Saturday, February 24, 2007

McGrath-Malott v. State of Maryland (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Not Approved for Publication)

Signed February 23, 2007. Memorandum opinion by Judge Richard D. Bennett. (Not approved for publication.)

The plaintiff ("McGrath-Malott") was formerly a deputy sheriff for Washington County, and had brought an employment discrimination suit against the State of Maryland ("the State"), the Washington County Board of County Commissioners ("the County"), the Washington County Sheriff's Office ("the Sheriff's Office") and the Washington County Sheriff ("the Sheriff") in his individual and official capacities, alleging violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, and the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and claiming wrongful discharge, based upon alleged sexual advances and comments made by the Sheriff and subsequent adverse employment actions.

After being transferred against her wishes in April, 2003, McGrath-Malott was placed on sick leave due to a temporary mental health condition and remained on leave through that summer. In July, 2003, she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging gender discrimination, and in August 2003 the EEOC issued a right to sue letter, having been unable to determine whether discrimination had taken place.

In September 2003, having exhausted all sick leave, McGrath-Malott requested a temporary modified work assignment or leave without pay, and in October 2003 she was first placed on leave without pay, then her employment was terminated after she had exhausted all available vacation, sick and FMLA leave and had not indicated when, if ever, she would be able to return to work. In January 2005, McGrath-Malott filed an amended charge with the EEOC, which found reasonable cause to believe the Sheriff's Office had violated Title VII but was unable to reach a resolution with the Sheriff's Office. This suit followed in April 2006. The County, the State and the Sheriff each filed motions to dismiss and for summary judgment.

McGrath-Malott first argued that, because the defendants had attached documents to their briefs, the motions to dismiss must be treated as ones for summary judgment instead, as noted in Talbot v. U.S. Foodservice, Inc. The judge noted that, in the Fourth Circuit per Am. Chiropractic v. Trigon Healthcare, there is an exception if the documents were integral to and explicitly relied on in the complaint and the plaintiff does not challenge its authenticity. Here, though some of the documents submitted met the Am. Chiropractic test, others did not, so defendants' motions to dismiss would be treated instead as motions for summary judgment.

The County moved to dismiss based on its allegation that both the Sheriff and McGrath-Malott were employees of the State, and not the County. After reviewing settled law on the matter, the judge agreed, and granted summary judgment in favor of the County on all counts.

The Sheriff's Office had not filed a motion to dismiss, but the State had noted in its brief that the Sheriff's Office was in fact not a legal entity, and thus could not be sued. The judge agreed, and dismissed all counts against the Sheriff's Office.

The State moved to dismiss all counts, while the Sheriff had moved to dismiss only the Title VII sex discrimination and retaliation counts and the abusive discharge count. The judge granted summary judgment on the Title VII counts in favor of the Sheriff in his individual capacity, but allowed the case to proceed against the Sheriff in his official capacity.

Since McGrath-Malott had not presented any direct evidence of employment discrimination, the judge noted that she must satisfy the three-step burden-shifting test by first establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, then the defendants must produce evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment actions, whereupon the plaintiff must prove that the proffered reasons were but a pretext. McGraff-Malot claimed she was not promoted, not given the same leave as her male colleagues, and was eventually fired. Although the motivation for these actions was not clear from the record, there were clearly genuine issues of material fact, and the judge denied the State's and the Sheriff's motions on the disparate treatment claims.

The judge then found that, even though McGrath-Malott had not specifically used the terms "hostile environment" or "sexual harassment" in her EEOC filings, she had included sufficient factual references to the harassment and retaliation, and thus she had exhausted her administrative remedies before filing suit on both the hostile work environment and retaliation claims.

The State moved to dismiss the Section 1983 claim against it, since it was not a "person" under the meaning of the statute. The judge agreed, and granted summary judgment to the State on that count.

On the Maryland Declaration of Rights and wrongful discharge counts, the judge found that the State and the Sheriff had immunity under the Eleventh Amendment, making McGrath-Malott's failure to follow the requirements of the Maryland Tort Claims Act moot, and granted summary judgment in favor of the State and the Sheriff on those counts.

The opinion is available in PDF format.

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