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Robinson v. City of Pittsburgh

July 14, 1997






(D.C. Civil No. 94-1378)

Before: GREENBERG, COWEN, and ALITO, Circuit Judges

ALITO, Circuit Judge

Filed July 14, 1997

Argued: January 6, 1997


Appellants Carmen Robinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jr. worked as police officers for appellee City of Pittsburgh ("the City"). Robinson alleges that she was sexually harassed by appellee James Dickerson (her supervisor) and that appellees Craig Edwards (an assistant police chief) and Earl Buford (the chief of police) knew of the harassment but failed to take action to stop it. Robinson asserted a variety of claims under both federal and state law against Dickerson, Edwards, Buford, and the City. At the close of plaintiffs' case, the district court granted defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law on several of Robinson's claims. The jury returned verdicts for defendants on the claims that remained. In this appeal, plaintiffs challenge the grant of judgment as a matter of law, a jury instruction, and certain evidentiary rulings. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.


Robinson began working as a Pittsburgh police officer in 1990. Hawthorne, her husband, also worked as a police officer for the City. In January 1992, Robinson was assigned to a drug suppression unit commanded by then-Lieutenant Dickerson. Hawthorne worked in the same unit until June 1992, and Robinson contends that after he left to begin a new assignment, Dickerson began sexually harassing her. According to Robinson, the harassment included unhooking her bra, snapping her bra strap, touching her hair and ears, telling her "you stink pretty," making comments about the size of her breasts, blowing her a kiss, asking her out for a drink, touching her leg under a table, putting his hands around her waist, dropping his keys down the back of her shirt and attempting to retrieve them, and describing the position in which he and Robinson would have sex if they were to do so. Robinson testified that she never acceded to any of Dickerson's sexual advances or reciprocated any of his sexual remarks and that she made it clear to him that his conduct was unwelcome.

In the fall of 1992, Robinson approached Assistant Chief Edwards to inquire about a transfer to the detective bureau (which would have been a promotion). Edwards had no direct supervisory authority over Robinson, but was one of two second-in-command officers who reported directly to Chief Buford. (App. 89-90; 585-86) Robinson testified that she told Edwards that she thought Dickerson "was hitting on [her]" and "coming on to [her]." (App. 146-47) She said that Edwards advised her to "wait it out" because he thought that Chief Buford might be leaving soon for another job. Edwards reportedly said that Buford might take Dickerson with him and that even if Dickerson remained, Buford's departure would allow Edwards to obtain power over Dickerson. (App. 147) Until then, however, Edwards allegedly told Robinson he could not do anything about Dickerson because Buford protected him. (App. 147-48) In addition, according to Robinson, Edwards told her that Buford would not do anything to help her because Dickerson "had done this before" and Buford had not done anything following that incident. (App. 148) Robinson testified that she believed "waiting it out" was a "viable solution" and that she did not tell her husband about the harassment or do anything else about it at the time. (App. 149). *fn1

In May 1993, Robinson wrote a letter to Buford in which she asked to meet with him. According to Robinson, her original draft of the letter, prepared in March or April 1993, stated that Dickerson was "coming on to [her]" and that she thought that this was "the reason for [her] now bad reputation." (App. 168) Robinson recounted that she gave the letter to Edwards to look over and that Edwards told her that she could not send the letter through the chain of command because it was too "specific in detail." According to Robinson, Edwards recommended that she "just be specific about requesting a meeting." (App. 166-67) The original draft was never introduced in evidence. The letter that was actually sent to Buford requested a meeting in order to discuss "career goals" and "past conflicts" and to "seek guidance with future endeavors." The letter made no mention of sexual harassment. Upon receipt of the letter, Buford returned it to Robinson with a notation that it needed to be transmitted through the proper chain of command rather than sent directly to him.

In January 1994, Robinson was detailed to the criminal intelligence unit, where her direct supervisor was Sergeant William Bochter and her second-line supervisor was Chief Buford. In this assignment, neither Dickerson nor Edwards possessed any supervisory authority over Robinson. In May 1994, Robinson met with Edwards, told him she was "fed up" with the harassment, and stated her intention to file a complaint. She testified that Edwards recommended that she file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC").

A few weeks later, Robinson filed a complaint with Bochter, who forwarded it to Buford on May 31, 1994. On June 1, 1994, Robinson filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that Dickerson had sexually harassed her, and on July 6, 1994, she filed a similar complaint with the Bureau of Police Office of Professional Standards ("OPS"). OPS's investigation, which was completed in September 1994, concluded that probable cause existed to substantiate Robinson's claim. *fn2 In October 1994, Robinson stopped reporting for work, and she has not returned to her job since that time. She was nonetheless promoted to sergeant in February 1995.


In August 1994, Robinson and Hawthorne filed suit in district court against the City, Buford, Edwards, and Dickerson. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 2000e-2(a), Robinson asserted claims against the City for hostile work environment and quid pro quo sexual harassment and for retaliation, as well as a claim for hostile work environment sexual harassment against Dickerson. Under 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983, she asserted claims, based on alleged violations of the Equal Protection Clause, against all four defendants. She claimed that all four were responsible for unconstitutional sex-based discrimination and that all but Dickerson were liable for unlawful retaliation. In addition, Robinson asserted claims under Pennsylvania law for assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Dickerson. Robinson sought punitive damages on all claims. Hawthorne sued Dickerson under Pennsylvania law for loss of consortium. Dickerson counter-claimed against Robinson for defamation.

