KILPATRICK v. MCDONALD
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE JOHN R. PADOVA ON 9/26/2017. 9/26/2017 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(kp, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
KENNETH M. KILPATRICK
SEP 26 20\7
KATE BARKMAN. Cieri<.
By . - - -
DAVID J. SHULKIN, Secretary,
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Plaintiff Kevin M. Kilpatrick brought this suit alleging he was terminated from his
position with the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") in retaliation for having sought
counseling from a VA Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") official. Presently pending is
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, the Motion is granted
and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. 1
The Parties have stipulated to the following facts:
The plaintiff, Kenneth Michael Kilpatrick, was employed by the
defendant, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), from April 2003 when
he was hired as an Information Technology (IT) Specialist at the VA Regional
Office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, until he was terminated on June 5, 2009.
In 2009, Kilpatrick's second-line supervisor was Terris Farmer, Chief of
the Technical Support Division of the VA Philadelphia Information Technology
On February 17, 2009, Kilpatrick contacted the V A's Office of Resolution
Management (ORM) to seek EEO counseling concerning allegations of
discriminatory harassment against him. Kilpatrick specifically identified Farmer
We granted an unopposed Motion to substitute VA Secretary David J. Shulkin as the
named Defendant on February 23, 2017. (See Docket No. 42.)
as an alleged harasser.
On February 24, 2009, Carol A. Winter, Kilpatrick's third-line supervisor,
and Farmer's immediate supervisor, received written notification from ORM that
Kilpatrick had sought EEO counseling and that he identified Farmer as an alleged
On May 28, 2009, Winter, on behalf of the VA, decided to remove
Kilpatrick effective June 5, 2009.
(Statement of Stipulated Facts, Def. Ex. 1 (citations omitted).)
The summary judgment record also contains evidence regarding the following additional
facts. In January 2009, Kilpatrick received a new work computer. (Arb. Tr. Vol. IV at 467:24468:2. 2)
Without authorization, Kilpatrick used password cracking software to change the
password on an administrator account, which gave him administrative privileges on his new
(Arb. Tr. Vol. III at 414:3-416:18.)
To accomplish this, Kilpatrick removed a
memory stick from an unused workstation computer without authorization and installed it in his
new computer. (Id. at 418:2-419:3.) Plaintiff testified that a fellow employee, Josh Robinson,
the VA' s VMW are expert, provided him with the software he used to change the administrator
password so that he could install VMWare on his new computer.
(Id. at 414:12-416:18.)
However, VMWare made Plaintiff's computer run too slowly, so he took a memory stick from
an unused computer at a nearby workstation to add memory to his computer so that it would run
more quickly. (Id. at 418:11-419:4.)
Kilpatrick's unauthorized use of the password cracking software and memory stick first
came to the attention of VA management, including Farmer, in an email sent on January 25,
2009, by Anthonie Gross, a VA systems administrator. (Arb. Tr. Vol. I at 81:1-6; 83:18-21.)
The email described Grass's discoveries that Kilpatrick had removed a memory stick from an
Plaintiff arbitrated his claims before the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
prior to filing the instant lawsuit.
unused computer and installed it in his own, and that Kilpatrick had changed passwords on his
new computer and created an account for his own use with administrator's access. (Id. at 21:1222:2; Def. Ex. 17.) After receiving the January 25, 2009 email, Farmer shared it with her direct
supervisor, Carol Winter, and later met with Winter to discuss how to proceed. (Arb. Tr. Vol. I
Between January 25, 2009 and February 5, 2009, VA supervisors discussed the report of
Kilpatrick's unauthorized activities, reviewed VA Directive 6500 -
a list of employee
misconduct and applicable disciplinary actions, reviewed the local office's Rules of Behavior,
and sought guidance from the VA's human resources staff, before they decided how to proceed.
(Arb. Tr. Vol. I at 83:22-84:1, 113:12-119:25, 122:4-20, 133:5-134:25; Arb. Tr. Vol. II at
158:19-159:1; see also Def. Ex. 19 (Philadelphia Information Technology Center Rules of
Behavior), Def. Ex. 23 (VA Directive 6500).) Winter was on vacation the week of January 26,
2009, and did not learn about the Gross email until the following week. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at
236:9-11.) Between January 25, 2009 and February 5, 2009, the VA supervisors also came up
with a plan of action, coordinated schedules for a meeting, notified Plaintiffs union, and then
exercised the plan of action. (Arb. Tr. Vol. I at 122:4-22; 125:7-14.)
