Here's a nice, simple reminder for HR professionals and laid-off employees: that when an employer can not line-up behind a single reason (or even a single decision maker) for a termination decision, and instead keeps changing its mind, the reason lurking beneath may well be discrimination. The Sixth Circuit sends an age-discrimination claim back for trial where the employer allegedly switched stories midstream, from contending that the employee's job was eliminated to arguing that the termination was based on a negative performance evaluation.
In a non-precedential opinion that may nevertheless be important to litigators, a Fifth Circuit panel splits three ways on whether an employee must continue to defend her Title VII prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas rubric after the employer presents a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for an employee's termination. The courts continue to disagree on this issue even decades after the Supreme Court first framed-out this method of proof.
The Tenth Circuit today issued a terribly important read for people interested in fighting workplace sex harassment. The panel reverses summary judgment in a Title VII case where a woman jail employee was (allegedly) sexually assaulted by a sergeant, repeatedly, and yet failed to complain immediately for fear of losing her job. While not a complete win for the employee, the opinion points the way to Theres trapped in similar workplace dilemmas.
'Twas unfortunate that the Eighth Circuit should choose not to publish this short opinion today, reversing summary judgment in a race discrimination case under Title VII and the Arkansas Civil Rights Act. It illustrates the important point that even seriously misbehaving workers have a right not to be discriminated against in employment. A suspended employee presents a genuine dispute of material fact about whether a white employee who committed a comparably serious work rule violation was treated more lightly.
Racial discrimination can be manifested subtly in numerous decisions, and slight deviations from procedure, over time. The Sixth Circuit reverses summary judgment in this Title VII and Ohio state law case, holding that an African-American plaintiff fired during a reduction-in-force (RIF) was entitled to a trial over whether the decision-maker - who allegedly gave minority employees harsher reviews - was motivated by race. An unusual factor here is that it was the employee rather than the employer who wanted to limit the range of comparable employees in evidence. The panel also considers the probative of "There discrimination" evidence against the decision maker.
The Seventh Circuit continues on its march toward sensible decision-making in employment discrimination cases, reversing dismissal of an ADEA case and reaffirming that an employee may survive summary judgment by any combination of evidence "that a rational jury could conclude" proves "that the employer took the adverse action against the plaintiff because he is a member of a protected class." The evidence included a deposition admission by the CEO that the company hired a new replacement salesman in his 20s because "he was a young individual" and, though inexperienced, "our thought process on him was he was a young guy, give him a shot [to] drive around the state showing fire trucks and learn the business."
The Fifth Circuit holds that an unstrung father struggling with child care deserves a jury trial (for FMLA retaliation) against a slew of reasons offered by Chevron for his termination. This case may also prove useful for Title VII litigants. Under that statute, a plaintiff who proves that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in workplace treatment gets a judgment in her favor. Yet an employer that proves that it "would have taken the same action in the absence" of discrimination can avoid paying monetary damages. Courts have reported very few decisions interpreting this "same decision" defense. Here, the Fifth Circuit holds that evidence that would otherwise be sufficient to prevail in a "single motive" case is not necessarily enough to win the day under "same decision."
summary judgment motions and appeals in employment discrimination cases often ask, at their core, whether a jury should be empanelled to weigh conflicting evidence (and inferences) and decide whether a supervisor involved in a termination decision harbored a biased motive. Here, where a fired 76-year-old security guard presented evidence that his supervisor told him that he "needed to hang up his Superman cape" and was "too old to be working," at least two of the three judges thought that a jury should decide that question.
Employees with disabilities are sometimes caught between the desire to work and the need to apply for public or short-term disability benefits for survival purposes. The Ninth Circuit does a good job in explaining how these are not necessarily in conflict, reversing summary judgment in an Americans with Disabilities Act case where a school teacher had to apply for disability retirement.
I think we have the right sign for the Seventh Circuit this week. The same day that the court interred the rule against using an employee's "self-serving" testimony to resist summary judgment in employment-discrimination cases, another panel of the same court helps correct a lingering misunderstanding about what it means for an employee to use a "mosaic" of circumstantial evidence under Title VII - and also backs off a bit from a strict direct/indirect framework of proof enforced by that circuit. Such cases may help district courts reach more sensible decisions at the summary judgment stage.