Employment-Third Circuit Rules That Plaintiff’s Discrimination and Retaliation Claims Under Title VII Do Not Survive Summary Judgment

In Verma v. University of Pennsylvania, No. 12-2799 (3rd Cir. 2013), the plaintiff, Sandhya Verma (“Verma”), appeals the district court’s grant of summary judgment to her former employer, defendant University of Pennsylvania (the University”), on her discrimination and retaliation claims.

In this case, Verma is of Asian Indian origin. She was hired by the University in March 2004 to serve as an International Student Services Specialist in the University’s International Student and Scholars Services (“ISSS”) Department. Starting in 2006, and continuing through 2008, Verma had conflicts with every supervisor to whom she reported. Principally, conflicts arose when Verma refused to perform tasks assigned to her. These conflicts led to several negative performance evaluations, and culminated in Verma’s termination in March 2008. Prior to her termination, earlier in March, 2008, Verma had filed a complaint alleging discrimination with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (the “PHRC”). Subsequently, Verma brought this suit, alleging that she was terminated on account of her race and national origin, in violation of federal and state law (that is, a claim of discrimination), and that she was retaliated against for filing a claim of discrimination with the PHRC.

In analyzing the case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) first dealt with the claim of discrimination, which falls under Title VII. The issue here, according to the Court, at this summary judgment stage, is the third step of the McDonnell Douglas analysis, namely, when the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff to provide evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could infer that the employer’s proffered justification for the termination was a pretext for discrimination. The Court concluded that Verma did not provide any such evidence.

As to the retaliation claim, which also falls under Title VII, again at this summary judgment stage, the Court said that the issue is whether the plaintiff can show a causal connection between her participation in the protected activity-here filing the claim with the PHRC- and the adverse employment action-the termination of her employment. The Court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has recently clarified that, as to this showing, a plaintiff making a claim of retaliation under Title VII must establish that his or her protected activity was a but-for cause of the alleged adverse action by the employer. Here, the Court found that Verma did not make the required showing of the causal connection, despite the proximity in time between her filing the claim and her termination, since her negative performance predated the filing of the claim.

As such, the Court concluded that Verma’s discrimination and retaliation claim do not survive summary judgment, and it affirmed the district court’s decision.