James Boring was the VA Information Security Officer ("ISO") charged with
investigating the security incident involving Kilpatrick.
(Kilpatrick Dep. at 135:21-136:2.)
Boring worked for the VA Office of Information Security, which is a separate organization
within the VA from where Plaintiff worked, and did not report to Winter. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at
Boring was not in charge of disciplinary or termination procedures for VA
employees; his role was to investigate and make recommendations. (Kilpatrick Dep. at 136:3-8;
Arb. Tr. Vol. III at 346:12-347:12.) Winter requested that Boring conduct the investigation into
Kilpatrick because part of Boring's role as an Information Security Officer is to know "the rules,
regulations, and policies of information security,'' and because she "wanted to be sure that the
investigation, review, [and] fact-finding was done [and presented] objectively." (Id. at 187:1422.) Boring began his investigation into Kilpatrick's conduct on February 5, 2009. (Arb. Tr.
Vol. III at 338:16-19.)
On February 5, 2009, Farmer met with Plaintiff, Thomas Michalski, Plaintiffs first-line
supervisor, and a union representative to inform Plaintiff that the VA was investigating the
unauthorized hardware and software changes to his workstation computer. (Kilpatrick Dep. at
97:4-20.) During the meeting, Plaintiffs supervisors gave him a medical information request
(Id. at 85:8-86:24.) Plaintiff told his treating psychiatrist on February 13, 2009 that
agency officials "noticed his mood had been off," and he had been found sleeping at his desk.
(Def. Ex. 8; Arb. Tr. Vol. III at 424:25-425:19.) Also on February 5, 2009, VA management
took Kilpatrick's work computer away from him. (Kilpatrick Dep. at 40:16-17, 47:2-25, 97:410.) As of February 5, 2009, Plaintiffs access to the server room ceased, he no longer had any
ability to log into the servers from his workstation, and he was restricted to email and internet
only. (Id. at 98:9-22.)
Plaintiff had no meetings with Farmer between February 5, 2009, when his computer was
seized, and April 2, 2009, when he received notice of his proposed removal. (Id. at 47:2-13,
48:11-49:5; Arb. Tr. Vol. I at 92:5-10.)
On February 11, 2009, Plaintiff and his union
representative met with Michalski, who told Kilpatrick that he would be losing his internet
connection and email access. (Kilpatrick Dep. at 48:5-10.) As of February 11, 2009, Plaintiffs
access to the internet and email were removed, and he was no longer allowed to perform any
work. (Id. at 99:7-100:3.) Between February 11, 2009 and April 2, 2009, when the Notice of
Proposed Removal was issued, Kilpatrick' s work situation remained unchanged. (Id. at 103: 1104:7.) After February 11, 2009, Plaintiff had no further communications with VA management.
(Id. at 116:8-25.)
On February 17, 2009, Plaintiff contacted the VA Office of Resolution Management
("ORM"), in Lyons, New Jersey, for informal EEO counseling concerning the medical form he
had been asked to complete, at which time he suggested that he was being discriminated against
on the basis of a perceived mental disability. (Arb. Tr. Vol. IV at 475:16-476:13 (stipulation
regarding date),. Arb. Tr. Vol. III at 429:20-430:7; Def. Ex. 26 (VA 2420 Notice of Informal
Counseling).) Carol Winter received a notification of the informal counseling on February 24,
2009. (VA 2420 Notice.) On March 27, 2009, Plaintiffs attorney emailed Winter and Farmer,
stating that Kilpatrick had "sought precomplaint counseling alleging agency discrimination."
(Def. Ex. 22 at 1.)
On February 18, 2009, Boring interviewed Plaintiff as part of his investigation. (Arb. Tr.
