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4th Circuit revives retaliation suit against Md. city

A federal appeals court has revived a black woman’s claim the city of Laurel fired her from an administrative assistant position in retaliation for having complained of racial harassment on the job.

In its 3-0 decision Friday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said U.S. District Judge Paul W. Grimm erroneously granted summary judgment to the city in the mistaken conclusion that Felicia Strothers had not sufficiently shown a reasonable belief that she was racially harassed by a supervisor and that her complaint of harassment to the city failed to specify that she was being racially harassed.

In her lawsuit, Strothers says she was singled out because of her race for meritless accusations, inappropriate demands and unwelcome touching by her supervisor in the city’s communications department, Carreen Koubek.

Strothers said she was later told by then-communications director Peter Piringer that Koubek had wanted “someone of a different race” than Strothers and by two former black employees that they had endured similar abuse under Koubek, who has denied the allegations.

Strothers said the city fired her the day after she told Laurel officials of her desire to file a formal complaint.

In sending the case back for trial, the 4th Circuit said Strothers demonstrated a “reasonable belief” she was subjected to unwelcome conduct based on her race; that she had “engaged in a protected activity” of submitting a complaint of racial harassment to the city; and that her submission caused the “adverse action” of employment termination.

In its published decision, the 4th Circuit said a complaint of harassment need not specifically identify “racial” harassment to be protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s  prohibition on retaliation.

“The city should have known that the alleged harassment and hostile environment pertained to racial discrimination given what it knew about Koubek and her relationship with Strothers,” Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for the 4th Circuit.

“Quite simply, Director Piringer was the one who pointed out that Koubek wanted to hire someone of a ‘different race’ when Strothers complained about how Koubek was treating her,” Gregory added. “This obviated the need for Strothers to regurgitate back to Piringer what he already knew.”

Stephen Braga, an appellate attorney for Strothers, praised the court’s decision and called Laurel’s handling of the racial harassment complaint “a perfect storm of things going wrong.”

“As you tick through the opinion, you see everything that was done wrong in ‘supervising’ Felicia,” said Braga, who directs the appellate litigation clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law. “It started on day one.”

Strothers’ appeal was successfully argued by two of Braga’s students, Megan Keenan and Joseph Charlet.

Laurel’s attorney, Kevin Bock Karpinski, did not return a telephone message Monday seeking comment on the decision and any plans to appeal. Karpinski is with Karpinski, Colaresi & Karp P.A. in Baltimore.

On day one, Oct. 7, 2013, Koubek marked Strothers late for showing up at 9:05 a.m., despite having permission from Piringer to arrive at that time due to a childcare obligation, Strothers alleges in her lawsuit. Koubek’s tardiness notations only escalated after she ordered Strothers to show up at 8:55 a.m., according to her complaint.

Koubek also dinged Strothers whenever she was away from her desk, including for bathroom breaks, for which she needed Koubek’s prior approval, the complaint stated.

In addition, on one casual Friday, Koubek accused Strothers of wearing leggings instead of jeans and grabbed at the pants to prove her point while berating her in front of her colleagues, the complaint added.

Koubek cited the lateness and dress-code violations in giving Strothers a negative three-month evaluation, which Piringer did not endorse, according to the complaint.

Strothers later emailed Piringer, on March 6, 2014, requesting the forms needed to file a formal complaint against Koubek for harassment. The city fired Strothers the next day for tardiness via a termination notice drafted by Piringer and sent by Koubek, according to the complaint.

Strothers then sued Laurel for unlawful retaliation in Prince George’s County Circuit Court.  The city had the case removed to U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, where it was reviewed by Grimm.

Judges Albert Diaz and Pamela A. Harris joined Gregory’s opinion in Felicia Strothers v. City of Laurel, Md., No. 17-1237.

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