A genuine issue remains if there is competent evidence that a reasonable jury could rely on to find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). Such evidence must be construed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Id. at 255.

         The Court's analysis is further guided by the burden-shifting framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Under this framework, there are three crucial steps. First, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of retaliation. See Cooper v. Dallas Police Ass'n, 278 F.App'x 318, 320 (5th Cir. 2008). Next, the defendant employer must provide a “‘legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for the adverse employment action.'” Id. (quoting Hockman v. Westward Commc'n LLC, 407 F.3d 317, 330 (5th Cir.2004)). “If the employer asserts a nonretaliatory explanation . . . [then] the plaintiff must show that the given reason is merely a pretext for retaliation.” Id. (citing McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 804).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Prima Facie Case of Retaliation

         “A retaliation claim has three elements: (1) the employee engaged in activity protected by Title VII; (2) the employer took adverse employment action against the employee; and (3) a causal connection exists between that protected activity and the adverse employment action.” Brazoria Cty., Tex. v. E.E.O.C., 391 F.3d 685, 692 (5th Cir. 2004). The central question here is whether Plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence of a “causal connection” between her complaints to Mr. McQuiston and her termination.[2] The Court concludes that a reasonable jury could find such a connection. Cf. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (“[T]he drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.”).

         Defendant argues that no reasonable jury could draw the necessary connection here because “timing is all that Cox has, ” which alone cannot establish causation under Title VII. (Dkt. No. 64 at 6 (citing Kopszywa v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 620 F.App'x 275, 280 (5th Cir. 2015).) However, a close proximity between protected activity and an adverse employment action can help establish causation together with other probative evidence. See, e.g., Kopszywa, 620 F. App'x at 280 (“Temporal proximity may . . . create a genuine dispute of material fact on the issue of but-for causation if the employee also introduces other probative evidence of pretext.”) The Court is persuaded that sufficient evidence, beyond proximity, exists in this case. For example, a jury could conclude that Mr. McQuiston's conduct on August 30, 2012 - the day of the estate sale - was motivated by a desire to retaliate against Ms. Cox. See, e.g., (Dkt. No. 42 at 19 (Mr. McQuiston cancelling a yearly route inspection and driving thirty minutes to observe Ms. Cox); id. (Mr. McQuiston calling the Office of Inspector General during this drive); id. (Mr. McQuiston following Ms. Cox to her home to continue observing her).) Therefore, a reasonable jury could consider these acts, together with the temporal proximity, and find that Plaintiff has established a prima facie case of retaliation.

         B. Nonretaliatory Reason for Termination

         Defendant has provided a nonretaliatory justification for terminating Ms. Cox. (Dkt. No. 35 at 19.) The stated reason for her termination - violations of medical leave conditions - was also supported by a report from the ...


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