SANNOH v. HORIZON HOUSE
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE WENDY BEETLESTONE ON 9/19/2017. 9/20/2017 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(kp, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
FRANK SANNOH ,
HORIZON HOUSE, INC.,
The question before the Court is whether Defendant Horizon House, Inc.’s (“Horizon”)
firing of Plaintiff Frank Sannoh, a Liberian-American who was 51 years old at the time he was
terminated, was in retaliation for his retaining an attorney to explore suing Horizon and to
represent him in the grievance process that followed. His retaliation suit is brought pursuant to
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq; the Civil Rights
Act of 1866 and the Civil Rights of 1870, as amended 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“§ 1981”); the Age
Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.1; and the Pennsylvania
Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), 43 Pa. Stat. § 951 et seq. Defendant has moved for summary
judgment on all of Plaintiff’s retaliation claims.2 The motion shall be granted in full.
“[S]ummary judgment is appropriate where there is ‘no genuine dispute of material fact’
and the moving party is ‘entitled to judgment as a matter of law.’” Alabama v. North Carolina,
560 U.S. 330, 344 (2010) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). “A genuine issue is present when a
The Complaint does not explicitly cite to the ADEA. However, Plaintiff attached to the Complaint a Notice of
Right to Sue from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission authorizing suit under the ADEA.
Accordingly, the Court shall construe the Complaint as including an ADEA retaliation claim.
Plaintiff’s Complaint also asserts claims for national origin discrimination and age discrimination. However, the
parties have stipulated to dismissal of these claims.
reasonable trier of fact, viewing all of the record evidence, could rationally find in favor of the
non-moving party in light of his burden of proof.” Doe v. Abington Friends Sch., 480 F.3d 252,
256 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-26 (1986); Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 242, 248-52 (1986)). “The non-moving party may not merely
deny the allegations in the moving party’s pleadings; instead he must show where in the record
there exists a genuine dispute over a material fact.” Doe, 480 F.3d at 256 (citing Celotex, 477
U.S. at 322-26). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must “view the facts in
the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that
party’s favor.” Burton v. Teleflex Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425 (3d Cir. 2013).
Plaintiff’s job as a Residential Advisor at Horizon required that each year he attend
“Infectious Disease Control” (“IDC”) training. All parties agree that, up until 2015, he
completed the training but in that year he did not. Plaintiff admits that it was his responsibility to
get the training but maintains that, in 2015, he did not receive timely notice of the training. In
late March of 2015, Horizon sent Plaintiff a letter notifying him that because he had not
completed the required IDC training, he would be placed on unpaid suspension starting on
March 31, 2015. The letter went on to state that if Plaintiff did not complete the training within
five days, Horizon would conclude that he had voluntarily resigned and his position would be
“discontinued.” Plaintiff says he did not receive the letter until after the time for compliance had
passed. Nevertheless, on April 13, 2015, Horizon sent him a letter again outlining his failure to
complete the training and accepting his “voluntary resignation” effective April 8, 2015.
Plaintiff then retained counsel who sent a letter to Horizon dated April 17, 2015 asserting
that Plaintiff was part of a protected class under Title VII and that he was accordingly “entitled
to an investigation.” The letter sought Plaintiff’s reinstatement and raised the issue of whether
Horizon had provided Plaintiff with adequate notice about the need to attend IDC training. The
letter added, “All of your actions on their face, although harsh, appear to be permissible under
employment law. However, in my mind they appear a little heartless.”
On April 20, 2015, Horizon mailed to Plaintiff a document titled “Grievance Process
(When Problems Arise),” which contained a description of the internal procedure for reviewing
employee complaints. A cover letter described the process as confidential, which meant that
“external parties” were not permitted to participate. Days later, Plaintiff’s counsel e-mailed
Defendant, acknowledging that “there [was] a process involved in grieving,” but again seeking
On April 29, 2015, Horizon sent Plaintiff a letter informing him that it had received his
attorney’s letter; reminding him of the “formal grievance process”; and noting, again, that the
process “[did] not permit external parties to participate.” The letter concluded that, given the
Plaintiff’s “decision to not follow [Defendant’s] grievance process and to retain counsel,
[Defendant] will consider this grievance closed.” Both Plaintiff and his attorney informed
Horizon that Plaintiff was willing to participate in the grievance process without the involvement
of any third parties. However, on May 8, 2015, counsel for Horizon informed counsel for
Plaintiff that the grievance process would remain closed.
Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits employer actions that “discriminate
against” an employee because he has “opposed any practice made an unlawful employment
practice” under Title VII, or because he has “made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in
any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing” under Title VII. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a);
Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 59 (2006). Plaintiff contends
that he engaged in protected conduct by retaining counsel to both assist him during the grievance
process and prosecute potential Title VII claims due to his unpaid suspension and discharge from
employment. According to Plaintiff, Defendant retaliated against Plaintiff’s threat of filing a
Title VII suit by depriving him of the grievance process.
Retaliation claims under Title VII, Section 1981, ADEA, and PHRA are analyzed under
the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Castleberry v. STI Group, 863 F.3d 259,
263 (3d Cir. 2017) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)) (Section
1981); Daniels v. School Dist. of Philadelphia, 776 F.3d 181, 193 (3d Cir. 2015) (Title VII,
ADEA, and PHRA). Here, the Court need not go through the entire burden-shifting process
because the record does not contain any evidence that Sannoh engaged in “protected employee
“Protected activity” for a retaliation claim includes “not only an employee’s filing of
formal charges of discrimination against an employer but also informal protests of discriminatory
employment practices, including making complaints to management.” Id. (internal quotation
marks omitted). The plaintiff’s “complaint must allege that [his] opposition was to
discrimination based on a protected category, such as age or race.” Id. Notably, to satisfy the
“protected activity” requirement, a plaintiff must have an “objectively reasonable belief that the
activity the plaintiff opposed constituted unlawful discrimination under the relevant statute.” Id.
at 193-94. While a plaintiff “need not prove the merits of the underlying discrimination
The second and third prongs of Plaintiff’s prima facie case are that his employer took adverse action “either after
or contemporaneous with [his] protected activity” and the protected activity caused the employer’s adverse action.
Daniels, 776 F.3d at 193. If Plaintiff is able to establish this to be the case, the McDonnell Douglas shifts the
burden of production of evidence to the employer to present a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for having taken the
adverse action. Id. If such a reason is provided, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the
employer’s proffered explanation was false, and that retaliation was the real reason for the adverse employment
complaint,” he must “have act[ed] under a good faith, reasonable belief that a violation existed.”
Id. at 193.
Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the facts addressed by Plaintiff fail to
establish that he engaged in “protected activity.” Specifically, he has not pointed to any record
evidence in support of an “objectively reasonable belief” that Horizon engaged in unlawful
discrimination when it placed him on unpaid suspension and later discharged him. See id. at
193-94. Although Plaintiff testified that his unpaid suspension may have been due to age or
national origin discrimination, the record contains no facts to support his suspicions. Indeed,
Plaintiff’s counsel seemed to recognize that this was the case in his April 17, 2015 letter to
Horizon in which he wrote that while Plaintiff was “in a protected class . . . under Title VII,”
Plaintiff’s dismissal was unfair because he did not receive advance notice of the IDC training—
not because of unlawful discrimination.4 Plaintiff’s counsel added that Defendant’s “actions on
their face . . . appear to be permissible under employment law.” Sannoh’s counsel is correct.
Although Sannoh may fervently believe that Horizon’s actions violated his employment rights,
he has failed to marshal or refer to any evidence to support a belief that his initial unpaid
suspension or discharge was due to unlawful discrimination. See Robertson v. Allied Signal,
Inc., 914 F.2d 360, 382 n.12 (3d Cir. 1990) (noting that “an inference based upon a speculation
or conjecture does not create a material factual dispute sufficient to defeat entry of summary
judgment.”). Thus, Plaintiff lacked an objectively reasonable belief that he was discriminated
against based on a protected category. In the absence of such belief, Plaintiff could not have
engaged in “protected activity.” See Daniels, 776 F.3d at 194 (holding that plaintiff’s subjective
Whether Plaintiff received sufficient notice is immaterial. Even if he lacked notice of the IDC training, Plaintiff
does not explain how the unfairness of defective notice is relevant to his retaliation claims. See Barber v. CSX
Distribution Svcs., 68 F.3d 694, 702 (3d Cir. 1995) (“A general complaint of unfair treatment does not translate into
a charge of illegal age discrimination” for ADEA retaliation claim).
belief that employer violated ADEA does not qualify as protected activity). Accordingly,
Plaintiff cannot support his retaliation claims and Horizon’s motion for summary judgment shall
be granted in full.
An appropriate order follows.
BY THE COURT:
/s/Wendy Beetlestone, J.
WENDY BEETLESTONE, J.
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