Vol. III at 432:19-22.) During the interview, Plaintiff acknowledged that he had accessed the
local administrator's account on his computer by using a password-reset utility. (Id. at 433:715.) He said that a co-worker had given him the password reset utility, but he declined to name
that co-worker. (Id. at 433:11, 23-25.) He also admitted removing a memory stick from an
unused computer and inserting it in his computer for his own use. (Id. 433:18-21; Def. Ex. 18 at
On April 2, 2009, Farmer issued a Proposed Removal Notice to Plaintiff based on his
multiple unauthorized changes to administrative privileges and unauthorized changes to his
workstation. (Def. Ex. 10.) The reasons for Kilpatrick's proposed removal as stated in the April
2, 2009 Notice were:
[a.] As a result of an ongoing investigation during January and February of this
year, I have concluded that you engaged in the removal of, and installation of
memory board(s) from an unused PC to your PC. This removal and installation
was unauthorized. Further, ITC Security Officer, James Boring, determined that
the security logs on your workstation indicated that the administrator's account
password had been modified on four occasions and that an IITKKILP logon
account had been created and granted administrator's privileges. Further, a disk
was found inside your CD-ROM drive labeled "Password Reset." The contents of
this disk contained a password cracking utility. In an interview with James
Boring, you admitted to having changed the administrator's account password, to
creating the IITKKILP account, to having used the password cracking utility and
to having taken the memory card from the vacant workstation and installed it into
your own workstation. You were not unauthorized to change administrative
privileges and make unauthorized hardware and configuration changes to your
workstation. Additionally, the effort to remediate your unauthorized practices
required the use of several manhours of work that could have been better utilized
elsewhere. Your conduct also demonstrates a misuse of your workstation and is
in violation of VA Directive 6500, VA Rules of Behavior, and ITC Rules of
b. Further, the facility has been left with no choice but to limit you from
performing your normal duties during this period due to your manager(s) losing
confidence and trust in giving you access to the computer systems since the
discovery of your unauthorized activities. Your unauthorized activity has led to
the disruption of the work effort and the loss of production. You no longer retain
my confidence that you can be trusted in complying with the rules and directives
that govern the sensitive personally identifiable information contained in the
databases entrusted to our care and security.
(Id.) Plaintiff claims that the reasons stated in the April 2, 2009 Notice of Proposed Removal
and the May 28, 2009 decision on the proposed removal are pretextual. (Kilpatrick Dep. at
It took Farmer one-and-one-half to two months to review and consider all of the
information about the incident and to consider what options were available before deciding to
propose Plaintiffs removal. (Arb. Tr. Vol. I at 91:11-15.) Farmer testified at the arbitration that
it took her so long because, at that time, she had not handled many disciplinary actions in her
federal career, the process was not routine to her, and the facts, circumstances and penalties
applicable to each disciplinary action are different. (Id. at 134:1-135:6.) When she was deciding
whether to propose Plaintiffs removal, Farmer talked with her management, called human
resources for advice, reviewed all the information she had available, and consulted a table of
penalties. (Id. at 87:12-19.) The information Farmer reviewed included evidence submitted by
ISO Boring. (Id. at 93:13-15.) Farmer was satisfied that the evidence gathered by Boring was
substantial enough to justify removing Plaintiff from his position.
Plaintiffs removal, rather than another form of punishment, because she could not trust him to
have access to the VA' s computer system. (Id. at 91: 13-23.) She testified that, as administrators
of the VA system, managers must trust and believe that VA employees will follow the
established security guidelines and regulations and not take privileges they are not allowed to
have. (Id. at 88:1-12.)
Before Farmer issued the proposed removal notice, she discussed the proposed discipline
with Winter. (Id. at 144:15-18.) Farmer and Winter considered other penalties besides removal,
including suspension, but determined that Plaintiff could not be trusted to have access to the VA
systems and there was no work they could give to him without giving him access to the systems.
(Id. at 91:18-92:4.) Farmer maintains that her decision to propose Plaintiffs removal was not
motivated by his EEO activity and that she was not aware of his EEO activity at the time she
proposed his removal. (Id. at 92: 17-19.)
On May 11, 2009, prior to his termination, Plaintiff met with Winter and made an oral
reply to the proposed removal notice. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at 176:19-20; Def. Ex. 20; Arb. Tr. Vol.
III at 437: 14-438:4.) During his oral reply, Plaintiff accepted responsibility for his actions, but
claimed other VA employees had engaged in similar conduct, although he declined to give any
names of others whom he suspected of the same conduct. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at 179: 11-180:2; Def.
