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Rivera-Rivera v. Medina & Medina, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 1, 2018

MARTINA RIVERA-RIVERA, Plaintiff, Appellant,
MEDINA & MEDINA, INC., Defendant, Appellee.


          Anibal Escanellas-Rivera, with whom Escanella & Juan, PSC was on brief, for appellant.

          Julio I. Lugo Muñoz, with whom Jaime Sifre Rodriguez and Sanchez Betances, Sifre & Muñoz Noya, PSC were on brief, for appellee.

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

          THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

         When it comes to evaluating summary judgment motions, judges simply aren't meant to be factfinders. In what should come as a surprise to no one, then, courts should never be in the business of granting such motions when the case's material facts are genuinely disputed by the parties. But for some of the claims in this employment discrimination lawsuit, the district court did just that. Though we recognize the lower court here didn't get it all wrong, it nevertheless disposed of numerous claims that should have been spared the summary judgment ax. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part the grant of summary judgment below.

         A. Getting Our Factual Bearings

         The facts of this case (which are not particularly complicated) are recounted here in the light most favorable to Martina Rivera-Rivera ("Rivera"), the non-moving party, as is required when reviewing an order granting summary judgment. See Del Valle-Santana v. Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, Inc., 804 F.3d 127, 128 (1st Cir. 2015).

         In 2006, Rivera was recruited to work for Medina & Medina, Inc. ("Medina"), a Puerto Rico company owned and operated by Pepín and Eduardo Medina ("Pepín" and "Eduardo"). Rivera, who had been interviewed by Medina's general manager, Lizette Cortés, was ultimately hired to be Medina's marketing manager. At the time, she was forty-six years old.

         Rivera maintained employment at Medina from 2006 until 2013, at which point she resigned. Initially, Rivera was paid $600 per week by the company, but, in 2008, she was given a raise so that she made $700 weekly. In 2009, Rivera received another wage increase and began to be paid $750 a week from that point up through 2012. Finally, in 2013, Rivera's pay increased once more to $800 per week. None of these salary increases occurred at Rivera's prompting. Additionally, Rivera received a discretionary "gratification bonus" from Medina at the end of each year she worked for the company (with the exception of 2013, apparently due to the number of absences she racked up that year).

         Throughout Rivera's time with Medina, she asserts that although she performed the functions of marketing manager, she also assumed responsibilities that would otherwise be more properly classified as duties meant for the company's key account manager. Indeed, Rivera maintains that she performed many of the exact same duties held by three particular individuals who at various times during Rivera's tenure were employed as Medina's key account manager. These employees were Jaime Bou ("Bou"), Frank Bravo ("Bravo"), and Wilfredo Santiago ("Santiago"). According to Rivera, these other individuals--who were all males--made more money than she did for substantially the same work.

         Beginning in 2011, Rivera says that she began experiencing harassment at the hands of her superiors. As she tells it, Eduardo, Pepín, and Cortés began berating her about her age on a daily or near-daily basis. Specifically, Rivera claims the following types of comments permeated her work environment: (1) she was told that she was "vieja"--Spanish for old--and, as a result, that she was "useless" and "worthless"; (2) she was chastised for supposedly lacking the skills necessary to adequately fulfill the roles of her job because her age rendered her "slow"; (3) she was told that given her age, she should seek social security benefits; and (4) there were suggestions that because she was perceived as being too old for the job, she should resign before being forcibly discharged by the company.

         Moreover, both Eduardo and Pepín yelled, screamed, and made physically threatening gestures at Rivera, which made her fearful for her safety. Such aggressive and insulting behavior was not exhibited toward Rivera's male colleagues.[1]

         On August 16, 2013, Rivera went on sick leave as a result of the stress and depression caused by her working environment. While on sick leave, Rivera filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Puerto Rico Department of Labor Antidiscrimination Unit ("ADU"), as well as a similar charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging that she suffered from age, sex, and gender discrimination. Rivera's lawyer also sent a letter to Medina on August 21, 2013 informing the company that such charges had been filed.

         Upon returning to work on August 23, 2013, Rivera claims she was immediately subjected to even more abuse.[2] Not only was she shouted at as she had been prior to going on sick leave, but she was directly threatened for the first time with termination due, specifically, to the discrimination charges filed with the ADU and EEOC. Such threats occurred daily until Rivera again went out on sick leave on August 26, 2013. During this second sick leave, Rivera was seen by a psychiatrist, Dr. Hector M. Cott Dorta, to whom she complained of depression based on her working conditions (including, specifically, her anxiety over Pepín and Eduardo's alleged screaming). This sick leave lasted through September 24, 2013.

