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Federal Civilian Employee Gets Trial on Retaliation Claim Related to Hostile Work Environment Complaint

Posted Thursday, March 31, 2016 5:21 pm
A probationary federal civilian employee can proceed on his claim that he was terminated for reporting that his employer, the U.S. Navy, subjected him to a hostile work environment based on sex, age and race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).    In Ballard v. Mabus, the United States District Court of Guam denied the employer's request for summary judgment as to the plaintiff's (Robert Ballard) claim that any legitimate reasons the Navy alleged to justify his termination were pretextual for retaliation.
 
In February of 2012, the Navy terminated Ballard for four reasons:  (1) unsatisfactory work quality; (2) inability to follow office procedures; (3) inability to work with others; and (4) sleeping on duty on numerous occasions.  The employee alleges that he was never made aware of any problems prior to losing his job. Instead, he alleges that he was terminated after reporting harassment by a coworker tasked with training him subsequent to being hired as an electronics technician at the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station on Guam in October of 2011.  Several months after starting, the plaintiff informed supervisors that his coworker had pressed his genitals to Ballard's back and rubbed his stomach on Ballard.  When management investigated, the alleged harasser denied the allegations and said that Ballard had been sleeping on the job.  After concluding its investigation and reasoning that Ballard made up the harassment allegation to get a different work assignment, the Navy transferred Ballard to a different location.  After arriving at that location, the plaintiff reported that a friend of his alleged harasser at the former facility had started harassing him about his age and race.  After learning of these concerns, Navy management instructed the coworker to leave Ballard alone.  Ballard reported no improper comments after that.  Despite this, when he was subsequently terminated, he filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Charge of Discrimination alleging harassment and retaliation.  He later filed suit in court raising the same allegations, and the Navy sought to have both the harassment and retaliation claims dismissed on summary judgment.
 
While the employer was successful in showing that there were no genuine issues of material fact to justify trial on Ballard's harassment claims, the court held that dismissal of the retaliation claims was not proper due to several disputed factual issues regarding the legitimacy of the reasons proffered for termination.  These factual issues were raised due to evidence introduced by Ballard that  (a) he was never given notice of any performance deficiencies prior to termination and there is evidence suggesting that any performance issues were resolved well before his separation; (b) he was never informed of any office procedures he was allegedly failing to follow; (c) the only coworkers he had difficulty with were the two employees who he made harassment allegations against; (d) he had never slept on the job, and the allegation that he had only came to light during the Navy's investigation of his harassment complaint against a coworker; and (e) the investigator of his first harassment allegation may have conducted a biased investigation.  Because Ballard met his burden of showing the potential of a retaliatory motive for his termination, the court denied the Navy's motion for summary judgment with respect to this claim.  As such, Ballard may proceed to trial on the issue.  Ballard v Mabus
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