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Chieke v. Commonwealth, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 30, 2019

RAFAEL CHIEKE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Raphael Chieke sued his employer under Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act (PHRA) for discrimination on the basis of his race and national origin. On July 3, 2019, Defendants moved for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, I grant that motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As many governmental organizations do, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections categorizes its employees by levels for human relations purposes. Higher levels bring higher pay, broader authority, and greater responsibilities.

         Raphael Chieke was hired by the Department of Corrections in 1998 to work in their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office.[1] He entered at the Manager I level.[2] Chieke was promoted to Director of the EEO office, a Manager II position.[3]Part of his responsibilities in this position included conducting investigations into EEO complaints.[4] Chieke consistently received excellent performance evaluations, [5] and he achieved the highest score in Pennsylvania on the applicable civil service test.[6]

         Chieke believed that the complexity and volume of the work that he did warranted his classification at the Manager III level, so he applied multiple times over the years to have his position reclassified.[7] These requests were all denied.[8] His last application was made in November 2014, and it was denied on February 11, 2016.[9] Chieke retired in April 2016.[10]

         Chieke is a black man who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria.[11]During his employment, Chieke never heard anyone comment on his race or national origin.[12]

         II. DISCUSSION

         Chieke brings discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims under Title VII and the PHRA. The Department of Corrections moved for summary judgment on all counts.

         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is granted when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[13] A dispute is “genuine if a reasonable trier-of-fact could find in favor of the non-movant, ” and “material if it could affect the outcome of the case.”[14]When deciding whether to grant summary judgment, a court should draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.[15]

         To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must point to evidence in the record that would allow a reasonable jury to rule in that party's favor.[16] “When opposing summary judgment, the non-movant may not rest upon mere allegations, but rather must ‘identify those facts of record which would contradict the facts identified by the movant.'”[17] Moreover, “if a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may . . . consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.”[18] On a motion for summary judgment, “the court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.”[19]

         B. Statutes of Limitations

         Claims under Title VII and the PHRA must be brought within 300 and 180 days of the adverse employment action, respectively.[20] Therefore, Chieke's Title VII claims are time-barred for events prior to October 29, 2015, and his PHRA claims are time-barred for events prior to February 26, 2016.

         Chieke argues that he should be excepted from the statutes of limitations under the continuing violations doctrine. If applicable, that doctrine permits a court to consider claims that arise in part from events outside the statute of limitations as long as at least one event occurred within the limitations period. It applies when the plaintiff shows that (1) at least one discriminatory act occurred within the statutory period and (2) the acts were all part of an ongoing pattern of unlawful conduct.[21] It does not, however, apply to claims arising from discrete acts.[22]

         Courts have applied the continuing violations doctrine to a hostile work environment claim.[23] However, the doctrine will not apply to a hostile work environment claim when “the alleged actions of the defendants are of the type that should trigger ‘an employee's awareness of and duty to assert his or her rights.'”[24]A failure to promote is one of these triggering events.[25]

         Chieke's hostile work environment claim is premised on the Department of Corrections' denial of his request to reclassify his position. Similar to a failure to promote, the denial of a request to reclassify a position is a discrete event that should have triggered his awareness of his duty to assert his rights.[26] This is particularly true on the facts of this case because Chieke, as the director of the EEO office, was well aware of his rights. The continuing violations doctrine simply does not apply in this case.

         Chieke alleges only one failure to reclassify within Title VII's limitations period, which occurred on February 11, 2016.[27] I will consider his Title VII claims on this event only. However, this and the other alleged incidents all fall outside of the PHRA's limitations period, and so I will enter summary judgment for Defendants on all of the PHRA claims.

         C. Count I: Discrimination

         Chieke, who worked at a Manager II designation, applied for his position to be reclassified as a Manager III. The Department of Corrections denied his request. Chieke asserts that this decision was the product of discrimination on the basis of his race and national origin in violation of his rights under Title VII.

         Discrimination claims under Title VII are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. To establish a claim, the plaintiff must first make out a prima facie case of discrimination; second, the defendant must articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the employment action; third, the plaintiff must then prove that the defendant's proffered reason was a pretext for discrimination.[28] To establish a prima facie case, Chieke must prove that he belongs to a protected class and that he suffered an adverse employment action under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.[29]

         Neither the parties nor this Court have identified any Third Circuit cases addressing a failure to reclassify claim.[30] It bears similarities to a failure to promote claim-in both, the plaintiff was denied a position with some combination of higher pay, power, or prestige. Failures to promote have been held to be cognizable adverse employment actions under Title VII.[31] A failure to reclassify comparably impacts the employee's “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, ”[32]and therefore may be a cognizable adverse employment action.

         But the criteria for evaluating the two claims differ in important ways. Courts analyzing failure to promote claims often look to evidence about how the company advertised the position and who ultimately filled it.[33] Neither of these types of evidence apply to a failure to reclassify claim because no position is advertised and there are no other applicants for it. For this reason, while the failure to reclassify plaintiff does not face a higher legal burden than the failure to promote plaintiff, he may in practice find it more difficult to find the evidence to satisfy it. Some courts outside of this Circuit have found it useful to examine how similarly situated employees were treated when addressing failure to reclassify claims.[34]

         Chieke has not identified any similarly situated employees, let alone any that were treated better than him.[35] To the contrary, he concedes that his duties were unique.[36] The remaining evidence in the record does not close the gap left by the lack of comparator evidence. There is no testimony or documentary evidence beyond Chieke's own speculation that the decision not to reclassify his position was tied in any way to his race or national origin, and Chieke acknowledged in his deposition that the Department of Corrections' explanation that it faced a significant amount of uncertainty regarding its organization and duties going forward was accurate.[37]Without evidence of a causal connection to discrimination and with a reasonable nondiscriminatory explanation for denying the reclassification, Chieke has not established a prima facie case of discrimination.[38] I therefore grant summary judgment to Defendants on this claim.

         D. Count II: Hostile ...


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