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Judge allows fired PPA worker to amend claims against agency in retaliatory firing case

By Jon Campisi | Feb 27, 2014

A judge has issued a mixed ruling in a case involving a Philadelphia parking enforcement officer who claims she was fired in retaliation for complaining about being accosted by a man she later found out was an off-duty supervisor at the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted in part, and denied in part a motion to dismiss plaintiff Jessica Segarra’s lawsuit that was filed by attorneys representing the PPA.

The case is grounded in an August 2011 incident in which a man wearing street clothes, later identified as PPA official Elijah Wooden, approached Segarra while she was talking to a coworker about parking enforcement strategy and told her she shouldn’t be talking on the phone while working.

Wooden then allegedly grabbed her and prevented her from leaving the scene.

Wooden’s friends ultimately pulled the man off of Segarra, after which Wooden called the plaintiff’s supervisor, identified as Rob Castor, who had Segarra report back to PPA headquarters and fill out an incident report.

Segarra, who was then suspended from her job, says the PPA retaliated against her by terminating her employment after it learned she contacted the Philadelphia Police Department to report the incident.

In her complaint, Segarra alleged that the PPA was a hostile work environment for women, that she was fired for complaining about on-the-job gender discrimination, and that Wooden committed assault and battery when he physically prevented her from leaving the scene on that summer day.

On the gender discrimination claim, Rufe, the federal judge assigned to the case, wrote that the only allegation in the plaintiff’s complaint that supports the inference that the woman was suspended and then fired because of her sex is that she was talking on the phone with a male employee when confronted by Wooden, and that that coworker never faced suspension or termination.

The suit, however, never says what rank that other coworker, identified as Kevin Manzi, held or whether the plaintiff’s supervisors had any basis to assume that talking on the phone would have interfered with the other employee’s duties.

“Segarra was outside patrolling her beat when Wooden approached her, but the Complaint does not disclose where Manzi was, what he was doing, or whether it was appropriate for him to be on the phone at the time,” Rufe wrote in her Feb. 18 memorandum. “Even though the complaint alleges that it was not a violation for Segarra to talk on the phone, the mere fact that Manzi is a male is not enough to support a claim of gender discrimination where, as here, there is no reason to infer that the supervisors should have been similarly motivated to suspend Manzi (or not to suspend Segarra).”

Rufe also wrote that Segarra alleges no facts in her complaint to support the inference of such severe or pervasive hostile conduct as to amount to a change in the terms and conditions of her employment, as necessary to support a Title VII hostile work environment claim.

The judge, however, granted Segarra leave to file an amended complaint that includes facts that may support her claims of gender discrimination and hostile work environment, since claims that Wooden inappropriately touched her breast area, and that the agency’s drug and alcohol abuse policy protects against retaliation for reporting violations, were lobbed by the plaintiff, even though they weren’t officially contained in her amended suit.

Rufe also allowed Segarra to amend her First Amendment retaliation claims, since the allegations that she was fired because she called the cops about the incident with Wooden were not properly plead in her original complaint.

The judge agreed with the defendants that the complaint alleged no facts that could lead a factfinder to conclude that the PPA knew about the call to the police.

“These allegations are missing from the complaint and therefore cannot be considered on a motion to dismiss, but they persuade the court that amendment would not be futile, and therefore leave to amend will be granted,” Rufe wrote.

Lastly, Rufe allowed Segarra’s state law claims of assault and battery to proceed, determining that the plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to state such claims.

In her complaint, Segarra says that Wooden approached her with drunken hostility, yelled at her, grabbed her and physically prevented her from leaving the scene.

“Such a confrontation would be offensive to a reasonable person, and from the fact that it occurred, it can be inferred that Wooden intended it to occur,” Rufe wrote.

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