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Clair v. Agusta Aerospace Corp.

January 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.


Plaintiff Antoinette Clair ("Clair") brought this lawsuit against her former employer, Agusta Aerospace Corporation ("Agusta"), alleging that her employment was illegally terminated as a result of national origin discrimination, in violation of Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA").*fn1

Clair also brings claims for a hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation under Title VII. Agusta moves for summary judgment on the grounds that Clair has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination based on national origin or, alternatively, has failed to demonstrate that its articulated, legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating her is pretextual. With respect to Clair's Title VII claim for unlawful retaliation, Agusta argues that summary judgment should be granted because Clair has not demonstrated that she engaged in protected activity and because she has again failed to demonstrate that its non-discriminatory reason for terminating her is pretextual. Agusta's motion for summary judgment will be granted.


Clair was born in Bulgaria and, according to her complaint, speaks with a "pronounced Bulgarian accent." (Compl. ¶¶ 16-17.) On July 8, 2004, Clair was hired by Agusta, an Italian firm engaged in the production, sale and maintenance of helicopters, as a purchasing agent in their Materials Department. Clair's job required her to communicate daily with members of her own department who were located in Philadelphia, and with employees of Agusta's parent facility in Italy. Indeed, Clair was hired primarily because of her Italian language skills. While employed by Agusta, Clair reported directly to John Corney, Manager of the Materials Department. Her department head, however, was Karyn Kellett.*fn3

Like all employees, Clair was subject to Augusta's written email policy, which prohibits the "[s]end[ing] or forward[ing] [of] emails containing libelous, defamatory, offensive, racist, or obscene remarks." (Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. A ("Corney Decl.") Ex. 1.) Further, the policy explicitly states that Agusta "reserves the right to take disciplinary action, including termination and/or legal action" where there is evidence that an employee has violated the email policy. (Id.)

During the course of her employment at Agusta, Clair's co-workers made several comments regarding her native Bulgaria that she viewed as ethnically offensive. (Compl. ¶ 20.)

Additionally, Clair felt that she was subjected to "constant yelling and abuse." (Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Mtn. for Summ. J. at 9.) The conduct of one co-worker, Annabelle DeSantiago, was particularly upsetting to Clair. In November 2005, Clair and DeSantiago were involved in a verbal "altercation" at the office.*fn4 Following this confrontation, DeSantiago stopped communicating with Clair entirely. Eventually, Clair and DeSantiago resumed contact but their working relationship remained strained. For example, DeSantiago sent business-related emails to Clair, to which she responded verbally or not at all. On December 7, 2005, both Clair and DeSantiago were issued formal "Counseling Reports," which addressed their violation of Agusta's email policy. (See Corney Decl. Ex. 2 (noting that Clair had failed to respond to DeSantiago's routine business emails and that both women attacked "each other verbally and personally through the Email system."))

On January 20, 2006, Clair forwarded an email from DeSantiago to her Italian counterpart. The original email contained an urgent parts request, but Clair added language describing DeSantiago as "la serpente," or "the snake" in Italian. Later, Clair sent this email back to DeSantiago, who then complained to Agusta's management about being called "the snake." Clair was issued a second "Counseling Report" on January 24, 2006, which plainly stated that her "defamatory email against Annabelle" was "in [v]violation of company policy." (Corney Decl. Ex. 3.)

On March 17, 2006, Clair wrote an email to Ms. Gerrold, an Augusta Human Resources representative. In her email, Clair wrote "What don't you come and stay for a week on my place and stand what I stand here and call please the Commission for Equal Opportunity Employer to see the truth and don't talk stupid things if you don't want to believe what I tell you and if you don't know the truth." (Pl.'s Statement of Facts Ex. F.)*fn5

Shortly thereafter, on March 23, 2006, Clair sent an email to John Corney, accusing DeSantiago of "illegal" and "intentionally abnormal" behavior. In this email, Clair referred to DeSantiago as "The Mexican" and described her as "an ambitious and malicious girl." Clair also complained that Corney "can't manage a girl who has half your age and come [sic] from the lowest level of society." (Corney Decl. Ex. 5.) Approximately one week later, on March 31, 2006, Clair was terminated.


A. Motion for Summary Judgment under Rule 56

A court may grant summary judgment when "the pleadings, the discovery and the disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(C). A fact is "material" if its existence or non-existence would affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue of fact is "genuine" when there is sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find in favor of the non-moving party regarding the existence of that fact. Id. at 248-49. "In considering the evidence, the court should draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party." El v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 479 F.3d 232, 238 (3d Cir. 2007). However, while the moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the non-moving party "may not rely merely on allegations or denials in its own pleading; rather its response must - by affidavits or as otherwise provided in [Rule 56] - set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2).

B. Title VII

Title VII protects employees from discrimination by their employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. To prevail on a discrimination claim based on indirect evidence,*fn6 an employee may rely upon the familiar three-step burden shifting analysis under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. 411 U.S. 792 (1973). First, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case for discrimination. Id. at 802. That is, a plaintiff must demonstrate 1) that she is a member of a protected class; 2) that she was qualified for the position in question; 3) that she was discharged; and 4) that she was terminated "'under circumstances that give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.'" Waldron v. SL Indus. Inc., 56 F.3d 491, 494 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981)). The Third Circuit has adopted a flexible view of this test, rejecting the requirement that a plaintiff compare herself to a similarly situated individual from outside her protected class to raise an inference of unlawful discrimination. See Sarullo v. United States Postal Serv., 352 F.3d 789, 798 n.7 (3d Cir. 2003). Importantly, however, a plaintiff "must establish some causal nexus between his membership in a protected class" and the adverse employment decision complained of. Id.

Establishing a prima facie case creates the presumption of unlawful discrimination. St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506 (1993).*fn7 Then, the burden of production shifts to defendant to set forth a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. Id. Notably, the Third Circuit has held that this is a "relatively light burden" because the defendant "need not prove that the tendered reason ...

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