Shelter Worker's Retaliation Claim Revived Because Employer's Dawdling Raised Doubt

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By Lisa Nagele

Feb. 9 — A black shelter employee in Illinois who was fired the day after his employer learned of his second Equal Employment Opportunity Commission race discrimination charge may proceed with his retaliation claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled Feb. 6.

Reversing summary judgment for Good Samaritan Ministries, Executive Director Michael Heath and supervisor Bobby Anderson, the Seventh Circuit found that there were “too many loose ends” to justify granting summary judgment in their favor.

Heath and Anderson claimed they decided to fire Linzie Ledbetter during an Oct. 14, 2010, discussion about his alleged intimidating behavior and false allegations that the staff and board were trying to get him fired, the court said. But it found that they waited until Oct. 20—the day after they learned of his EEOC charge—to terminate his employment.

“It is possible, given that Heath and Anderson seem to have been in no hurry to execute the ‘decision' they allegedly made on October 14 to fire him, that had it not been for his filing the second charge he would have remained employed, at least for a time,” Judge Richard A. Posner wrote for the court.

Judges Diane S. Sykes and David F. Hamilton joined the opinion.

Two EEOC Charges

According to the court, Good Samaritan is a nonprofit organization that provides services to individuals in need, such as the emergency shelter Ledbetter began working at in 2007.

In June 2010, Ledbetter received a warning following a shelter resident's complaint that she was afraid after he reprimanded her and threatened to evict her for not completing assigned chores.

Later that month, Ledbetter filed an EEOC charge asserting claims of race discrimination and retaliation. He subsequently filed a lawsuit that was dismissed for failure to state a claim.

On Oct. 5, Heath and Anderson met with Ledbetter regarding a complaint from a shelter supervisor that Ledbetter had “frightened and intimidated” her. After this meeting, Heath and Anderson claimed that Ledbetter falsely accused the staff and board of directors of lying and “trying to get him fired.”

On Oct. 14, they decided to terminate his employment. But “they did not fire him on the spot; they dawdled,” the court said.

Heath and Anderson didn't know until Oct. 19 that Ledbetter had filed a second EEOC charge two weeks earlier. The day after they found out about the charge, they fired him.

Ledbetter claimed he was terminated in retaliation for filing the second EEOC charge. Good Samaritan contended that, although he wasn't discharged until Oct. 20, his supervisors made the decision to end his employment before they knew about the charge.

Suspicious Timing

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the shelter, finding that the temporal proximity alone wasn't sufficient to create a triable issue of fact. The district court pointed to Good Samaritan's evidence of the numerous warnings Ledbetter received both before and after he filed his EEOC charges.

But the appeals court found the timing was suspicious. Heath and Anderson claimed they decided to fire Ledbetter during their Oct. 14 meeting, but there is no documentation of what was said or if the meeting even occurred, the court said.

Two managers said they decided to fire Ledbetter during their Oct. 14 meeting, but there is no documentation of what was said or if the meeting even occurred, Judge Posner said. “It is a possible inference that they fired him on the twentieth rather than later (or maybe never) because the filing of his second EEOC charge, which they learned about the day before, was the last straw.”

“It is a possible inference that they fired him on the twentieth rather than later (or maybe never) because the filing of his second EEOC charge, which they learned about the day before, was the last straw,” the court said.

‘Odd Mode of Testifying.'

“There is much more that is odd about the case,” the appeals court said. The supervisors' affidavits appear to be “parroting” language inserted by their lawyer and don't say they are based on personal knowledge, the court said.

The allegations are hearsay, the court said, and there is no admissible evidence that the events triggering Ledbetter's termination even happened.

Furthermore, Ledbetter claimed that before firing him during the Oct. 20 meeting, Anderson asked him to confirm—and he did confirm—that he filed the second EEOC charge. This could imply retaliatory motive, the court said.

Ledbetter represented himself, but the appeals court urged the district court to consider requesting a lawyer to represent him in further proceedings. Rhode & Jackson PC represented the defendants.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Nagele in Washington at lnagele@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/Ledbetter_v_Good_Samaritan_Ministries_No_142822_2015_BL_30710_7th.