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Horvath v. Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 29, 2017

MARY M. HORVATH, Plaintiff,
v.
URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY OF PITTSBURGH, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Cathy Bissoon United States District Judge

         I. MEMORANDUM

         This matter is before the Court upon a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 37) filed by Defendant Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (“URA”). For the reasons that follow, URA's Motion will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Mary M. Horvath (“Horvath”) was hired by URA as an Accounting Manager on January 7, 2008. Compl. (Doc. 1) at ¶¶ 5, 12. Following a promotion in November 2008, Horvath served as URA's Assistant Director of Finance until her termination on March 25, 2015. Id. At the time of her termination, her immediate supervisor was Tom Short (“Short”). Def.'s Stmt. of Facts (Doc. 39) at ¶ 5. Horvath, Short and the rest of the finance department ultimately reported to Robert Rubinstein, URA's Acting Executive Director. Id. at ¶ 6.

         On July 2, 2012, Horvath commenced legal proceedings with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (“PCHR”) claiming that she was being paid a substantially lower salary than her male counterparts. Id. at ¶ 35. Horvath and URA settled her PCHR claim in December 2014. Id. ¶ 37. Horvath received the proceeds from that settlement in January 2015. Horvath Depo. (Doc. 40-1) at 244.

         Horvath continued to perform her job responsibilities during the pendency of her PCHR claim. Def.'s Stmt. of Facts ¶ 38. In late 2014, URA's outside auditor, Maher Duessel CPAs, began performing an annual financial audit for the 2014 calendar year. Id. at ¶ 39. At various times between December 2014 and March 2015, Horvath complained to Maher Duessel and Short about perceived billing improprieties and instances of allegedly mishandled funds. Id. at ¶¶41-44, 47-49. These allegations form the basis for Horvath's Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law claim. Compl. ¶¶ 57-66.

         On March 25, 2015, Rubinstein terminated Horvath's employment with URA. Def.'s Stmt. of Facts ¶ 87; Termination Letter (Doc. 45-8) at 1-2. By letter, Rubinstein informed Horvath that there were three reasons for her termination: she had “intentionally interfered with the URA's administration of its FMLA policy” as it applied to another employee who had requested and been granted an FMLA-qualifying leave of absence; she had “unnecessarily, and without authority, inject[ed] herself into another personnel situation having absolutely nothing to do with [her] job responsibilities” involving an investigation into the unauthorized printing of another employee's paystubs; and she had been the subject of “consistent complaints from various departments regarding [her] uncooperative and unprofessional attitude.” Termination Letter (Doc. 45-8) at 1.[1]

         ANALYSIS

         Horvath first alleges that she was terminated in retaliation for filing a disparate pay claim with the PCHR in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. (“Title VII”), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. § 951 et seq. (“PHRA”).[2] To state a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal connection between the participation in the protected activity and the adverse action. Moore v. City of Philadelphia, 461 F.3d 331, 340-41 (3d Cir. 2006). The United States Supreme Court has emphasized that Title VII retaliation claims ultimately must be proven according to “traditional principles of but-for causation.” Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, __ U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2533 (2013). However, in the context of a plaintiff's burden at the prima facie stage, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently clarified that a plaintiff must only produce evidence “sufficient to raise the inference that her protected activity was the likely reason for the adverse employment action.” Carvalho-Grevious v. Delaware State University, __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 1055567, at *6 (3d Cir. Mar. 21, 2017) (quoting source omitted) (emphasis in original). As explained by the Court:

[T]he Supreme Court has made clear that “Title VII retaliation claims must be proved according to traditional principles of but-for causation.” [Nassar, 133 at 2533]. Understanding the retaliation[-]plaintiff's ultimate burden, we turn to the question of whether that burden differs at the prima facie stage of the case. We hold that it does. See Marra v. Phila. Hous. Auth., 497 F.3d 286, 302 (3d Cir. 2007) (“In assessing causation, we are mindful of the procedural posture of the case.”); see also Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 279 n.5 (3d Cir. 2000) (“[T]he relative evidentiary impact of [causal evidence] may vary depending upon the stage of the McDonnell Douglas proof analysis and the procedural circumstance, ” i.e., if proffered to satisfy a plaintiff's prima facie case for the purpose of summary judgment or if proffered to reverse a verdict). Consistent with our precedent, a plaintiff alleging retaliation has a lesser causal burden at the prima facie stage. See e.g., Doe v. C.A.R.S. Prot. Plus, Inc., 527 F.3d 358, 365 (3d Cir. 2008) (“[T]he prima facie requirement for making a Title VII claim ‘is not onerous' and poses ‘a burden easily met.'” (quoting Texas Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253, 1011089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981))).
Some circuits have found, albeit without much in the way of explanation, that a plaintiff must prove but-for causation as part of the prima facie case of retaliation. See EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753, 770 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc); Ward v. Jewell, 772 F.3d 1199, 1203 (10th Cir. 2014). We decline now to heighten the plaintiff's prima facie burden to meet her ultimate burden of persuasion. That is because we agree with the Fourth Circuit that to do so
would be tantamount to eliminating the McDonnell Douglas framework in retaliation cases . . . . If plaintiffs can prove but-for causation at the prima facie stage, they will necessarily be able to satisfy their ultimate burden of persuasion without proceeding through the pretext analysis. Had the Nassar Court intended to retire McDonnell Douglas and set aside 40 years of precedent, it would have spoken plainly and clearly to that effect.
Foster, 787 F.3d at 251. We conclude that at the prima facie stage the plaintiff must produce evidence “sufficient to raise the inference that her protected activity was the likely reason for the adverse [employment] action.” Kachmar v. SunGard Data Systems, Inc., 109 F.3d 173, 177 (3d ...

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