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Robinson v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Authority

filed: January 8, 1993; As Amended January 19, 1993.

DAVID ROBINSON
v.
SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, RED ARROW DIVISION, APPELLANT NO. 92-1232 DAVID ROBINSON, APPELLANT NO. 92-1260 V. SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, RED ARROW DIVISION



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 87-05114).

Before: Sloviter, Chief Judge, Stapleton and Lay*fn* , Circuit Judges

Author: Lay

Opinion OF THE COURT

LAY, Senior Circuit Judge.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) appeals from a $177,477.71 judgment in favor of David Robinson, a former bus cleaner at SEPTA. Robinson claimed that SEPTA dismissed him from his job in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. The district court determined that SEPTA had illegally discriminated against Robinson over the course of two years culminating with his termination on December 24, 1985.

On appeal, SEPTA challenges several of the trial Judge's factual determinations, the trial Judge's finding that Robinson's opposition to discriminatory practices was sufficient to implicate Title VII's protections, the district court's allocation of the burden of proving failure to mitigate damages, and the award of prejudgment interest. Robinson, on cross-appeal, challenges the trial Judge's reduction of his damage award on (1) equitable grounds and (2) to account for federal income tax which he would have paid if he remained employed. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

Title VII Violations

SEPTA employed David Robinson, a black male, from February 28, 1983 through December 24, 1985. Robinson worked as a bus cleaner at the Victory Avenue Garage. After about seven months of employment, Robinson began experiencing on-the-job problems which he claims were race related. He attempted to halt the discrimination through several mechanisms. The trial Judge determined that SEPTA ultimately dismissed Robinson in retaliation for these efforts, which the court grouped into three clusters of events. The first series of events relates to Robinson's union grievance and Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) complaint in February 1984. The second involves Robinson's letter to his congressman, Rep. Robert Edgar, in mid-1985. The third concerns Robinson's note of complaint to a supervisor in November 1985, shortly before his termination. SEPTA initially asserts that events occurring in early 1984 were too remote from his December 24, 1985 dismissal to be considered a cause of his termination. Although almost two years passed between these events and Robinson's termination from employment, we cannot say the trial Judge was clearly erroneous in including these events in his determination that retaliation occurred. The mere passage of time is not legally conclusive proof against retaliation.*fn1 Shirley v. Chrysler First, Inc., 970 F.2d 39, 43 (5th Cir. 1992). We find substantial support for the trial Judge's Conclusion that Robinson's termination had its roots in these earlier confrontations over race.

The trial Judge determined that Robinson's troubles began with Discussions about race between Robinson and Charles Berridge, the general superintendent of the garage, in September 1983 and February 1984. On September 21, Robinson and another black employee complained to Berridge about a racially offensive remark made by a fellow employee. In mid-February, Robinson again complained to Berridge about racial discrimination, this time concerning a shift change that resulted in Robinson being bumped to the night shift by a less senior black employee. The trial Judge found that during this Discussion Berridge became verbally abusive. Robinson filed a grievance on February 18, 1984 with his union concerning the incident, and two days later filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), alleging his transfer was in retaliation for his September 21, 1983 complaint. On February 24, 1984, Robinson, Berridge and various union officials met to discuss Robinson's union complaint. Robinson testified that his concerns about racism at the garage were a subject of Discussion.

Following the union grievance, Robinson's relationship with his supervisors deteriorated sharply. The trial Judge determined that Robinson's direct supervisors, all of whom reported to Berridge, began a pattern of harassing Robinson by repeatedly disciplining him for minor matters, miscalculating his points for absences from work, and generally trying to provoke Robinson to insubordination.*fn2

The evidence supporting a finding of retaliation for the February, 1984 events is substantial. The issue here, however, is whether there is sufficient evidence to support the trial Judge's Conclusion that this series of events are causally linked to his termination. The temporal proximity noted in other cases, see, e.g., Jalil v. Avdel Corp., 873 F.2d 701, 708 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1023, 107 L. Ed. 2d 745, 110 S. Ct. 725 (1990), is missing here and we might be hard pressed to uphold the trial Judge's finding were it not for the intervening pattern of antagonism that SEPTA demonstrated. As the trial Judge found, SEPTA subjected Robinson to a "constant barrage of written and verbal warnings . . ., inaccurate point totalings, and disciplinary action, all of which occurred soon after plaintiff's initial complaints and continued until his discharge." The court could reasonably find that the initial series of events thus caused Robinson's and SEPTA's relationship to deteriorate, and set a pattern of behavior that SEPTA followed in retaliating against Robinson's later efforts at opposing the Title VII violations he perceived. Cf. Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1484 (3d Cir. 1990) ("A play cannot be understood on the basis of some of its scenes but only on its entire performance, and similarly, a discrimination analysis must concentrate not on individual incidents, but on the overall scenario."). Because these events do not stand alone in this case, we cannot say the trial court's finding of a causal link is clearly erroneous.*fn3

SEPTA also challenges the trial Judge's finding that Robinson's letter to his congressman constituted "opposition" within the meaning of Title VII. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). The transit authority contends that in the letter, Robinson expressed only personal concerns about his shift assignments. Therefore, SEPTA argues, the letter is not in opposition to any practice that could violate Title VII and as such is not protected. See Quiroga v. Hasbro, Inc., 934 F.2d 497, 501 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 116 L. Ed. 2d 327, 112 S. Ct. 376 (1991). Since this question, too, requires a factual determination, we review it on a clearly erroneous standard. Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573, 84 L. Ed. 2d 518, 105 S. Ct. 1504 (1985). This is true even when the finding turns on documentary evidence, id. at 574, as is the case here.*fn4

The trial Judge determined that the letter to Congressman Robert Edgar implicated Title VII's protections. Although Robinson's attorneys admit the letter is not artfully drawn, we have little trouble agreeing that it sufficiently articulated Robinson's opposition to racial discrimination at the Victory Avenue Garage.*fn5

SEPTA also challenges the trial Judge's Conclusion that it retaliated against Robinson for his letter to Rep. Edgar. We cannot say, however, that the trial Judge was clearly erroneous in this finding. There is substantial evidence supporting the trial Judge's finding of retaliation, much of it temporal in nature, see Jalil, 873 F.2d at 708. Rep. Edgar wrote the transit authority in June 1985, asking it to look into Robinson's concerns. Soon thereafter began another round of disciplinary actions which the trial Judge determined were pretextual. SEPTA officials admitted that in one of the incidents its staff "jumped the gun" in holding Robinson off from work for refusing to visit the transit authority's medical department. At roughly the same time, one of Robinson's supervisors wrote that Robinson had not "exhibited any violent behavior in the recent past" even though Robinson had never exhibited violent behavior at work. This letter was included in Robinson's permanent record. In August and September Robinson and SEPTA had several disputes over Robinson's absences in which ...


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