United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
February 6, 2014
TONY REAVES, Plaintiff,
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE, Defendant.
CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.
Presently before the court is defendant Pennsylvania State Police's ("PSP") motion (Doc. 74) for reconsideration of the court's order (Doc. 51) adopting the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation ("R&R") (Doc. 39) in part and rejecting it in part. The court granted PSP's motion (Doc. 19) for summary judgment on plaintiff Tony Reaves's ("Reaves") Title VII discrimination claim but denied it on Reaves's retaliation claim. PSP seeks the court's reconsideration of whether Reaves has adequately established a causal connection between Reaves's alleged protected activity and the adverse employment action taken against him. For the reasons set forth below, the court will grant PSP's motion (Doc. 74) for reconsideration, and amend its previous order (Doc. 51) to grant PSP's motion (Doc. 19) for summary judgment in its entirety.
I. Factual Background & Procedural History
Reaves is an African American who was employed as a probationary status trooper by the PSP in 2006 and assigned to the Avondale barracks. (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 1, 4, 19; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 1, 4, 19). As a result of certain conduct concerns, Reaves's supervisors extended his probationary status in March, 2007. (Doc. 20 ¶ 61; Doc. 29 ¶ 61).
In July 2007, Reaves conversed with Cpl. Ranck about Reaves's belief that he was being treated differently than others. (Doc. 20 ¶ 112; Doc. 29 ¶ 112). Reaves also relayed his concerns of differential treatment to the PSP Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") office on several occasions from March, 2007, after his probation was extended, until his dismissal in October, 2007. (Doc. 20 ¶ 116; Doc. 29 ¶ 116). Reaves also communicated his perception of differential treatment to his station commander, Lieutenant Shelton Sneed ("Lt. Sneed"). (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 121-124; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 121-124). Sometime in September 2007, Reaves sent a complaint letter to Lt. Sneed outlining a number of issues relative to differential treatment. (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 125-127; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 125-127).
In August and September, 2007, Corporal Steven Ranck ("Cpl. Ranck") prepared supplemental General Investigation ("GI") reports in review of Reaves's probationary trooper status. (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 86-103; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 86-103). The reports noted a number of negative incidents involving Reaves, including three separate traffic stops of Reaves driving his civilian vehicle. (Id.) A majority of Reaves's supervisors recommended retention, but Cpl. Ranck recommended that Reaves not be retained. (Doc. 20 ¶ 103; Doc. 29 ¶ 103). Upon Cpl. Ranck's recommendation, Captain Jack Laufer ("Capt. Laufer") recommended Reaves's termination. (Doc. 20 ¶ 104; Doc. 29 ¶ 104). Major Steven McDaniel ("Major McDaniel"), the Probationary Trooper Review Panel ("PTRP"), and the Probationary Trooper Administrative Review Panel ("PTARP") agreed with the recommendation to dismiss plaintiff. (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 106-109; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 106-109). Reaves was officially terminated on October 4, 2007. (Doc. 20 ¶ 110; Doc. 29 ¶ 110).
Reaves filed the instant suit on December 28, 2009, alleging discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Doc. 1). PSP filed a motion for summary judgment on February 28, 2011. (See Docs. 19-21). The court referred PSP's summary judgment motion to the Magistrate Judge, (see Doc. 38), who recommended denying the motion. PSP filed objections to the R&R on April 5, 2012. (Doc. 44). For Reaves's Title VII discrimination claim, PSP raised two objections: (1) the Magistrate Judge incorrectly found a dispute of material fact regarding whether comparators were sufficiently similarly situated to Reaves; and (2) the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that Reaves established pretext. For Reaves's Title VII retaliation claim, PSP raised two additional objections: (1) the Magistrate Judge incorrectly concluded that Reaves engaged in a protected activity; and (2) the Magistrate Judge erred in not addressing PSP's causal connection argument.
The court found that PSP was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Reaves's discrimination claim because a jury could not reasonably find that Reaves was similarly situated to the proposed comparators. (Doc. 51 at 5-12). The court further found that PSP was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Reaves's retaliation claim. (Id. at 12-18). The court explained that a jury could reasonably find that Reaves engaged in protected activity. However, the court did not explicitly address whether Reaves could establish a causal connection between his protected activity and the adverse employment action. The court adopted the Magistrate Judge's R&R in part and denied it in part by granting PSP's motion for summary judgment on Reaves's discrimination claim and denying it on Reaves's retaliation claim.
On August 15, 2013, PSP filed the instant motion (Doc. 74) for reconsideration of the court's denial of PSP's motion for summary judgment on Reaves's retaliation claim. Citing the Supreme Court's recent decision in University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar , 133 S.Ct. 2517 (2013), PSP asserts that Reaves cannot establish a sufficient causal connection between his alleged protected activity and the adverse employment action taken against him. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.
II. Legal Standard
A. Legal Standard for a Motion for Reconsideration
The denial of a motion for summary judgment is an interlocutory order. Bines v. Kulaylat , 215 F.3d 381, 384 (3d Cir. 2000). The court may reconsider an interlocutory order whenever it is "consonant with justice to do so." Mohammad v. Kelchner, Civ. A. No. 03-1134, 2005 WL 1138468, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 27, 2005) (quoting United States v. Jerry , 487 F.2d 600, 605 (3d Cir. 1973)). An order that does not dispose of every claim in an action "may be revised at any time before the entry of a judgment adjudicating all the claims and all the parties' rights and liabilities." FED. R. CIV. P. 54(b); see also Gallant v. Telebrands Corp. , 35 F.Supp.2d 378, 393 (D.N.J. 1998) ("a partial summary judgment order is subject to revision or vacation at any time prior to final judgment.").
Rule 59 does not formally apply to motions for reconsideration of an interlocutory order, but courts tend to grant motions for reconsideration "sparingly" and "only upon the grounds traditionally available" under Rule 59(e). A&H Sportwear Co., Inc. v. Victoria's Secret Stores, Inc., Civ. A. No. 94-7408 , 2001 WL 881718, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 1, 2001). Under Rule 59(e), a party seeking reconsideration must typically establish (1) a change in the law; (2) newly discovered evidence; or (3) the need to correct errors of law or fact or to prevent manifest injustice. Mack's Seafood Cafe v. Quinteros , 176 F.3d 669, 677 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing North River Ins. Co. v. CIGNA Reinsurance Co. , 52 F.3d 1194, 1218 (3d Cir. 1995)). Motions for reconsideration may also be appropriate in instances "where, for example, the Court has patently misunderstood a party, or has made a decision outside the adversarial issues presented to the Court by the parties, or has made an error not of reasoning but of apprehension." Rohrbach v. AT&T Nassau Metals Corp. , 902 F.Supp. 523, 527 (M.D. Pa. 1995) (quoting Above the Belt, Inc. v. Mel Bohannan Roofing, Inc. , 99 F.R.D. 99, 101 (E.D. Va. 1983)) vacated in part on other grounds on reconsideration by 915 F.Supp. 712 (M.D. Pa. 1996).
For the reasons stated infra , the court concludes that Nassar's clarification of the causation standard for retaliation claims, coupled with the lack of thorough analysis relative to the causation prong of Reaves's retaliation claim, provide substantial grounds for the court's reconsideration of PSP's motion for summary judgment.
B. Legal Standard for a Motion for Summary Judgment
Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine dispute as to any material fact" and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). The burden of proof is upon the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, " in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon , 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas , 331 F.Supp.2d at 315.
In reviewing a motion for summary judgment under Title VII, which relies upon indirect evidence, the Third Circuit applies the three-step test set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green , 411 U.S. 792 (1973). First, plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation. Id. at 802. Second, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for the adverse action taken. Id . Third, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's proffered reasons are mere pretext. Id. at 804.
C. Legal Standard for a Magistrate Judge's Recommendation
Where objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation are filed, the court must perform a de novo review of the contested portions of the report. Sample v. Diecks , 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c)). Local Rule 72.3 requires "written objections which... specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections."
