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Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc., No. 12-1201

Decided:  March 15, 2013

Karen Balas appealed the district court’s denial of relief on her claims of discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), as well as her claims of wrongful discharge, assault, and battery, brought under Virginia state law, against Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc., (“Huntington Ingalls”) the successor to Balas’s former employer, Northrup Grumman Corporation.  For the following reasons, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.

This case began after Balas was fired for falsifying some of her time records while employed by Northrup Grumman.  Shortly after she was fired, Balas began the administrative process with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”), which ultimately concluded with the EEOC’s dismissal of her charge and its issuance of her right to sue letter.  Balas subsequently filed a pro se action in the district court, alleging the Title VII and state law claims listed above.  In response, Huntington Ingalls filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, and the district court granted this motion in part.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first addressed “Balas’s argument that the district court erred in considering only her amended EEOC charge, and not the contents of her intake questionnaire or the two letters she submitted to the EEOC.”  The Court noted that Balas’s argument depends on Fourth Circuit precedent establishing “the fact that federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over Title VII claims for which a plaintiff has failed to exhaust administrative remedies,” and it reviewed this subject matter jurisdiction claim de novo.  After reviewing the procedural steps undertaken by Balas at the EEOC, the Court noted that “[i]n any subsequent lawsuit alleging unlawful employment practices under Title VII, a federal court may only consider those allegations included in the EEOC charge.”  (citation omitted).  Following this directive, the Court stated that it was “not at liberty to read into administrative charges allegations they do not contain” and agreed with the district court in concluding that “[t]he intake questionnaire and the letters Balas submitted to the EEOC cannot be read as part of her formal discrimination charge without contravening the purposes of Title VII.”  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s refusal to consider any allegations not included in Balas’s EEOC charge.

Next, the Court considered the district court’s denial of leave for Balas to amend her complaint.  While acknowledging Rule 15(a)’s (Fed. R. Civ. Pro.) instruction that “[l]eave to amend a pleading should be freely given ‘when justice so requires,’” the Court agreed with the district court’s determination that “Balas’s proposed amendments would be futile.”  Therefore, citing to Fourth Circuit precedent holding that “[l]eave to amend a pleading should be denied only when … the amendment would be futile,” the Court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Balas’s leave to amend her complaint.

Third, the Court looked at “Balas’s Title VII claim of retaliatory discharge” and reviewed the district court’s summary judgment grant in favor of Huntingon Ingalls de novo.  The Court began by listing the elements required to be satisfied in order to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.  Ultimately, the Court found that Balas could not establish her claim because she failed to present evidence showing the requisite causal connection between her employment termination and her alleged protected actions (i.e., her alleged complaints of discrimination to her former supervisor).  Therefore, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Huntington Ingalls on the retaliatory discharge claim.

Finally, the Court considered the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Hungtington Ingalls on the assault and battery claims.  With respect to the battery claim, the Court found that Balas had failed to raise a genuine question of material fact “as to whether the hug [the alleged battery] was objectively offensive.”  Therefore, the Court found that Balas’s claim failed to satisfy the state law’s requirement that the alleged act be objectively offensive in order to be considered battery.  With respect to the assault claim, the Court found that “Balas presented no evidence that the hug was harmful or offensive, or that [her supervisor] intended the hug to involve any contact beyond the hug itself or intended to make Balas think that it would.”  Therefore, the Court found that Balas had failed to establish the necessary elements of an assault claim and affirmed the district court’s summary judgment grant as to the assault and battery claims.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite