Jon Campisi Oct. 31, 2012, 3:14pm

Retaliatory discharge and hostile work environment claims made by a former employee

of Philadelphia Mental Health Care Corp. can proceed in federal court, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter, in an Oct. 12 order that was made public Oct. 31, denied PMHCC’s motion for summary judgment in a case initiated by Brenda A. Corica, a former computer support specialist who sued the agency back in December 2009 over allegations that her employer retaliated against her due to her complaints of harassment by a supervisor.

Corica, who began working for the defendant in 2005, claims that Keith Perry, her direct supervisor at the time, acted inappropriately when the man kissed her back in the summer of 2007.

During his deposition, Perry admitted that he entered Corica’s office and gave her a “quick kiss” on either the head or lips, but only after the plaintiff had kissed him earlier in the day, court records show.

In moving for summary judgment, PMHCC asserted that Corica has a very different recollection of the event, since she alleges that Perry entered her office, grabbed her and “shoved his tongue into her mouth, at which point she pushed him away,” the judicial order states.

Corica goes on to allege that Perry’s behavior toward her changed following the kiss incident, examples being that Perry made comments such as “I’m the boss [and] I can fire you,” statements Perry never made prior to the event in question, court papers state.

Following a meeting with both Perry and Corica, the defendant opted to suspend both employees for two days on Jan. 10, 2008.

Both also received disciplinary reviews.

Perry, meanwhile, continued to supervise Corica.

The plaintiff alleges in her complaint that Perry refused to update her computer when she returned from suspension, something that caused her to not be able to fully participate in a work-related training session.

In August 2008, the record shows, Corica took leave from her job under the Family and Medical Leave Act due to anxiety caused by Perry’s behavior.

On Oct. 28 of that year, the very day her federal leave expired, Corica was fired by the defendant, allegedly for failing to return to work.

Corica subsequently filed suit alleging federal civil rights violations and violations of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

In her recent order, Pratter wrote that in allowing Corica’s claims to proceed, a reasonable jury could conclude that the plaintiff has satisfied all five elements of a hostile work environment claim.

On one element in particular, Pratter wrote that a jury could hold PMHCC liable for Corica’s hostile work environment since, under a Supreme Court ruling, “An employer is subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successively higher) authority over the employee. When no tangible employment action is taken, a defending employer may raise an affirmative defense.”

The high court ruled, however, that no affirmative defense is available when the supervisor’s harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, such as demotion or termination.

In the present case, Pratter wrote, PMHCC cannot raise an affirmative defense if the harassment allegedly carried out by Perry, the supervisor, culminated in Corica’s termination.

“Based on these facts, a reasonable jury could determine that Ms. Corica’s termination was related to or caused by Mr. Perry’s harassment,” the judge wrote. “Because a genuine issue of fact exists regarding all five elements of the hostile work environment test, the Court must deny PMHCC’s motion with respect to this claim.”

Pratter additionally disagreed with the defendant’s argument that a reasonable jury could not find that there was a causal connection between two events – the agency’s disciplining of Corica in January 2008 and the defendant’s termination of the plaintiff’s employment in October of that year.

“Here, Ms. Corica points to evidence that would allow a jury to infer a causal connection between Ms. Corica’s grievance and discipline,” Pratter wrote. “The Court thus finds that sufficient evidence exists to establish a causal connection in this case.”

Pratter went on to write that a jury could find that the close timing between Corica’s filing of a grievance against the agency and her subsequent discipline demonstrates that PMHCC’s stated reason for that discipline was pretextual.

“Because Ms. Corica has produced sufficient evidence for a jury to find that PMHCC’s proffered reason for her discipline was pretextual, the Court denies PMHCC’s motion for summary judgment with respect to her retaliation claim,” the order states.

Pratter scheduled a status conference for Nov. 8 to discuss revised deadlines and the parties’ trial preparations.

The plaintiff is being represented by attorneys Brian Dean Boreman and Arthur D. Goldman of the firm Unruh, Turner, Burke & Frees.

The defendant is being represented by Guy Vilim of Vilim & Maddox out of Media, Pa.

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