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII, Reaves must show that (1) he engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took adverse action against him; and (3) there was a causal connection between his protected activity and the adverse employment action. Nelson v. Upsala College , 51 F.3d 383, 386 (3d Cir. 1995). In the context of the pending motion, the court must revisit whether Reaves established a sufficient causal connection between his protected activity and the adverse employment action against him. Pursuant to the Supreme Court's recent ruling, Reaves is required to establish that his protected activity was a "but-for" cause of the employer's adverse action. Univ. Of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar , 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2534 (2013). Such a showing "requires proof that the unlawful retaliation would not have occurred in the absence of the alleged wrongful action or actions of the employer." Id.
The court may consider "a broad array of evidence" to determine whether such a causal link exists for the purposes of a motion for summary judgment. Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co. , 206 F.3d 271, 284 (3d Cir. 2000). A short temporal proximity between the protected activity and adverse action that is "unusually suggestive" of a retaliatory motive may suffice to create an inference of causality. Krouse v. Am. Sterilizer Co. , 126 F.3d 494, 503 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Clark County Sch. Dist. v. Breeden , 532 U.S. 268, 273-74 (2001). When the temporal proximity between the two actions is not "unusually suggestive, " the court examines whether "the proffered evidence, looked at as a whole, may suffice to raise the inference." Farrell , 206 F.3d at 280 (quoting Kachmar v. SunGard Data Sys., Inc. , 109 F.3d 173, 177 (3d Cir. 1997). A plaintiff may present evidence of antagonism on behalf of the employer towards the employee, whether the employer provided inconsistent reasons for the adverse action, or any other evidence sufficient to support an inference of retaliation. Id. at 279-81; LeBoon v. Lancaster Jewish Cmty. Ctr. Ass'n , 503 F.3d 217, 232-33 (3d Cir. 2007).
To analyze the causation element of Reaves's retaliation claim, the court must first define the protected activity and the adverse employment action. The court has already determined that a jury could reasonably find that Reaves engaged in protected activity by making implicit complaints of discrimination to Cpl. Ranck, Lieutenant Martin Henry of the EEO Office ("Lt. Henry"), and Lt. Sneed. (See Doc. 51 at 12-18). The parties do not dispute that this activity took place after PSP extended Reaves's probationary status; therefore, it cannot be the "but-for" cause of Reaves's probation extension. See Shaner v. Synthes , 204 F.3d 494, 504-505 (3d Cir. 2000) (finding no causal link where some of employee's negative performance evaluations occurred months prior to the plaintiff's protected activity). Consequently, the only cognizable adverse employment action that may be causally linked to Reaves's protected activity is Reaves's ultimate termination.
The court is fully cognizant of the appearance of temporal proximity between Reaves's complaints and his ultimate termination on October 4, 2007. As noted, Reaves's calls to the EEO office took place between March and October, 2007. (Doc. 20 ¶ 116; Doc. 29 ¶ 116). Reaves spoke with Cpl. Ranck in July, 2007 about his belief that he was being treated differently than others. (Doc. 20 ¶ 112; Doc. 29 ¶ 112). He also discussed his concerns with Lt. Sneed and sent Lt. Sneed a letter chronicling his complaints sometime in September, 2007. (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 125-27; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 125-27).
Nevertheless, in the case sub judice , the temporal proximity between Reaves's complaints and his ultimate termination is not unusually suggestive of a retaliatory motive. Reaves's extended probationary period was scheduled to expire in October. (See Doc. 21-10, Ex. JJ; Doc. 20 ¶ 86; Doc. 29 ¶ 86). At that time, PSP was compelled to make a decision concerning whether to retain Reaves, further extend his probationary period, or terminate him. (See Doc. 21-2, Ex. B, § 2.09(A)). With the expiration of Reaves's extended probationary period imminent, it is indisputable that PSP was required to take action on Reaves's employment status, regardless of whether Reaves engaged in protected activity. See Cardenas v. Massey , 269 F.3d 251, 264 (3d Cir. 2001) ("temporal proximity alone will be insufficient to establish the necessary causal connection when the temporal relationship is not unusually suggestive.'" (quoting Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co. , 206 F.3d 271, 280 (3d Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted)); Krouse v. Am. Sterilizer Co. , 126 F.3d 494, 503 (3d Cir. 1997) ("[T]he mere fact that adverse employment action occurs after a complaint will ordinarily be insufficient to satisfy the plaintiff's burden of demonstrating a causal link between the two events." (quoting Robinson v. City of Pittsburgh , 120 F.3d 1286 (3d Cir. 1997) abrogated on other grounds by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White , 548 U.S. 53 (2006))). The court concludes that the temporal proximity between Reaves's complaints and his ultimate termination does not ex proprio vigore suggest a retaliatory motive on behalf of PSP.
