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By Jay-Anne Casuga
Jan. 20 — A black Mayo Clinic employee who alleged she was disciplined and terminated after she internally reported that supervisors had made racially offensive comments, some about President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, can proceed to trial with a Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act retaliation claim, a federal judge in Minnesota ruled Jan. 19.
Denying summary judgment to the Mayo Clinic, Judge David S. Doty of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota found that Catherine Smith established a causal connection between her complaints and the adverse employment actions based on temporal proximity.
Smith, whose performance was satisfactory prior to her complaints, was disciplined weeks after she reported racial comments made by supervisors, the court said. The supervisors purportedly called Obama a “sock monkey,” commented that Michelle Obama “looked like a man” and referred to Smith as “you people” and a “product of [her] environment.” They also warned Smith not to file any additional complaints.
That evidence—combined with other allegations that a supervisor sent a threatening e-mail about how she “want[ed] to kill [Smith],” hung a poster of a kitten looking through a rifle scope and told Smith that “this is what we do to barking dogs in our neighborhood”—also demonstrated a triable issue about whether the Mayo Clinic's stated reasons for Smith's termination were pretextual, the court said. The Mayo Clinic argued that Smith was disciplined and fired because of tardiness and absenteeism.
The ruling represents a good example of the evidence required for an employee's retaliation claim to survive a summary judgment motion and move to trial. The number of retaliation charges filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has increased over the past decade, jumping from approximately 22.6 percent of the EEOC's charges in fiscal year 1997 to nearly 43 percent in fiscal year 2014 (214 DLR C-1, 11/5/15). Filing a charge with the EEOC is required before an employee can bring a private discrimination or retaliation lawsuit.
The court explained that a causal link between an employee's protected activity and an adverse employment action can be established via temporal proximity.
Here, Smith presented evidence that she had not been disciplined under the Mayo Clinic's attendance policy before she reported her supervisors' racially offensive comments. Less than one month after she complained and about one week after supervisors warned her not to file any more reports, Smith began receiving discipline based on attendance, the court said.
In addition, it said she presented evidence that a human resources representative told Smith that supervisors wanted to fire her.
“Smith has demonstrated a causal connection between her protected activities and her termination, and has made a prima facie showing of retaliation,” the court said.
The Mayo Clinic presented a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for disciplining and firing Smith based on alleged tardiness and absenteeism, the court said.
However, the court still sent Smith's retaliation claim to a jury because Smith presented sufficient evidence to rebut the Mayo Clinic's reason as pretextual.
Smith demonstrated pretext based on the temporal connection between her complaints and her accrual of attendance discipline, as well as her supervisors' behavior, the court said.
One of the supervisors who allegedly made the racially offensive comments began disciplining Smith and assigning Smith more work, and then wrote the e-mail about wanting to kill her, the court said.
Although the Mayo Clinic assigned Smith to a new supervisor, that new manager placed Smith on a performance improvement plan drafted by the previous supervisor, the court said.
Furthermore, Smith alleged that other officials warned her not to file reports about her supervisors and that another supervisor hung posters and made statements that “could be reasonably interpreted as a threat to quell further complaints,” it said.
“In light of that evidence, an issue of material fact remains as to whether Mayo's proffered reason for Smith's termination was pretextual,” the court ruled. “As a result, summary judgment is not warranted on Smith's retaliation claim.”
The Cooper Law Firm represented Smith. Littler Mendelson represented the Mayo Clinic.
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