In an unpublished opinion, the 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss an employee’s claims of discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation, based largely upon the “extraordinary lengths” to which the employer went to investigate the issues complained of by the employee. Wood v. University of Pittsburgh, 3d Cir., No. 09-4469, September 23, 2010.
Deborah Wood was employed as a systems analyst by the University of Pittsburgh. Upon beginning her work on a project in a Biostatistical Center at the University, Wood was provided a retention letter that informed her that the continuation of her position was contingent upon the renewal of non-university grants that funded the project. In 2007, approximately 90% of the project’s funding was provided by grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH). In June of that year, Wood was informed that she was one of 17 individuals selected for discharge during a reduction in force, after the NIH announced that it would reduce funding of the project by over two million dollars.
On the day of her discharge, Wood served the University with a federal court complaint asserting gender and race discrimination. Her claims were based upon incidents about which she had complained during the years preceding the reduction in force. In 2005, Wood had become convinced that someone was tampering with her office computer, and reported her belief that the computer had been remotely accessed by an unknown user. She also claimed that someone was entering her office when she was not present. Her supervisor responded to these concerns by installing a lock on the office door, by purchasing and installing software to monitor the computer usage, and by asking the University’s computer services department to review activity related to the computer. After months of investigation, including over 150 hours spent by the supervisor himself, no evidence of improper tampering was found.
Wood was not satisfied, and contacted the University’s HR department to express that dissatisfaction. The HR department then initiated its own investigation through the summer of 2006, providing a new computer to Wood, reformatting her hard drive, and reviewing additional event logs. In November 2006, Wood alleged that someone had broken into her locked office. That report led to an investigation by campus police, along with additional forensic work by the computer department, again without evidence of inappropriate or unlawful activity. Wood considered these efforts to be “inadequate,” and filed a charge of gender discrimination with the EEOC in December 2006.
In 2007, after learning of the NIH decrease in funding and the impending layoffs, the project director offered to Wood an opportunity to interview for a new position in another section of the same project group. Wood declined the offer, and was discharged on July 12, 2007. She served her lawsuit upon the University on that same date.
The lower court dismissed Wood’s race claim prior to discovery because Wood had failed to assert that specific claim in her EEOC charge. After a period of discovery, the court also granted summary judgment in favor of the University on the remaining claims, and Wood appealed that decision. The Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of Wood’s gender discrimination claim, based upon Wood’s failure to demonstrate that the University had retained similarly situated employees who were outside of the protected class (which would have raised an inference of discriminatory animus). Dismissal of her retaliation claim was upheld because the University proffered evidence of a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for Wood’s discharge – undisputed evidence that the project’s budget was reduced when NIH funding was withdrawn, thereby necessitating layoffs.
Most interesting was the Court’s response to Wood’s hostile environment claim, in which she argued that she suffered persistent harassment which “must have been” the result of gender bias. Upholding dismissal of the claim, the Court pointed out that the University “went to extraordinary lengths” to investigate Wood’s allegations; the Court found no evidence to suggest that any aspect of that investigation was influenced by gender bias.
The fact that the Court was able to review and remark upon that evidence in such detail indicates that the University thoroughly investigated the incidents reported by Wood and fully documented its efforts. Employer must recognize that such investigation and documentation are the cornerstones of an effective defense against claims of unlawful discrimination and hostile environment.