This week in Castro v. DeVry University, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of one of three plaintiffs, Michael Florez, and allowed his Title VII retaliation claim to proceed to trial. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who engage in activity protected by the federal statute which includes complaints of discrimination in the workplace. 42 U.S.C. Section 2000e-3(a).
Florez alleged that DeVry retaliated against him in violation of Title VII after he complained to a human resources manager that his supervisor used racially and ethnically derogatory language in the workplace. DeVry transferred the supervisor three months later and terminated Florez ten months after the complaint.
The Seventh Circuit allowed Florez’s claim to proceed finding a genuine issue of material fact existed on retaliatory motive. The employer’s stated reasons for termination were: 1) inconsistent performance, and 2) his “volatile behavior.” On appeal, DeVry conceded that Florez’s performance did not justify his termination. Florez also offered evidence that DeVry’s “volatile behavior” explanation may be a pretext for retaliation.
Significantly, Florez presented evidence that his managers did not honestly believe he had behaved unprofessionally, and that his employer falsely argued that his manager –who made the key recommendation for his firing-did not know about the complaint when in fact she did know. In addition, plaintiff introduced evidence of an e-mail from his employer recommending his termination which referred specifically to his complaint about the supervisor’s remarks.
Although there was no direct evidence of retaliation, the employee established a prima facie case through circumstantial evidence. In retaliation cases, the federal courts have recognized three categories of circumstantial evidence proof including: 1) evidence of suspicious timing, 2) evidence that similarly situated employees were treated differently, and 3) evidence that the employer’s proffered reason for the adverse employment action was pre-textual. Here, plaintiff’s evidence of suspicious timing and pretext was sufficient to save his claim.
Employers should take note that it is always important to provide a truthful reason for discharging an employee. Exaggerating employee problems or complaints from supervisors can easily backfire. Simply and accurately stating the lawful reason for discharging an employee, and having the documentation to support that reason, will provide you with a solid defense should the employee file suit.