Judge Ariana Freeman, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, wrote a 2-1 decision reversing a lower court and allowing a Black woman to go forward with discovery on her claim that she was retaliated against for filing a state job discrimination complaint in violation of Title VII. Trump judge David Porter dissented from the April 2023 decision in Stovall v Grazioli.
What is this Case About?
Flavia Stovall, a Black woman, worked in the finance division of the New Jersey state courts in Camden for more than ten years. She filed a lawsuit in federal court, initially on her own, claiming that she was a victim of racial discrimination and that her employer had illegally retaliated against her for pursuing state law discrimination claims.
With respect to the retaliation issue, Stovall’s complaint alleged that a day before her employer filed a motion to dismiss her state law discrimination claims in 2015, a supervisor directed a search of Ms. Stovall’s files, in violation of workplace policy. Within the next several weeks, a supervisor lodged a workplace complaint against her, and she was also suspended without pay.
In federal court in 2023, however, a district judge dismissed Stovall’s complaint without allowing any discovery. She appealed to the Third Circuit.
How did Judge Freeman and the Third Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?
All three judges on the Third Circuit panel agreed that Stovall’s complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to support her discrimination claims. But Judge Freeman wrote a 2-1 ruling that reversed the district court and ruled that the case should proceed on Stovall’s retaliation claims. Judge Freeman explained that the complaint “contains sufficient factual allegations to state a retaliation claim” because of the “temporal proximity” between developments in Stovall’s state law discrimination claim and negative actions by Stovall’s supervisors “culminating in Stovall’s suspension.”
Judge Freeman pointed out that the dissent by Trump judge Porter was wrong because it relied on cases addressing whether a plaintiff had sufficiently stated a case “after discovery” to get to a jury trial. That is very different than the situation here, she went on, where the complaint “alleged sufficient facts” to raise a “reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” of retaliation. It is flatly wrong to throw out such a case against an employer before a plaintiff like Ms. Stovall even has a chance to go forward with discovery on her case.
In addition to allowing Flavia Stovall to proceed with her retaliation case, Judge Freeman’s opinion is important to help prevent employers in the Third Circuit (which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) and elsewhere from dismissing potentially serious retaliation and other claims against them before victims have the chance to take discovery to help prove their claims. Trump judge Porter’s view would have led precisely to that harmful result, but was rejected thanks to Biden Judge Freeman. The ruling also provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judges like Judge Freeman to our federal courts.