Friday, February 13, 2015

Suspicious Timing of Employee Firing Defeats Employer's Defense to Retaliation Claim

In a recent decision in Ledbetter v. Good Samaritan Ministries, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the employer finding that there was sufficient evidence to allow the employee’s discrimination and retaliation claim to move forward to trial.

Plaintiff, Linzie Ledbetter filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. Section 1981 against his former employer, Good Samaritan Ministries of Carbondale, Illinois, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization that provides services to persons in need including emergency shelter, transitional housing and a food pantry. The lawsuit charged retaliation for Ledbetter’s having filed a charge of racial discrimination and of retaliation with the EEOC.  The Seventh Circuit found that the District Court erred in granting the employer’s motion for summary judgment and allowed the case to proceed to trial.

Although the employer insisted that its decision to terminate Ledbetter was made five days prior to receiving notice of the EEOC charge, the records showed that plaintiff was actually terminated one day after his supervisor had become aware of the EEOC charge. In addition, the employer produced no documentation that its termination decision was made at an earlier time. Moreover, the employer offered no evidence to explain why it waited six days to actually terminate plaintiff if in fact its termination decision had occurred at that time. Based on this evidence, the Seventh Circuit concluded that it is possible, given that Ledbetter’s supervisors seemed to have been in no hurry to execute the alleged earlier decision to fire him, that had it not been for his filing of the EEOC charge he would have remained employed, at least for a time.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit was troubled by a letter the employer’s attorney wrote to the EEOC in response to the charge which stated a different reason (insubordination) for Ledbetter’s termination than the one originally offered by the employer (mistreatment of co-workers) and ultimately concluded that the employer may have concocted this evidence.  In the end, the Seventh Circuit found that too many material questions of  fact existed to have justified summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Again, this decision demonstrates the importance of proper and detailed documentation to support employee terminations, and why employers should not delay in taking employment action in appropriate cases.