Birmingham Employment Lawyers

Is Temporal Proximity Enough to Get Past Summary Judgement?

Introduction

In the realm of employment litigation, there are different evidentiary standards applied throughout the different stages of a case. One stage of litigation is known as the Summary Judgment stage, which occurs after the close of discovery, wherein one or both of the parties file a motion asking the court to rule in their favor and close the case before it goes to trial. In most employment retaliation claims, courts use an evidentiary burden-shifting framework known as the McDonnell Douglas “test” at the Summary Judgment stage. The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework comes from a United States Supreme Court case opinion where the Supreme Court laid out the specific order in which evidence should be scrutinized in employment retaliation cases.

The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework in retaliation claims

Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the employee-plaintiff (“plaintiff”) presents the evidence first, establishing the foundational elements of his or her claim. This first stage is known as the prima facie stage of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. In an employment retaliation case, the plaintiff’s prima facie claim usually requires a showing of the following elements: (1) that the plaintiff engaged in protected activity; (2) that the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and adverse employment action. The first two (2) elements are usually not hard to establish. The first element is met if the plaintiff can produce evidence demonstrating that he or she wrote or communicated a statement or complaint outlining specific discrimination the plaintiff felt that he or she was subjected to by the employer-defendant (“defendant”). The second element can be shown through evidence that the plaintiff was terminated, demoted, received a pay cut, or otherwise suffered a tangible negative employment action. The third element, causation, requires that the plaintiff offer evidence showing that the first two elements are not wholly unrelated. A plaintiff can demonstrate causation by offering evidence that the protected activity and adverse employment action were not too protracted in time from one another. This prima facie evidentiary burden on the plaintiff is light. After the plaintiff offers enough evidence to satisfy each of these elements, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer evidence demonstrating that it in fact did not retaliate against the plaintiff, but rather, that it had a “legitimate” reason for taking the adverse action against the plaintiff.

The defendant’s burden is light. If the defendant can offer evidence that it would have taken the adverse action against the plaintiff even if that employee had not engaged in protected activity, then the defendant has met its burden. At this point in the McDonnell Douglas framework, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff. This third shift requires the plaintiff produced evidence demonstrating that the defendant’s offered reason is false.

After the defendant has met its burden of demonstrating that it took a legitimate, non-retaliatory action against the plaintiff, the defendant must then come back and offer evidence that the defendant’s state reason is false. In other words, the plaintiff must offer evidence showing that the defendant’s proposed “legitimate” reason is actually a cover up or “pretext” for the retaliatory reason. This burden is not as light as the first two. The plaintiff can rely on the evidence it used at the prima facie stage to demonstrate pretext. However, the evidence must be sufficient for a judge to determine that the evidence demonstrates that the reason the defendant took the adverse employment action against the plaintiff was because he or she engaged in protected activity. There are many ways to rebut the defendant’s proffered reason for taking the adverse employment action. However, unlike at the prima facie stage, courts have held that temporal proximity alone, without more, is not enough to get past the pretext requirement, and thus, not enough to get past the Summary Judgment stage of litigation and proceed to trial.

If you feel your employment rights have been violated, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you.

Introduction

In the realm of employment litigation, there are different evidentiary standards applied throughout the different stages of a case. One stage of litigation is known as the Summary Judgment stage, which occurs after the close of discovery, wherein one or both of the parties file a motion asking the court to rule in their favor and close the case before it goes to trial. In most employment retaliation claims, courts use an evidentiary burden-shifting framework known as the McDonnell Douglas “test” at the Summary Judgment stage. The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework comes from a United States Supreme Court case opinion where the Supreme Court laid out the specific order in which evidence should be scrutinized in employment retaliation cases.

The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework in retaliation claims

Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the employee-plaintiff (“plaintiff”) presents the evidence first, establishing the foundational elements of his or her claim. This first stage is known as the prima facie stage of the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. In an employment retaliation case, the plaintiff’s prima facie claim usually requires a showing of the following elements: (1) that the plaintiff engaged in protected activity; (2) that the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and adverse employment action. The first two (2) elements are usually not hard to establish. The first element is met if the plaintiff can produce evidence demonstrating that he or she wrote or communicated a statement or complaint outlining specific discrimination the plaintiff felt that he or she was subjected to by the employer-defendant (“defendant”). The second element can be shown through evidence that the plaintiff was terminated, demoted, received a pay cut, or otherwise suffered a tangible negative employment action. The third element, causation, requires that the plaintiff offer evidence showing that the first two elements are not wholly unrelated. A plaintiff can demonstrate causation by offering evidence that the protected activity and adverse employment action were not too protracted in time from one another. This prima facie evidentiary burden on the plaintiff is light. After the plaintiff offers enough evidence to satisfy each of these elements, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer evidence demonstrating that it in fact did not retaliate against the plaintiff, but rather, that it had a “legitimate” reason for taking the adverse action against the plaintiff.

The defendant’s burden is light. If the defendant can offer evidence that it would have taken the adverse action against the plaintiff even if that employee had not engaged in protected activity, then the defendant has met its burden. At this point in the McDonnell Douglas framework, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff. This third shift requires the plaintiff produced evidence demonstrating that the defendant’s offered reason is false.

After the defendant has met its burden of demonstrating that it took a legitimate, non-retaliatory action against the plaintiff, the defendant must then come back and offer evidence that the defendant’s state reason is false. In other words, the plaintiff must offer evidence showing that the defendant’s proposed “legitimate” reason is actually a cover up or “pretext” for the retaliatory reason. This burden is not as light as the first two. The plaintiff can rely on the evidence it used at the prima facie stage to demonstrate pretext. However, the evidence must be sufficient for a judge to determine that the evidence demonstrates that the reason the defendant took the adverse employment action against the plaintiff was because he or she engaged in protected activity. There are many ways to rebut the defendant’s proffered reason for taking the adverse employment action. However, unlike at the prima facie stage, courts have held that temporal proximity alone, without more, is not enough to get past the pretext requirement, and thus, not enough to get past the Summary Judgment stage of litigation and proceed to trial.

If you feel your employment rights have been violated, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you.

Categories