Reaves alleges that he was the subject of ongoing antagonism from the time of his initial complaints until his termination. Specifically, Reaves claims he was the subject of "unwarranted investigations, " such as the extended investigation of three off-duty traffic stops involving Reaves, the offline search of Reaves' vehicle registration to identify any other traffic stops, and the questioning of various PSP employees concerning whether Reaves was stopped in New Jersey for "pulling wheelies" on his motorcycle. (Doc. 80 at 11).
It is hardly a controversial proposition to state that probationary troopers are subject to greater scrutiny and supervision than retained troopers. (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 5-7, 10; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 5-7, 10). The purpose of the Probationary Trooper Program is to enable PSP to conduct a "more comprehensive and in-depth evaluation" of probationary troopers. (Doc. 20 ¶ 6; Doc. 29 ¶ 6). Probationary troopers are evaluated based on a number of different areas, including application of job knowledge; general attitude and behavior; preparation of reports and correspondence; productivity; dependability, responsibility, and reliability; verbal communication skills; logical reasoning and judgment; listening comprehension and attentiveness; planning and organizing ability; objectivity, open-mindedness, and impartiality; sensitivity and tact; poise, self-control, and calmness; neat and appropriate personal appearance; honesty and integrity; and basic police skills. (Doc. 20 ¶ 7; Doc. 29 ¶ 7). Probationary troopers are primarily evaluated through the use of GI reports, which are intended to be detailed performance inquiries. (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 9-11; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 9-11). Indeed, Cpl. Ranck was required to prepare a supplemental GI report due to Reaves's probation extension. (See Doc. 21-2, Ex. B; Doc. 20 ¶ 86; Doc. 29 ¶ 86). The record is devoid of any support for Reaves's claim that PSP's expansive investigation into his background is "antagonism" as opposed to a comprehensive evaluation entirely consistent with PSP's probationary trooper policy.
Reaves also argues that PSP officials did not investigate other probationary troopers with the same scrutiny. However, there is no record evidence of any other probationary troopers with similar conduct issues which would implicate similar or perhaps greater scrutiny. (See Doc. 51 at 11-12). When supervisors extended Reaves's probationary period, human resources policy mandated the preparation of supplemental GI reports. (See Doc. 21-2, Ex. B; Doc. 20 ¶ 86; Doc. 29 ¶ 86). Moreover, the investigations that Reaves identifies as "antagonism" were initiated after Reaves informed Cpl. Ranck that Reaves was pulled over by Embreeville troopers; specifically, Cpl. Ranck learned that Reaves "blew past" a state police car, passing on the right side of the troopers' vehicle. (Doc. 20 ¶ 76-80, 88; Doc. 29 ¶ 76-80, 88). On July 26, 2007, Cpl. Ranck became aware of an earlier incident involving Sergeant Kissinger ("Sgt. Kissinger"), a local police officer. (Doc. 20 ¶ 87; Doc. 29 ¶ 87). According to Sgt. Kissinger, on November 28, 2006, Reaves insisted that Sgt. Kissinger arrest Reaves's neighbor, who had been placing notes on vehicles that were parked in front of the neighbor's residence. (Doc. 20 ¶ 89; Doc. 29 ¶ 89). Sgt. Kissinger described Reaves's demeanor and behavior as "nasty, demanding and very arrogant." (Id.) Reaves does not provide any evidence that PSP failed to investigate probationary troopers with similar instances of misconduct who had already had their probation extended.