Ex. 20 at 2; Arb. Tr. Vol. III at 439:15-440:9.) Plaintiff also stated in his reply that management
could have determined for itself the names of other VA employees had engaged in similar
conduct by searching the log files of the PCs of other IT specialists in his workgroup. (Arb. Tr.
Vol. III at 439:16-23.) Plaintiff also apologized, stating that he made a mistake and did not
believe at the time he was doing anything wrong. (Id. at 440:5-9.) On May 14, 2009, Plaintiff
sent a written reply to Winter regarding the proposed removal notice, reiterating his apology and
stating that "Although I was simply trying to expedite my configuration of my new PC, what I
did was wrong and I certainly realize that now. I should have gone through the proper channels
and requested permission before taking actions upon myself."
(Kilpatrick Dep. at 136: 16-
137: 17; Def. Ex. 12.)
On May 28, 2009, Winter, on behalf of the VA, decided to remove Plaintiff, effective
June 5, 2009.
(Def. Ex. 11.) Her written decision stated that the VA had determined that
Plaintiffs actions violated the V A's rules and directives, and that Plaintiffs managers had lost
trust in him and saw him as a security risk.
(Id. at 1.) In making the decision to remove
Plaintiff, Winter reviewed the facts of the case, based on the fact-finding report prepared by ISO
Boring, reviewed VA Directive 6500, went through an analysis of the factors the VA considered
relevant to disciplinary decisions, reviewed the master agreement between the VA and the union,
reviewed internal VA policy rules of behavior, and consulted Human Resources for guidance on
the policies, procedures, rules and regulations. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at 155:12-159:19.) Winter also
considered the nature and seriousness of the misconduct and determined that Plaintiff had
committed a serious violation of security with his unauthorized access to an administrator
account and his use of a password-cracking program, in violation of the VA's security rules,
which had the potential to do serious damage, even if he did not intend to do so. (Id. at 163:1-
166: 17.) Winter further considered that Plaintiff had admitted his conduct, admitted that he did
not follow procedures, and admitted the potential for damage. (Id. at 180: 19-181: 3.) Based on
all of these factors, Winter believed that the penalty of removal was reasonable. (Id. at 184:20185: 14.)
Winter made the final decision to remove Plaintiff.
(Id. at 185:15-22.)
maintains that her decision to remove Plaintiff was not based on his filing of any EEO matters.
(Id. at 186:2-8.)
On June 5, 2009, the VA officially terminated Plaintiffs employment. (Arb. Tr. Vol. I at
11 :4-7.) Plaintiff claims that his termination was an act of retaliation for his EEO activity.
(Kilpatrick Dep. at 122:8-14.) However, he admits that no one involved in the decision to
terminate him ever stated to him that the reason he was terminated was because of his EEO
activity. (Id. at 124:10-14.)
On June 23, 2009, following his termination, Plaintiff and his union filed a grievance
under the union agreement, challenging the V A's termination decision. (Def. Ex. 27 at 2.) In his
grievance, Plaintiff challenged his termination as improper on two separate grounds: (1) his
termination was an unreasonable and excessive penalty for his conduct; and (2) his termination
was motived by retaliation for his prior EEO activity.
at 4.) On February 13, 2013, the
Arbitrator issued a decision finding in favor of Plaintiff on his first asserted ground, concluding
that the V A's choice of the disciplinary penalty of termination was both excessive and
unreasonable. (Id. at 44.) As a remedy, the Arbitrator ordered that the VA rescind Plaintiffs
termination, convert the discipline to a 10-day working suspension without pay, reinstate
Plaintiff to his prior position as of June 5, 2009, and make him whole for losses incurred as a
result of his termination, including back pay and reasonable attorney's fees.
(Id. at 46-47.)
Regarding Plaintiffs retaliation claim, the Arbitrator found that she could not conclude that VA
management's true intent was to punish Plaintiff for having contacted an EEO counselor. (Id. at
Plaintiff was reinstated as a VA employee in March 2013. (Kilpatrick Dep. at 22:7-19.)
