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Decided: July 6, 2016

The Fourth Circuit vacated the order granting summary judgment on all counts and remanded for further proceedings.

On February 28, 2014, Plaintiff, Monica Guessous (Guessous) filed an action against Fairview Property Investments, LLC (Fairview) for race discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and for discrimination based on religion, national origin, and pregnancy, hostile work environment, and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e).  Guessous stated she was repeatedly involved in uncomfortable and often offensive discussions about national conflicts or cultural issues in Islamic countries and issues relating to Muslim terrorists simply because she was from the Middle East and an Arab-American Muslim.  After returning to work from maternity leave, Washenko, Guessous’ supervisor, continued to withhold her job duties.  Guessous confronted Washenko about having her duties assigned back to her and about his previous comments to her.  Shortly, thereafter Guessous was terminated and asked to sign a severance agreement which Guessous refused.

On March 5, 2013, Guessous filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC and filed her civil complaint on February 28, 2014.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Fairview on December 16, 2014.  The district court stated Guessous cited her complaint and to factual allegations instead of pointing to evidence to show a dispute of material fact.  The district court concluded the retaliation and discrimination claims should be dismissed because Fairview asserted a nondiscriminatory reason (lack of work) for Guessous’ termination.  The district court applied the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework to the discrimination and retaliation claims.  The district court stated Washenko’s statements were insufficient to establish a hostile work environment and the conduct attributed to the hostile work environment occurred 300 days prior to Guessous filing her complaint with the EEOC and therefore, it was time barred.

The Fourth Circuit began by analyzing Guessous’ retaliation claims.  Guessous must show “‘(i) that [she] engaged in protected activity, (ii) that [her employer] took adverse action against [her], and (iii) that a causal relationship existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment activity.’”  The district court concluded that these elements were established and shifted the burden to Fairview to produce a nondiscriminatory reason for the action per McDonnell Douglas’ framework.  Fairview asserted it terminated her due to insufficient work to support her position so the burden shifted back to Guessous to show this was to disguise a true retaliatory reason.  Two emails from Alexander, inquiring from other companies if they would hire Guessous, was evidence that Fairview was retaliating against Guessous for her earlier conversation about reinstating her job duties.  The Court also noted the absence of evidence supporting Fairview’s lack-of-work explanation.  The Court reversed the summary judgment order on Guessous’ retaliation claims (Counts III and VI) because a jury could have accepted the lack-of-work explanation or concluded that her “protected activity was the final straw that motivated Guessous’ termination.”

The Court then analyzed Guessous’ claims that Fairview treated her differently based on her race (Count I) and her religion, national origin, and pregnancy (Count IV).  In order to show a prima facie case in a discriminatory discharge case, Guessous must show: “‘(1) that [s]he is a member of a protected class; (2) that [s]he suffered from an adverse employment action; (3) that . . . [s]he was performing at a level that met [her] employer’s legitimate expectations; and (4) that the position was filled by a similarly qualified applicant outside the protected class.’”  The Court concluded Guessous had established a prima facie case because non-Arab, non-Muslim employees absorbed her duties.  To counter Fairview’s justification for her termination she asserted, at the summary judgment level, “‘(1) the decision to terminate her was finalized seventy-five minutes after she engaged in protected activity, (2) no one else was terminated for the reasons provided by Defendant, and (3) she was terminated by her aggressor.’”  The district court observed that her position was not filled after her termination.  The Court held that the evidence in the record met the summary judgment requirement and a reasonable jury could find the lack-of-work justification was pretext for discrimination.

Next, the Court analyzed Guessous’ hostile work environment claims (Counts II and V).  Guessous must show “‘“(1) unwelcome conduct; (2) that is based on the plaintiff’s [protected characteristic]; (3) which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the plaintiff’s conditions of employment and to create an abusive work environment; and (4) which is imputable to the employer.”’”  The Court determined the district court erred in barring Guessous’ hostile work environment claim (Count V) due to the statute of limitations because “the work assignments were withdrawn in November 2012, and the termination occurred in March 2013, both constitute[d] facts within the statutory period which contributed to the hostile work environment. . . .”  The district court concluded Washenko’s conduct was unwelcome but granted summary judgment based on the second and third elements.  The Court stated the district court erred when it took an “overly cramped view of what constitutes race-based conduct; with respect to the third step, the court failed to consider the totality of circumstances, as it must when determining whether unwelcome conduct is severe or pervasive.”  Guessous asserted that Washenko’s conduct was motivated by her Arab ethnicity.  The Court pointed to Washenko assuming Guessous could interpret for a Persian Iranian employee and his assertion that Middle Easterners were crooks in determining that his conduct was “a hallmark of racially insensitive conduct.”  Finally, the Court stated the district court erred in not looking at the totality of circumstances when analyzing the third element.  Washenko’s intimidating and intrusive management of Guessous was evidence of a hostile work environment.  Therefore, the court reversed the district court’s ruling as to the hostile work environment claims.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the order granting summary judgment on all counts and remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Alicia E. Morris