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Caraballo-Caraballo v. Correctional Administration

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 8, 2018

VILMARIE CARABALLO-CARABALLO, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
CORRECTIONAL ADMINISTRATION; CORRECTIONS DEPARTMENT OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PUERTO RICO; and JESUS GONZALEZ-CRUZ, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Defendants, Appellees.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO Hon. Jay A. García-Gregory, U.S. District Judge

          Luis A. Rodríguez Muñoz, with whom Eduardo A. Vera Ramírez, Eileen Landrón Guardiola, and Landrón Vera, LLC were on brief, for appellant.

          Susana I. Peñagarícano-Brown, Assistant Solicitor General, with whom Margarita L. Mercado-Echegaray, Solicitor General, was on brief, for appellees.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Lipez and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff-Appellant Vilmarie Caraballo-Caraballo filed this Title VII gender discrimination action against her employer, the Corrections Department of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, after she was transferred and replaced by one male employee, and then, after the transfer of that employee, by a second male employee. The district court granted summary judgment to the Corrections Department, finding in its favor on Caraballo's disparate treatment, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims.

         Although we affirm the court's judgment as to the latter two claims, we find errors in its analysis of Caraballo's disparate treatment claim. In particular, the district court erroneously interpreted our decision in Johnson v. University of Puerto Rico, 714 F.3d 48 (1st Cir. 2013), to prohibit Caraballo from relying on evidence highly relevant to the similar qualifications element of her prima facie case -- namely, her experience in performing the job from which she was transferred. Hence, we must vacate in part the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings on that claim.

         I.

         In reviewing the district court's grant of summary judgment, we recite the facts in the light most favorable to Caraballo. See Burns v. Johnson, 829 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2016). The Corrections Department[1] hired Caraballo as a Correctional Officer I in 1994. In 2003, it assigned her to a personnel unit that handled the Department's radio communications equipment, called the Radio Communication Area. During the time relevant to this case, the unit consisted of one supervisor, Melvin Sepúlveda-Vargas ("Sepúlveda"), and a number of subordinate employees who represented different regions within the Department. Caraballo was in charge of radio communications for the Department's Northwest Region. Her responsibilities included: inspecting and replacing radio equipment at Department facilities, ensuring that the Department complied with FCC guidelines, logging inventory, transporting radio equipment, drafting various documents, teaching cadets to use radio equipment, and making minor repairs.

         In January 2009, the Department assigned a male employee, Danny Cordero-Vega ("Cordero"), to the Radio Communications Area. Approximately two months later, the Department transferred Caraballo out of the Radio Communications Area and reassigned her to inmate purchases -- i.e., the commissary -- at the 705 Correctional Institution at Bayamón Intake Center. Caraballo and Sepúlveda asked their two commanding officers to provide an explanation for her transfer. However, neither officer complied with the requests, and one of the officers instructed Sepúlveda not to intervene on Caraballo's behalf.

         Meanwhile, without notifying Sepúlveda, the Department assigned a second male employee, Osvaldo Anaya Cortijo ("Anaya"), to the Radio Communications Area. Shortly thereafter, a disagreement between Sepúlveda and Cordero over the scope of the latter's authority came to a head. The Department sided with Sepúlveda and transferred Cordero out of the Radio Communications Area. Sepúlveda then requested that the Department return Caraballo to her former post, but the request was denied by a commanding officer without explanation. Instead, Anaya assumed the responsibilities that had previously been carried out by Caraballo.

         Believing that her transfer from the Radio Communications Area to the commissary violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Caraballo filed a charge of gender discrimination with the EEOC and subsequently initiated this action in May 2012. Her complaint alleged that the Department's decision to transfer her and to replace her with Cordero and then Anaya was motivated by gender discrimination.[2] She also alleged that the Department retaliated against her, and that she endured a hostile work environment.[3] The district court granted summary judgment to the Department on each claim. Subsequently, it denied Caraballo's motion for reconsideration pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). This appeal followed.

         II.

         In challenging the district court's entry of summary judgment on her disparate treatment claim, Caraballo contends that the Department's initial decision to replace her with Cordero and its subsequent decision to select Anaya -- instead of her -- as Cordero's replacement were both based on her gender. Disparate treatment claims under Title VII are ordinarily subject to the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973); Mariani-Colón v. Dep't of Homeland Sec. ex rel. Chertoff, 511 F.3d 216, 221 (1st Cir. 2007). At the first step of this framework, a plaintiff has the burden to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, a prima facie case of discrimination. See, e.g., Garmon v. Nat'l R.R. Corp., 844 F.3d 307, 313 (1st Cir. 2016). This burden is not onerous. See, e.g., Kosereis v. Rhode Island, 331 F.3d 207, 213 (1st Cir. 2003). Indeed, the prima facie case requires only a "small showing, " one that is "easily made." Id. (quoting Reed v. LePage Bakeries, Inc., 244 F.3d 254, 259 (1st ...


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