         Though Rivera again returned to work after her second leave of absence, her time with the company did not last much longer. Indeed, because the harassment directed at her did not dissipate and because she was constantly threatened with discharge due to the discrimination filings, Rivera ultimately resigned from the company on November 1, 2013. This resignation was endorsed by Dr. Cott Dorta, who concluded that the "abuse and hostile environment in the workplace . . . produce[d] exacerbation of her symptoms [of depression]." He thus "recommended that [Rivera not] continue with [her] current job."

         B. Procedural History

         After receiving a notice of right to sue from the ADU and EEOC, Rivera brought this federal lawsuit in December 2013 against Medina alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII"), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621, et seq. ("ADEA"), as well as supplemental claims brought pursuant to Puerto Rico law. These claims charged discrimination based on age (due to the supposed differential in pay between Rivera and her younger male colleagues), hostile work environment (due to age and gender), and retaliation.[3]

         On March 27, 2015, Medina moved for summary judgment on all claims against it. And almost two years later, the district court granted that motion, concluding that Rivera's claims of substantive discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation had to be thrown out. In its ruling, the court first did away with Rivera's discrimination claim based on disparate wages, concluding that she had failed to actually produce any evidence whatsoever that showed any inequity in pay existed between her and similarly situated male colleagues.

         Next, in siding with Medina on the age and gender-based hostile work environment claims, the lower court made much ado about the particular evidence Rivera had presented, concluding that the record failed to provide the level of specificity necessary to back up her causes of action. The district court explained that Rivera (whose opposition to summary judgment on these claims rested exclusively on statements contained in her own "self-serving"--the district court's words, not ours--affidavit) did not "provid[e] specific factual information made on the basis of personal knowledge" that would allow for her hostile work environment claims to move onward to trial. Rivera-Rivera v. Medina & Medina, Inc., 229 F.Supp.3d 117, 125 (D.P.R. 2017) (quoting Velázquez-García v. Horizon Lines Of P.R., Inc., 473 F.3d 11, 17-18 (1st Cir. 2007)). The court suggested that Rivera's affidavit did nothing more than repeat "conclusory allegations" otherwise found in the complaint, Rivera-Rivera, 229 F.Supp.3d at 121, and that she failed to "provid[e] context, specific dates, the precise words used, or nam[e] the specific [people] involved in each instance" of allegedly discriminatory and harassing behavior, id. at 125. The court also explained that to the extent the derogatory, age-based comments Rivera's supervisors allegedly made toward her (i.e. calling her "vieja," "worthless," "slow," etc.) were truly hurled at Rivera, such language was "too mild to form the basis of a hostile work environment claim." Id. (quoting Villegas-Reyes v. Universidad Interamericana de P.R., 476 F.Supp.2d 84, 91 (D.P.R. 2007)).

         The court then ruled that Rivera's retaliation claim was similarly doomed. Like the hostile work environment cause of action, Rivera's only piece of evidence presented to support her claim of retaliation was her sworn declaration. And just as the court had determined that the declaration was deficient for lack of specificity in the hostile work environment context, so too did it conclude that it could not be used to adequately support her charge of retaliation.

         Finally, the district judge exercised supplemental jurisdiction over Rivera's various claims sounding in Puerto Rico law and, determining that the requisite elements of each were more or less coterminous with their federal counterparts, dismissed them for the same reasons outlined above.

         Rivera timely appealed and now it is our turn to take a crack at this case.

         C. Standard of Review

         We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Johnson v. Univ. of P.R., 714 F.3d 48, 52 (1st Cir. 2013). In doing so, we must keep in mind that granting summary judgment is only proper when "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Ameen v. Amphenol Printed Circuits, Inc., 777 F.3d 63, 68 (1st Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). "Facts are material when they have the 'potential to affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law.'" Cherkaoui v. City of Quincy, 877 F.3d 14, 23 (1st Cir. 2017) (quoting Sánchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir. 1996)). And "[a] dispute is 'genuine' if 'the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party,' [here, Rivera]." Id. at 23-24 (citation omitted). Where a genuine dispute of material facts exists, such a dispute must "be resolved by a trier of fact," not by a court on summary judgment. Kelley v. LaForce, 288 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2002). We do note, however, that while we resolve all reasonable inferences in favor of Rivera, we must nevertheless "ignore 'conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and ...

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