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Heinsohn v. Carabin & Shaw, P.C., No. 15-50300 (5th Cir. Aug. 9, 2016)

The Fifth Circuit reverses summary judgment in a pregnancy discrimination case, decided under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act ("TCHRA"). The panel holds that the plaintiff presented a genuine dispute of material fact about each of two reasons that the employer - a law firm - gave for her termination. The opinion reminds employers that simply keeping records of an employee's supposed violations is not enough to avoid a trial, and that the plaintiff's own testimony about the records deserves equal dignity.

Heinsohn v. Carabin & Shaw, P.C., No. 15-50300 (5th Cir. Aug. 9, 2016): Ms. Heinsohn - a legal assistant handling Social Security (SSA) matters - left for maternity leave. Before she exited, she wrapped up her files to turn over to another employee named Rendon. "Within days after Heinsohn's departure, Rendon told [supervisor] Escobedo that, according to the notes in the case management system, deadlines had been missed in some of Heinsohn's cases," a report that worked up the chain to managing partner Shaw. "Shaw decided to fire Heinsohn without providing her an opportunity to explain the situation." Human resources manager Leonard then wrote Heinsohn, two weeks into her leave, "informing her that C&S had terminated her employment." No explanation was given in the letter.

Ms. Heinsohn filed a state court suit alleging FMLA and TCHRA violations. C&S removed to federal district court. The FMLA claim fell away when it was determined that the firm did not have enough employees to be covered by the act. The district court then granted summary judgment on the state-law claim.

The Fifth Circuit reverses. It holds, initially, that the district court abused its discretion by striking Ms. Heinsohn's deposition testimony on an issue (whether she had discussed her date of return with C&S) that was supposedly "refuted by [an] e-mail exchange" between plaintiff and Leonard. "By determining that the e-mail exchange 'refuted' Heinsohn's deposition, the magistrate judge improperly considered the veracity of the evidence, rather than its admissibility."

The panel then does a deep dive into the record. Noting that the TCHRA tracks Title VII, it applied the standard burden-shifting analysis under McDonnell Douglas. The court found that Ms. Heinsohn met her prima facie burden, and that C&S proffered two reasons why it supposedly fired her: missing deadlines, and attempting to conceal this from the employer.

It begins by noting that the employer gave Ms. Heinsohn no explanation for its action at the time of her discharge. "C&S relies entirely on post hoc evidence of its reason, viz, [managing partner's] Shaw's deposition, in which he declared that the decision to terminate Heinsohn was his and was based on what Escobedo and Leonard had told him after her maternity had begun." Yet in Shaw's deposition, he admitted that he could not recall what files he examined when he made the decision. Indeed, "this lack of specificity" might have been because Shaw in fact did not terminate plaintiff. "[I]f Escobedo, not Shaw, was Heinsohn's supervisor it might have been improper for Shaw to terminate her for following Escobedo's instructions."

While C&S proffered documents purporting to document plaintiff's violations, plaintiff - who created, and thus had personal knowledge of, the records - "testified that the notes are not authentic," that "the files in the case management system have been tampered with," and that "anyone at C&S could have done this, because the case management system did not contain any controls." This created a genuine dispute about whether the files were doctored.

There were also genuine disputes about whether the plaintiff committed any violations at all. There was evidence, for instance, that alleged lapses in records-keeping may have been the result of inadequate training and supervision. Further, "C&S has not produced evidence of any written policy dictating exactly what Heinsohn was required to include in her notes in the case management system."

Even if the notes of the plaintiff's performance were authentic and complete, the panel holds, There remained genuine disputes about whether the employer could have reasonable believed There were violations of firm policy.

Regarding the alleged missed deadlines, "the notes from the case management system indicate that although deadlines were missed, those deadlines were not missed by Heinsohn. In both cases, Heinsohn's notes indicate that the SSA did not copy her on the notice of the event triggering the deadline." Thus, the "uncontested evidence indicates that the deadline was not missed by Heinsohn, so she did not violate C&S's policy."

The plaintiff's alleged failure to follow-up on, or disclose, the expired deadlines was rebutted by evidence that "Heinsohn responded immediately by preparing and sending a good-cause letter to the SSA" and "contemporaneously recorded the circumstances of each of the missed deadlines in her notes in the case management system." There was also evidence that Escobedo had given the plaintiff latitude to handle the expired deadlines on her own, without his involvement.

Finally, the notes generally indicated that plaintiff updated her files before her leave, and that "Escobedo, Carvajal, and Rendon all had access to Heinsohn's notes in the case management system, so they were at least constructively aware of the status of each of her cases, including any missed deadlines," thus negating any inference that she was trying to hide anything.

The panel concludes that the lower court "erred in rejecting Heinsohn's statements as self-serving and accepting Shaw's, Escobedo's, Caravajal's, and Rendon's," noting "that Heinsohn's statements are no more and no less self-serving than those of the others." Indeed, the panel states, "[i]f we toss Heinsohn's deposition, we must also toss the depositions, affidavits, and declarations of the others for the same reason. To hold otherwise would signal that an employee's account could never prevail over an employer's. This would render an employee's protections against discrimination meaningless."

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