At the close of plaintiffs' case, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). The district court granted defendants' motion as to the Title VII hostile work environment claim against Dickerson because individuals cannot be liable under that statute. See Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1077-78 (3d Cir. 1996) (en banc). The court granted the motion as to all of Robinson's Section(s) 1983 claims against the City on the ground that there was insufficient evidence of an unconstitutional policy or custom. Furthermore, with respect to the Title VII retaliation claim against the City (and in the alternative with respect to the Section(s) 1983 retaliation claim against the City, Buford, and Edwards), the court held that Robinson had not shown a causal link between her protected activity and any adverse employment action. The court granted the motion with respect to Robinson's Title VII quid pro quo claim against the City because the court found insufficient evidence that a job benefit or detriment was conditioned upon Robinson's response to Dickerson's advances or that her response to his advances in fact affected a tangible aspect of her employment. Moreover, the court granted defendants' motion as to the Section(s) 1983 claims against Buford and Edwards on the ground that there was insufficient evidence that either was personally involved in any deprivation of Robinson's rights (as well as, with respect to the retaliation theory, on the alternative ground described above). Finally, the court granted the motion as to the intentional infliction claim against Dickerson and struck Robinson's demand for punitive damages on all claims because there was insufficient evidence of outrageous conduct.

The claims that went to the jury were thus as follows:

(1) the Title VII hostile work environment claim against the City;

(2) the Section(s) 1983 sex discrimination claim against Dickerson;

(3) the assault and battery claims against Dickerson;

(4) Hawthorne's loss of consortium claim against Dickerson; and

(5) Dickerson's defamation counter-claim.

The jury returned verdicts for the defense on all of plaintiffs' claims, as well as a verdict for Robinson on the counter-claim.

Robinson appeals from the grant of judgment as a matter of law on all claims except the Title VII and intentional infliction claims against Dickerson. *fn3 In addition, she contests certain evidentiary rulings and a jury instruction that allegedly affected the jury's rejection of the claims that it was permitted to consider. Nothing is at issue in this appeal with respect to the defamation counter-claim, the assault and battery claims, or the loss of consortium claim.

We exercise plenary review over the district court's grant of judgment as a matter of law. Delli Santi v. CNA Ins. Co., 88 F.3d 192, 200 (3d Cir. 1996). "Our role is to determine whether the evidence and justifiable inferences most favorable to the [non-moving] party [would have] afford[ed] any rational basis" for a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Id. (quotation omitted). We exercise plenary review over the jury instructions given by the district court in order to determine whether, read as a whole, the instructions stated the correct legal standard. Miller v. CIGNA Corp., 47 F.3d 586, 591 (3d Cir. 1995) (en banc). Finally, we review the district court's decisions to admit or exclude evidence for abuse of discretion, Glass v. Philadelphia Elec. Co., 34 F.3d 188, 191 (3d Cir. 1994), although our review is plenary as to the interpretation or application of a legal standard underlying such a decision. West v. Philadelphia Elec. Co., 45 F.3d 744, 752 (3d Cir. 1995). We will not reverse on the basis of an erroneous decision to admit or exclude evidence unless the error affected a "substantial right" of the aggrieved party. Id.

III. Section 1983 Equal Protection Claim Against Buford, Edwards, and the City

To prevail on her Section(s) 1983 equal protection claim, Robinson was required to prove that she was subjected to "purposeful discrimination" because of her sex. Keenan v. City of Philadelphia, 983 F.2d 459, 465 (3d Cir. 1993). Moreover, to hold Buford or Edwards liable under Section(s) 1983 for such an equal protection violation, Robinson was required to prove that they personally "participated in violating [her] rights, . . . that [they] directed others to violate them, or that [they] . . . had knowledge of and acquiesced in [their] subordinates' violations." Baker v. Monroe Twp., 50 F.3d 1186, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1995). See also Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1478 (3d Cir. 1990). Robinson does not contend that either Buford or Edwards personally engaged in any discriminatory conduct against her or that they directed anyone else to do so. Rather, her argument is that Buford and Edwards were aware of and acquiesced in Dickerson's sexual harassment. We must thus determine, taking Robinson's evidence as true and giving her the benefit of all reasonable inferences, what Edwards and Buford knew about the harassment, when they learned about it, and what, if anything, they did in response.


Robinson does not seek to hold Edwards liable for anything that he did or did not do following her May 1994 complaint. Rather, she contends that she told Edwards in 1992 that Dickerson was "hitting on [her]" and that Edwards "acquiesced" in Dickerson's conduct because he did not take any action to stop Dickerson but instead told Robinson to "wait it out" because Buford and/or Dickerson might soon be changing jobs.

Edwards responds that the jury's verdict for the City on Robinson's Title VII hostile work environment claim conclusively establishes that he cannot be liable under Section(s) 1983 for acquiescing in her subjection to a hostile environment. If there was no hostile environment in the first place, Edwards's argument goes, then he logically cannot be liable for knowingly acquiescing in the existence of one. We reject this argument because, among other things, it ignores the fact that the jury's verdict does not necessarily mean that it found that Robinson was not subjected to a hostile work environment. Instead, the jury might have rejected her Title VII hostile work ...

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