United States: Even The DCHRA Has Its Limits: Court Dismisses Discrimination Claim By Employee Allegedly Terminated For Opposing Gay Marriage

Last Updated: April 22 2014
Article by Michael Stevens and Karen S. Vladeck

As Gallaudet University's Chief Diversity Officer, Plaintiff Angela McCaskill was tasked with promoting a diverse and inclusive college community. In October 2012, several of McCaskill's co-workers learned that she had signed a petition to place Maryland's Proposition 6 — a state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage — on the ballot. When this fact became more widely known on campus, Gallaudet administrators decided that McCaskill's ability to advocate for her constituents — in particular, the University's gay community — had been compromised.

As a result of that decision, Gallaudet placed her on administrative leave and, ultimately, demoted her. When the University failed to restore McCaskill to her position after the furor had died down, she filed a lawsuit alleging that the University had violated the DCHRA's prohibitions against various forms of discrimination and had intentionally or negligently caused her emotional distress. She also asserted that, after she signed the petition, the University — acting through two of its employees — defamed her and placed her in a false light. The University filed a motion to dismiss the complaint.

To adequately plead discriminatory treatment under the DCHRA, McCaskill had to establish that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the unfavorable action gives rise to an inference of discrimination. McCaskill alleged discriminatory treatment on the basis of several grounds: race, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, and political affiliation. While she successfully alleged the first two elements for a DCHRA claim, according to the Court, "her stumbling block arrives at step three." To satisfy that third requirement, she had to plead facts showing that Gallaudet took the adverse action because of her protected status — that is, that the action "was not attributable to a common legitimate reason." Mere speculation as to the employer's motivation cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

"To adequately plead discriminatory treatment under the DCHRA, McCaskill had to establish that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the unfavorable action gives rise to an inference of discrimination."

According to the Court, McCaskill did not allege any facts that could allow a jury to conclude that Gallaudet took prohibited actions because of her membership in any of her claimed protected groups. With regard to religion, Plaintiff merely asserted that she was placed on leave "for, among other things, executing a legislative initiative ... while attending a religious service in her Christian church" and that she is a member of a protected class "because of her ... religion as a Christian of the African Methodist Episcopalian denomination." The Court reasoned that, even if Gallaudet knew of her religious convictions or was aware that those convictions motivated her to sign the petition, "there is no factual allegation that her religion somehow prompted her suspension or demotion." As a result, the Court concluded that, although it may be true that McCaskill signed the petition because she is a Christian, the University cannot be guilty of discrimination on that basis.

The Court made similar findings on McCaskill's claims of discrimination based on race, marital status, and sexual orientation. Although she alleged that an unidentified employee of Gallaudet wrote her a nasty letter including a racial epithet after it became public that she had signed the petition, her Complaint did "nothing to tie this incident to the University's personnel decisions or even to link the views in the anonymous letter to Gallaudet administrators at all." The Court also found that she made no coherent argument that her marital status or sexual orientation, as opposed to her views about other people's home lives, prompted the University to act. "The best Plaintiff can do on this front is to allege that she may, at some point, have been called 'anti-gay' by one of her co-workers. This, of course, does not allow the Court to infer that the university suspended her because of her own marital status or sexual orientation."

As to her claim of discrimination based on political affiliation, the Court found that the DCHRA does not sweep broadly enough to cover her political stance on gay marriage. By the statute's own terms, "'political affiliation' means the state of belonging to or endorsing any political party." And, the DC Court of Appeals has read the statute narrowly. In Blodgett v. University Club, 930 A.2d 210 (D.C. 2007), it observed that a plaintiff cannot satisfy the statute's definition of "political affiliation" by asserting discrimination for "political reasons" or "politics generally." According to the Court, McCaskill alleged that the University discriminated against her because of her actions — namely, that she signed the Maryland petition — and not because of her membership in any group, let alone any political party. She made no attempt to distinguish her signing a petition from "general" politicking. The Court therefore dismissed her discrimination claims, along with all of the other claims she asserted.

The McCaskill case demonstrates that, under some circumstances, even a broad anti-discrimination statute (like the DCHRA) has its limits.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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