PHILADELPHIA – On April 20, a federal court judge dismissed allegations of race-based discrimination made by an African-American union leader and corrections guard employed at George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornton, but surviving are her claims of a hostile work environment and retaliation .
Roslynn Simmons, a corrections guard of 17 years, filed suit in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas in January against Community Education Centers, Inc., the owner/operator of George W. Hill.
Simmons alleged she and other African-American officers at George W. Hill were subject to racial discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation on the part of management, in addition to a claim she contracted tuberculosis while working at the prison.
Simmons began working at George W. Hill in 1998 and now serves on the Executive Board of the corrections officers’ union. In her time in this role, the lawsuit says she learned of many instances of racial discrimination directed towards African-American guards who did not report the incidents out of fear of retaliation.
Though she raised the issues to prison management, it did not follow up with the plaintiff or investigate the claims any further, she claims.
Simmons also claimed Caucasian and African-American officers were also disciplined differently, with white officers often receiving little or no punishment for infractions, with the reverse being true for black officers.
In May 2013, Simmons filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under the Pennsylvania Human Relations of racial discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment.
This was followed by a newspaper publishing an article about the charges being filed, which did not specifically name Simmons as the complaining officer. But she alleges it was transparent enough for George W. Hill officials to deduce her identity as a result.
After that, Simmons claims she was subject to “unwarranted scrutiny” from prison officials, including an assistant warden who reportedly told the plaintiff, “We are watching you” and “The camera is on you.”
Further, Simmons alleged George W. Hill officials misrepresented the facility’s population statistics to regulatory agencies, which resulted in the prison accepting more inmates and becoming overcrowded.
This alleged overcrowding and negligence, the suit says, led to the prison running out of inoculations for tuberculosis, increasing the risk inmates and employees would contract the disease. Simmons herself would later be diagnosed with tuberculosis as a result, she claims.
After removing the case to U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the defendants filed a motion on March 10 to dismiss the charges against them.
Judge Mark A. Kearney issued a 17-page opinion on April 20, partially granting and partially rejecting the defense’s motion.
Ultimately, Kearney found Simmons did not meet the key requirements of establishing a racial discrimination claim under the PHRA – this being her employer engaged in an “adverse employment action” based on racial discrimination.
“Officer Simmons does not allege that due to this scrutiny she was disciplined in a way that may have affected her compensation, job title, or conditions of her employment,” he wrote.
“She does not allege that she was transferred to another unit with less favorable duties or demoted at any point throughout her long career with the prison. Ultimately, Officer Simmons can point to no factual allegation in her Complaint that amounts to an adverse employment action taken by CEC.”
In a similar way, Kearney dismissed Simmons’s negligence claim against George W. Hill for her contraction of tuberculosis, since the Pennsylvania Workman’s Compensation Act’s inherent remedy for workplace injuries would exclusively bar such a charge.
Kearney further ruled Simmons did not meet the necessary criteria under the Martin exception to the PWCA, which requires both “fraudulent misrepresentation” and “the aggravation of an employee’s pre-existing condition.”
“Simmons is seeking compensation for the injury itself rather than the exacerbation of the injury from any alleged CEC fraud. Her negligence and strict liability claims do not fit within the very narrow Martin exception and are barred by PWCA's exclusivity,” Kearney said.
However, Kearney opined Simmons did provide enough substantiation for the claims of retaliation and hostile work environment under the PHRA to stand.
“Officer Simmons alleges from May to September 2013, the assistant warden and prisons investigations subjected her to unwarranted scrutiny, as well as made comments meant to intimidate her after filing her 9 administrative charges,” Kearney said.
“This pattern of antagonism towards Officer Simmons demonstrates a retaliatory motive on the part of the employer and tends to show causation between the protected act and the adverse employment action.”
Kearney also elaborated on Simmons’s claim of a hostile work environment.
“Officer Simmons alleges the Prison subjected her to unwarranted scrutiny; she enjoyed less job security than white corrections officers; and, a white officer ‘took issue’ with Officer Simmons’ decision to vote for President Obama. Standing alone, these allegations are insufficient to state a claim for hostile work environment,” Kearney wrote.
“However, in light of the other allegations that Officer Simmons was aware of, we find that Officer Simmons reasonably perceives these incidents as hostile or abusive. Officer Simmons alleges her awareness of other acts of race discrimination, including a photograph of an African-American corrections officer with a noose drawn around her neck, pictures portraying African-Americans with enlarged nostrils, and using racial slurs.”
Kearney ruled all of those incidents taken into their totality constituted grounds for a hostile work environment claim.
“Officer Simmons plausibly states claims for retaliation and hostile work environment violating the PHRA. However, Officer Simmons fails to allege sufficient facts to show she was subject to an adverse employment action for purposes of her race discrimination claim,” Kearney said.
“Officer Simmons’ negligence and strict liability claims are barred by the PWCA as it provides the exclusive remedy for employees allegedly injured in the scope of employment. Lastly, we strike several allegations unrelated to Officer Simmons's claims.”
The plaintiff is seeking damages in excess of $50,000 in this case, plus interest, costs of suit, administrative costs, attorney fees, punitive damages and any other relief the court deems just and proper.
The plaintiff is represented by Stewart C. Crawford, Jr. of the Law Offices Of Stewart C. Crawford, Jr. & Associates in Landsdowne.
The defendant is represented by John P. Gonzales, of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, in Philadelphia.
United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:15-cv-00929