Nonetheless, on April 11, 2013, Kilpatrick filed a request with the Merit Systems Protection
Board ("MSPB") asking it to review the Arbitrator's decision that mitigated his termination to a
10-day suspension, challenging the decision on two separate grounds: (1) the Arbitrator erred in
not finding that Plaintiffs due process rights were violated; and (2) the Arbitrator erred in not
finding that Plaintiff had "proved his claim of retaliation for engaging in protected EEO
activity." (Def. Ex. 28 at 1-2.) The MSPB issued its decision on May 8, 2014, finding in favor
of Plaintiff on his first ground, concluding that the VA had violated his due process rights when
deciding to terminate him, because the deciding official considered Plaintiffs prior misconduct
without giving him an appropriate opportunity to respond. (Id. at 7.) As a remedy, the MSPB
vacated that portion of the Arbitration Award regarding the removal, and ordered that the VA
cancel Plaintiffs termination and reinstate him to his prior position as of June 5, 2009, and to
make him whole for losses he incurred as a result of his termination, including back pay and
other benefits. (Id. at 10-11.) The MSPB decided against Plaintiff on his second ground for
relief, concluding that he failed to prove that his termination was motivated by Plaintiffs prior
EEO activity. (Id. at 8-11.)
On February 20, 2015, Plaintiff petitioned the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission ("EEOC") to review the MSPB's decision on his claim of retaliation. (Def. Ex. 29
at 1.) The EEOC issued its decision on February 11, 2016, finding that Plaintiff had failed to
show that his termination was based on retaliation. (Id. at 5.) The EEOC found specifically that
Plaintiff did not demonstrate discriminatory animus or pretext, and that he had failed to present
evidence of alleged pretext beyond his own assertions.
(Id.) In this action, Plaintiff seeks
judicial review and a trial de novo of the discrimination claim he brought before the arbitrator,
the MSPB and the EEOC. He maintains that the VA's unlawful removal was retaliation for his
EEO activity in violation of Title VII.
LEGAL STAND ARD
Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute
as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P.
56(a). An issue is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict
for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A
factual dispute is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law."
Id. In ruling on a summary judgment motion, we consider "the facts and draw all reasonable
inferences in the light most favorable to ... the party who oppose[s] summary judgment."
Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 179 n.1 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S.
372, 378 (2007)). If a reasonable fact finder could find in the nonmovant's favor, summary
judgment may not be granted. Congregation Kol Ami v. Abington Twp., 309 F.3d 120, 130 (3d
Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). "[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial
responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those
portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material
fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the nonmoving party bears the
burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the movant's initial Celotex burden can be met
simply by "pointing out to the district court" that "there is an absence of evidence to support the
nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325. After the moving party has met its initial burden, the
adverse party's response "must support the assertion [that a fact is genuinely disputed] by: (A)
citing to particular parts of materials in the record ... ; or (B) showing that the materials [that the
moving party has cited] do not establish the absence ... of a genuine dispute." Fed. R. Civ. P.
56( c)(1 ).
Summary judgment is appropriate if the nonmoving party fails to respond with a
factual showing "sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case,
and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.
"'While the evidence that the non-moving party presents may be either direct or circumstantial,
and need not be as great as a preponderance, the evidence must be more than a scintilla."' Galli
v. New Jersey Meadowlands Comm'n, 490 F.3d 265, 270 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Hugh v. Butler
Cnty. Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir. 2005)).
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits retaliation by making it unlawful for
employers to discriminate against "any individual ... because he has opposed any ... unlawful
employment practice" or because that individual has "made a charge, testified, assisted, or
participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).
"[Title Vll's] antiretaliation provision protects an individual not from all retaliation, but from
retaliation that produces an injury or harm." Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548
U.S. 53, 67 (2006). Moreover, even if an employee makes a claim of discrimination that is
found to be without merit, the antiretaliation provision of Title VII still protects the employee.
Hicks v. ABT Assocs., Inc., 572 F.2d 960, 969 (3d Cir. 1978)
The record before us contains no direct evidence that Plaintiff was retaliated against for
seeking informal EEO counseling on February 17, 2009. Where there is no direct evidence,
claims for discriminatory retaliation are analyzed using the framework established in McDonnell
Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Young v. City of Philadelphia Police Dep't, 651
F. App'x. 90, 95 (3d Cir. 2016) (citing Moore v. City of Philadelphia, 461 F.3d 331, 342 (3d Cir.
2006)). "Under this framework, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of retaliation
under Title VII, by showing that: (1) [he] 'engaged in [a protected] activity'; (2) 'the employer
took an adverse employment action against [him]'; and (3) 'there was a causal connection
between [his] participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment action."' Id.
