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By: Thomas Paschos, Esq.
Thomas Paschos & Associates, P.C.
Haddonfield, New Jersey

In Jones v. SEPTA, 796 F.3d 323 (3d Cir. August 12, 2015), Michelle Jones was fired in 2011 by her employer, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). SEPTA says it dismissed Jones for submitting fraudulent timesheets; Jones says her termination was the culmination of years of unlawful sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation.

In 2001, Jones began working as an administrative assistant in SEPTA’s Revenue Operations Department under the supervision of Alfred Outlaw. On December 1, 2010, Outlaw suspended Jones with full pay after he discovered apparent fraud in her timesheets. Jones promptly informed SEPTA’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Office that she intended to file a complaint against Outlaw. At a meeting the following week, Jones told the EEO Office that he had “sexually harassed” and “retaliated against” her.

In the meantime, Outlaw referred the timesheet matter to SEPTA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). After an extensive investigation, OIG concluded in February 2011 that Jones collected pay for days she hadn’t worked by submitting fraudulent timesheets. SEPTA suspended Jones without pay on February 22, 2011 and formally terminated her in April of that year.

Jones continued to press her grievances. In March 2011, she filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission alleging that Outlaw had sexually harassed her and other female employees, ordered her to do personal work for him during business hours, and retaliated against her for resisting this mistreatment by accusing her of timesheet fraud. SEPTA therefore ended its internal investigation, but not before concluding that Outlaw had engaged in some inappropriate behavior. This behavior was noted in Outlaw’s annual performance evaluation, and he was required to attend a training session regarding SEPTA’s sexual harassment policy.

Jones ultimately filed suit against SEPTA and Outlaw in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Her amended complaint alleged gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act (PHRA). She also alleged a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, common law wrongful termination, and retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The District Court dismissed the wrongful termination claim and subsequently granted summary judgment to SEPTA and Outlaw on the remaining claims. Jones appealed only the Court’s summary judgment on the Title VII, PHRA, and constitutional claims.

On appeal, the Third Circuit provided that in order to make out an employment discrimination claim, a plaintiff must prove that she suffered an “adverse employment action,” which is “an action by an employer that is serious and tangible enough to alter an employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” Six other courts of appeals “have unanimously concluded that ‘placing an employee on paid administrative leave where there is no presumption of termination’ is not an adverse employment action under the substantive provision of Title VII.” The Third Circuit adopted the reasoning of the other circuits:

A paid suspension pending an investigation of an employee’s alleged wrongdoing does not fall under any of the forms of adverse action mentioned by Title VII’s substantive provision. … A paid suspension is neither a refusal to hire nor a termination, and by design it does not change compensation. Nor does it effect a “serious and tangible” alteration of the “terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” because “the terms and conditions of employment ordinarily include the possibility that an employee will be subject to an employer’s disciplinary policies in appropriate circumstances.” We therefore agree with our sister courts that a suspension with pay, “without more,” is not an adverse employment action under the substantive provision of Title VII.

The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s retaliation claim based on the lack of a causal link between her complaints of discrimination and her suspension and discharge.

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