Lynchburg Prevails in Gender Discrimination Suit

The Lynchburg Fire Department has prevailed in a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by a former female firefighter. Master Firefighter Mary Lynn Shumate brought the suit claiming that she was demoted in 2022 in retaliation for filing a complaint alleging a hostile work environment and bullying.

Senior District Court Judge Norman K. Moon of the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia concluded Shumate was unable to establish a genuine issue of fact warranting a trial, and granted summary judgment to the city. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Defendants contend that Plaintiff was not treated differently than similarly situated male employees and that, as a result, Plaintiff cannot make out a prima facie case of Title VII sex discrimination.
  • Defendants point to portions of her deposition where, contrary to her complaint, Plaintiff admits that she was “not singled out as the only person required to have [a] doctor’s excuse.”
  • Defendants also claim that “there is no evidence of [Plaintiff’s supervisor] making statements about women not belonging in the fire service,” or that she was denied training opportunities because of her sex.
  • Defendants posit that her discrimination claim stems from a mere “feel[ing]” that she was not respected—a proposition that is reflected in her deposition:
  • Q: What is the evidence that you were never respected as a female?
  • A: I did not feel like I was respected.
  • Q: Why do you say that?
  • A: I mean that’s just how I felt.
  • Q: Are there – is there anything specific you can point to, to show that?
  • A: Not at this time, no.
  • But a feeling of disrespect is not a substitute for evidence of discriminatory treatment.
  • It follows that her Title VII discrimination claim fails as a matter of law.
  • Plaintiff’s Title VII retaliation claim also fails as a matter of law.
  • Here, there is no direct evidence of retaliation and so Plaintiff has opted to proceed under the McDonell Douglas framework.
  • The McDonnell Douglas framework is a three-step burden-shifting framework used by Title VII plaintiffs who lack direct evidence of retaliatory discrimination.
  • At step one, Plaintiff must …. show that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) her employer took a materially adverse action against her; and (3) but for the protected activity, the asserted adverse action would not have occurred.
  • Turning to step one of the McDonnell Douglas framework, Plaintiff has produced evidence sufficient to satisfy all three prongs of a prima facie case of Title VII retaliation.
  • First, there is—at a minimum—a factual dispute as to whether Plaintiff engaged in protected activity.
  • In the context of element one of a retaliation claim, an employee is protected when [she] opposes ‘not only … employment actions actually unlawful under Title VII but also employment actions [she] reasonably believes to be unlawful.
  • Plaintiff has put forward evidence of a protected activity. In the summer of 2021, Plaintiff reported a “hostile work environment” to her supervisor.
  • Second, Plaintiff clearly faced an adverse employment consequence. On February 22, 2022, Plaintiff was demoted.
  • This fact, taken by itself, is sufficient to establish that “her employer took a materially adverse action against her”—a point Defendants do not dispute.
  • Finally, Plaintiff can rely on the temporal proximity between her protected activity and her adverse employment consequence to make out the causation element of her prima facie case.
  • Since Plaintiff has made out a prima facie case of Title VII retaliation, at step two of the McDonnell Douglas framework, the onus shifts to Defendants to rebut Plaintiff’s prima facie case by producing a legitimate and non-retaliatory basis for Plaintiff’s demotion.
  • They have done so. Specifically, Defendants have put forward evidence that Plaintiff violated the City of Lynchburg’s harassment policy by making offensive comments about a subordinate’s homosexuality.
  • Such a violation of City policy clearly provides a legitimate, non-retaliatory basis for Plaintiff’s demotion—a conclusion that Plaintiff does not dispute.
  • Because Defendants have established a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for Plaintiff’s demotion, the Court now turns to the pretext stage of the McDonnell Douglas inquiry.
  • At the pretext stage, Plaintiff must establish “that [Defendants’] reason was false and that [retaliation] was the real reason for the challenged conduct.
  • In evaluating whether Plaintiff can demonstrate that Defendants’ justification was pretextual, the Court is not called upon to judge “whether [Defendants’] reason was wise, fair, or even correct, ultimately.”
  • Rather, if the record shows that Defendants “honestly believed” Plaintiff deserved to be demoted, then pretext is absent, even if Defendants were wrong or mistaken about the underlying facts.
  • Here, Plaintiff cannot show “that [Defendants’] reason was false and that [retaliation] was the real reason for the challenged conduct.”
  • Plaintiff can point to no evidence—other than unconvincing red herrings—to show that Defendant’s independent investigation of her offensive comments was a sham or pretextual.
  • Put differently, there is no dispute of material fact that (1) Defendants produced a legitimate and non-retaliatory basis for Plaintiff’s demotion and that (2) Plaintiff has not demonstrated that the investigation was merely a “pretext for discrimination.”
  • For the above reasons, Defendants’ summary judgment motion is GRANTED.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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