(second alteration in original) (quoting Moore 461 F. 3d at 340-41). To establish the causation
element of the prima facie case, "a plaintiff must introduce evidence about the 'scope and nature
of conduct and circumstances that could support the inference' of a causal connection between
the protected activity and adverse action." Id. at 95-96 (quoting Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers
Co., 206 F.3d 271, 279 (3d Cir. 2000)). To show this causal link, "a plaintiff may rely on a
'broad array of evidence."' Marra v. Philadelphia Hous. Auth., 497 F.3d 286, 302 (3d Cir. 2007)
(quoting Farrell, 206 F.3d at 284). Temporal proximity between the protected activity and the
adverse action can support an inference of causation, but it must be "unusually suggestive."
Farrell, 206 F.3d at 280.
If the plaintiff is successful in establishing a pnma facie case at step one of the
McDonnell Douglas framework, at step two, the burden shifts to the defendant to "'articulate a
legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the alleged adverse employment action.'" Willis v.
UPMC Children's Hosp. of Pittsburgh, 808 F.3d 638, 644 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Jones v. Sch.
Dist. of Phila., 198 F.3d 403, 412 (3d Cir. 1999)). If the defendant meets its step two burden, at
step three of the McDonnell Douglas framework, the plaintiff must show by a preponderance of
the evidence that the defendant's proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason was pretextual.
Id. "[T]o prove causation at the pretext stage, the plaintiff must show that [he] would not have
suffered an adverse employment action 'but for' [his] protected activity." Young, 651 Fed.
App'x. at 96 (citing Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2533 (2013)). This
requires that a plaintiff "show 'both that the [Department's] proffered explanation was false, and
that retaliation was the real reason for the adverse employment action."' Young, 651 F. App'x at
99 (alteration in original) (quoting Moore, 461 F.3d at 342).
Defendant does not dispute for the purposes of this Motion that ( 1) Plaintiff "engaged in
protected activity when he contacted (the] EEO counselor to complain of alleged discrimination
based on a perceived mental disability;" and (2) "the VA later terminated [Plaintiff,] which
would constitute an adverse employment action."
(Def. Mem. at 10.)
conclude that Plaintiff has established these two elements of a prima facie case of retaliation.
However, we find that there is no record evidence to support a conclusion that there was
a causal connection between Plaintiffs EEO activity on February 17, 2009, the issuance of the
Proposed Removal Notice on April 2, 2009, and Plaintiffs termination from employment on
June 5, 2009. "There are 'two primary ways to substantiate' the requisite causal connection:
'showing that the temporal proximity between the two is "unusually suggestive," or pointing to
an "ongoing antagonism" between the plaintiff and defendant."' Melton v. U. S. Soc. Sec.
Admin., Civ. A. No. 10-7217, 2012 WL 3844379, at *8 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 5, 2012) (quoting
Gladysiewski v. Allegheny Energy, No. 09-4680, 2010 WL 3622446, at *2 (3d Cir. Sept. 20,
2010)). Thus, "where 'the temporal proximity is not so close as to be unduly suggestive,' "the
Third Circuit has "recognized that 'timing plus other evidence may be an appropriate test. ... "'
Thomas v. Town of Hammonton, 351 F.3d 108, 114 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Estate of Smith v.
Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 513 (3d Cir. 2003)).
The time between Plaintiffs EEO activity and the issuance of the Proposed Removal
Notice was approximately six weeks. The time between the EEO activity and the final decision
to terminate Plaintiff was approximately three months. We conclude that this is not close enough
in time to be unusually suggestive of a causal connection. See Thomas, 351 F.3d at 114 (stating
that timing was not unusually suggestive where over three weeks passed between complaint and
termination letter); Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 650 (3d Cir. 2007) (finding that five-month
time period between employee's informal EEO complaint and first alleged adverse action,
without additional evidence, was insufficient to infer casual connection in Title VII retaliation
case); Warenecki v. City of Philadelphia, Civ. A. No. 10-1450, 2010 WL 4344558, at *11 (E.D.