PSP's reasons for Reaves's termination are entirely consistent with its reasons for Reaves's probation extension, which predated Reaves's allegedly protected activity. See Verma v. Univ. of Pennsylvania, Civ. A. No. 12-2799, 2013 WL 4010237 (3d Cir. Aug. 7, 2013) ("[T]his court has declined to infer... a causal link where an employee's negative performance evaluations predated any protected activity."). PSP extended Reaves's probationary period in March, 2007. In Cpl. Ranck's January 23, 2007 GI report, several supervisors voiced concerns regarding errors in Reaves's reports and Reaves's attitude and lack of respect towards co-workers. (See Doc. 21-9, Ex. X). Cpl. Ranck also cited two off-duty traffic violations involving Reaves. (Id.) Ultimately, most of Reaves's supervisors recommended his retention, with some pointedly qualifying that "with time and more experience, " Reaves would make a good trooper. (Id.) However, Corporal Brandon Daniels did not recommend Reaves's retention, explaining that Reaves is "aggressive, " "argumentative, " "abrasive, " and "lacks empathy." (Id.) Both Cpl. Ranck and Lt. Sneed recommended Reaves's retention, but Capt. Laufer recommended an extension of his probationary period as a result of the issues delineated in Cpl. Ranck's GI report. (See Doc. 21-9, Ex. Z; Doc. 20 ¶ 58; Doc. 29 ¶ 58). The PTRP also recommended further review on March 14, 2007, citing Reaves's supervisors' concerns with Reaves's reports, attitude, and off-duty traffic violations. (See Doc. 21-9, Ex. AA; Doc. 20 ¶ 60; Doc. 29 ¶ 60). PTARP confirmed this recommendation. (See Doc. 21-9, Ex. CC; Doc. 20 ¶¶ 61-62; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 61-62).
The proffered reasons for Reaves's termination in October, 2007, are virtually identical to the concerns discussed in relation to his initial probation extension. As discussed supra , Cpl. Ranck's August 17, 2007, GI report chronicled Reaves's off-duty traffic stop in Embreeville in July 2007 as well as the incident with Sgt. Kissinger. (See Doc. 21-10, Ex. JJ). Several supervisors also noted a decline in the quality of Reaves's written reports, as well as issues with Reaves's attitude. (Id. at 3-5). Lt. Sneed expressed his concern with Reaves's attitude in Lt. Sneed's supplemental report recommending dismissal. (See Doc. 21-11, Ex. MM; Doc. 20 ¶ 95; Doc. 29 ¶ 95). Several supplemental GI reports provide additional information regarding Reaves's infelicitous off-duty traffic stops. (See Doc. 21-11, Exs. NN, OO, PP; Doc. 20 ¶ 96-101; Doc. 29 ¶ 96-101). One supplemental report addressed Cpl. Ranck's efforts to investigate rumors that Reaves had been stopped in New Jersey for pulling "wheelies" on his motorcycle. This report included summaries of six interviews with Reaves's co-workers. (See Doc. 21-11, Ex. OO; Doc. 20 ¶ 96; Doc. 29 ¶ 96). Reaves's co-workers raised concerns with his "arrogant" attitude, and one raised concerns about the legality of Reaves's conduct during a traffic stop. (Id.) Capt. Laufer and Major McDaniel both recommended Reaves's termination, citing Reaves's continuing attitudinal issues and questionable conformance to the law while off-duty. (See Doc. 21-11, Exs. QQ, RR; Doc. 20 ¶ 104-106; Doc. 29 ¶ 104-106). Indeed, Capt. Laufer explained that he viewed Reaves's behavior "as a pattern of conduct" throughout his probationary period. (Id.) Similarly, the PTARP explained that "[d]espite his probationary period being extended, [Reaves] continues to display a disregard for PA law, engaged in unprofessional conduct, and placed the Pennsylvania State Police in jeopardy or damage to its image and potential civil liability." (See Doc. 21-11, Ex. TT; Doc. 20 ¶ 108; Doc. 29 ¶ 108). The reasons for PSP's employment actions - attitudinal issues, off-duty traffic incidents, and errors in reports - were consistent before and after Reaves's complaints. Reaves cannot establish a prima facie case of retaliation because the proffered evidence, examined in its entirety, does not raise an inference that his complaints were the but-for cause of his termination. Thus, it is not necessary for the court to proceed to the next two stages of the McDonnell test. Based on the court's review of the totality of the evidence, there is no genuine dispute of material fact and PSP is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Reaves's retaliation claim.
For the foregoing reasons, the court will grant PSP's motion (Doc. 74) for reconsideration, and amend its previous order (Doc. 51) to grant summary judgment to PSP on both of Reaves's claims. An appropriate order follows.