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Phillips v. Potter

May 14, 2009

SUZANNE PHILLIPS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

Plaintiff Suzanne Phillips ("Phillips") works as a mail clerk at the General Mail Facility ("GMF") for Defendant United States Postal Service ("the Postal Service"). More than ten years ago, Phillips filed suit in federal court against the Postal Service, contending that she had been subject to sexual harassment and retaliation based apparently upon the actions of her then supervisor Tom Arneson ("Arneson"). Phillips and the Postal Service settled that suit in late December 1999. Following settlement, Arneson transferred to other managerial duties.

Phillips contends that despite a nonretaliation clause present in the prior Settlement, Arneson and others at the Postal Service have engaged in a campaign of harassment directed at her in retaliation for her having engaged in protected activity. Accordingly she commenced this litigation against the Postal Service for violations of Title VII and breach of contract.

The Postal Service has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment challenging, the sufficiency of Phillips' claims. See Docket No. [30]. Phillips opposes the Motion and has filed a Motion for Sanctions. See Docket No. [40]. The Motion for Sanctions is based upon the spoilation of evidence.

After careful consideration and for the reasons set forth below, both Motions are denied.

MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT Though the Complaint itself is rather vague as to the precise nature of the claim(s) asserted under Title VII,*fn1 having reviewed the Complaint, the claim filed with the EEOC, the EEOC's Final Agency Decision and excerpts from Phillips' deposition, I believe that Phillips' claim is that the Postal Service engaged in retaliation and that retaliation manifested itself in the creation of a hostile work environment. See Phillips' EEOC Claim, ¶ 34 (stating in Count 1 that Phillips experienced a hostile work environment "because she had complained about discrimination and retaliation"); ¶ 49 (stating in Count 2 that "[t]he retaliatory treatment caused Ms. Phillips to experience a hostile, offensive and intimidating work environment... ."); EEOC Final Agency decision (characterizing Phillips' claim as one of retaliation); and Phillips' Depo., p. 58 (Q: "The general basis of this Complaint is an action of retaliation is that true?" A: "Well, I believe I am suffering an abusive, intimidating, bullying type of situation that I consider to be retaliation."). Indeed, the Postal Service construed Phillips' claim to be one of "retaliatory harassment" and Phillips offered no objection.

The Postal Service challenges Phillips' ability to establish a prima facie case of retaliatory harassment. It also challenges the scope of the retaliatory harassment claim. Finally, the Postal Service urges that, because the retaliation claim is fatally flawed, the breach of contract claim is similarly flawed. I reject each argument.

Standard of Review

Summary judgment may only be granted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with any affidavits, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Rule 56 mandates the entry of judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against the party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court must examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. International Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.

Analysis

I. Retaliatory Harassment

The Third Circuit first recognized the claim of retaliatory harassment in Jensen v. Potter, 435 F.3d 444 (3d Cir. 2006), abrogated in part by, Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 126 S.Ct. 2405 (2006), and further developed its contours in Moore v. City of Philadelphia, 461 F.3d 331 (3d Cir. 2006) and Hare v. Potter, 220 Fed. Appx. 120 (3d Cir. 2007). Because the ...


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