Pa. Nov. 3, 2010) ("Generally, a period of several months between the protected activity and the
adverse employment action is insufficient to create a causal inference." (citing cases)); Wooler v.
Citizens Bank, Civ. A. No. 06-1439, 2006 WL 3484375, *7 (E.D. Pa. Nov 30, 2006) (holding
that gap of approximately four months between plaintiffs protected activity and termination was
not "unusually suggestive").
Furthermore, an examination of the timing and "the record as a whole," see Farrell, 206
F .3d at 281, leads to the conclusion that Plaintiff has failed to meet his burden to show a causal
connection between his protected activity and the adverse employment action. Farmer testified
at the arbitration hearing that her decision to propose Plaintiffs removal was not motivated by
his EEO activity and that she was not aware of his EEO activity at the time she proposed his
removal. (Arb. Tr. Vol. 1 at 92:14-19.) Winter also testified at the arbitration hearing that her
decision to remove Plaintiff was not based on his filing of any EEO matters. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at
186:2-8.) Plaintiff did not challenge this testimony and has submitted no other evidence of a
causal connection between his informal EEO counseling and his termination by the VA.
Moreover, the investigation that led to his termination began before Plaintiff engaged in
protected activity. The United States Supreme Court has held that an employer need not suspend
an investigation of improper activity nor refrain from carrying out an employment decision
because an employee subsequently engages in protected activity.
Clark Cnty. Sch. Dist. v.
Breeden, 532 U.S. 268, 272 (2001) ("Employers need not suspend previously planned transfers
upon discovering that a Title VII suit has been filed, and their proceeding along lines previously
contemplated, though not yet definitively determined, is no evidence whatever of causality.").
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has similarly stated that
[t]he case law provides that an employee may not insulate herself from
termination by covering herself with the cloak of Title VII's opposition
protections after committing non-protected conduct that was the basis for the
decision to terminate. If subsequent conduct could prevent an employer from
following up on an earlier decision to terminate, employers would be placed in a
judicial straight-jacket [sic] not contemplated by Congress.
Curay-Cramer v. Ursuline Acad. of Wilmington, Delaware, Inc., 450 F.3d 130, 137 (3d Cir.
2006) (citations omitted). Finally, Plaintiff stipulated that he violated agency rules when he used
the password cracking software and memory stick to gain administrator access to install
software. (Kilpatrick Dep. at 139: 17-25.) Plaintiff has also stipulated that a VA employee can
be terminated for violating VA Directive 6500. (Kilpatrick Dep. at 138:14-139:10.) While the
arbitrator concluded that termination was not a reasonable discipline under the circumstances, it
is undisputed that Plaintiff's conduct constituted intentional unauthorized use of Government
property, and under the applicable Table of Penalties, the penalty for a first offense can include
removal. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at 175:6-176:5; Def. Ex. 21.) Plaintiff failed to put on any evidence
that any other employee who admitted to conduct similar to his own admitted violation of VA
policy was subjected to a lesser penalty.
(Kilpatrick Dep. at 144:9-12.)
conclude that Plaintiff has failed to meet his summary judgment burden to submit evidence that
could establish the causation element of a prima facie case at step one of the McDonnell Douglas
Even if Plaintiff had met his burden at step one, at step two of the McDonnell Douglas
factors Defendant has met the burden to state a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the
adverse employment action, namely that Plaintiff was terminated for his violation of VA
Directive 6500 when he failed to follow agency computer security guidelines and used the
password cracking software and memory stick from another computer to change his own
computer. Defendant's decision to terminate Plaintiff was based on ISO Boring's investigation
of Plaintiffs conduct, and a review VA directives and rules of behavior. (See Def. Ex. 1O; Def.
Ex. 11; Arb. Tr. Vol. I at 87:12-19; 91 :11-23; 93:13-15; 134:1-135:6; 144:15-18; Arb. Tr. Vol. II
at 155:12-159:19; 163:1-166:17; 180:19-181:3; 185:15-22; Arb. Tr. Vol. III at 432:19-22; 433:721.)
At step three of the McDonnel Douglass framework, we find that Plaintiff has failed to
produce evidence sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether
Defendant's purported legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his termination was pretextual.
To meet this summary judgment burden, Plaintiff is required to present evidence sufficient to
create a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether (1) the employer's proffered
explanation was false, and (2) retaliation was the real reason for the adverse employment action.
Young, 651 F. App'x at 99 (quotation omitted). Notably, other than acknowledging that a
plaintiff has the ultimate burden of proof of retaliation and that he must show that the
Defendant's proffered reason is merely pretext (see Pl. 's Mem. at 5), Plaintiff does not
specifically address the pretext issue and how he can meet his burden to show but for causation.
We find that Plaintiff has failed to meet his summary judgment burden to produce
evidence that the proffered reason behind the Defendant's decision to terminate him was false
and that the "real" reason for the termination was retaliation. Although Plaintiffs termination
was found to be an excessive discipline during his grievance procedure, removal from one's
position was an available "first offense" punishment for a VA employee engaging in the kind of
conduct in which Plaintiff admits he engaged because of the threat to the agency's computer
security, the threat to the security of beneficiaries' confidential information, and the breach of
(Arb. Tr. Vol. II at 175:6-176:5; 181 :20-182:12; 184:24-185:14.)
testified at the arbitrator's hearing that her decision to remove Kilpatrick was not based on his
EEO activity, and Plaintiff did not challenge her testimony on this issue. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at
Farmer also testified that her decision to propose Kilpatrick's removal was not
.motivated by his EEO activity, even though she could not specifically remember whether, at the
time she issued the proposed removal, she knew that Plaintiff had already seen the EEO
counselor. (Arb. Tr. Vol. I at 92:17-19, 110:5-111:19.) Farmer proposed removal, rather than
another form of punishment, because Plaintiffs conduct constituted a breach of trust. (Id. at
Although he has the burden to present evidence of pretext, Kilpatrick admits that he has
no evidence that anyone involved in the decision to terminate him ever stated to him that the
reason he was terminated was because he sought EEO counseling. (Kilpatrick Dep. at 124:1014.) Plaintiffs only evidence of alleged retaliatory animus is that the agency over-disciplined
him and failed to conduct a full investigation. This, however, has already been addressed by the
arbitrator's and MSPB's decisions to reinstate Plaintiff with full back pay, and does not, we find,
provide sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of fact regarding whether Plaintiff would
have been terminated but for Defendant's unlawful motivation.
Plaintiff also asserts that Winter's stated motive in taking disciplinary action against him
is undermined because: (1) Plaintiffs first-line supervisor Thomas A. Michalski and second-line
supervisor Terris Farmer never questioned him about the security violation to explore the nature,
scope, extent, or potential impact of the violation; (2) Winter never questioned Plaintiff about the
security violation; (3) Winter did not question Systems Administrator Gross; (4) Winter waited
eleven days to contact the ISO about the violation even though agency procedures state that such
a violation should be reported immediately; and (5) the investigation was focused exclusively on
whether Plaintiff committed a technical violation of VA Directive 6500, not whether his conduct
had any actual impact on network security or the privacy right of veterans.
We find that
Plaintiff's assertions, by themselves, are insufficient to establish but for causation. The summary
judgment record shows that (1) ISO Boring, not Winter, Farmer or Michalski, was charged with
investigating the incident (Kilpatrick Dep. at 135:21-136:2), and Plaintiff does not explain how
his supervisors' failure to duplicate Boring's work is evidence of retaliation; and (2) Winter was
on vacation for part of the eleven-day delay period. (Arb. Tr. Vol. II at 236:9-11.) Additionally,
Plaintiff's assertion that the investigation "focused exclusively on whether Plaintiff committed a
technical violation" depends on Plaintiff's characterization of events, which is not supported by
the record. Accordingly, we conclude that Plaintiff has failed to produce evidence sufficient to
establish a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Defendant's purported legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for his termination was pretextual.
Plaintiff has failed to meet his causation burden at the first step of the McDonnel
Even if he had met this burden, Defendant stated a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for taking the adverse employment action and Plaintiff failed to
produce evidence sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether that
stated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason was pretextual and that retaliation was the real reason
for his termination.
Accordingly we enter summary judgment in favor of Defendant as to
Plaintiffs sole claim of retaliation in violation of Title VII. An appropriate order granting the
Motion and judgment in favor of Defendant will be entered.
BY THE COURT:
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