Labor & Employment Law Daily Plant manager re-hired, then fired three months later, is unable to restore retaliation claims
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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Plant manager re-hired, then fired three months later, is unable to restore retaliation claims

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

She claimed it was because she questioned discriminatory practices, but her employer claimed it was because she scared employees away and they had the turnover rate and employee complaints to prove it.

Affirming a district court decision granting summary judgment to an automobile parts manufacturer in a retaliation suit by a plant manager, the Sixth Circuit concluded that there was no evidence of a causal connection between her protected activity and her discharge. Although she was fired 75 days after her complaint about the employer’s discriminatory hiring practices, that proximity alone was not sufficient to establish causation and other indicia was “lacking.” The evidence showed that the turnover rate doubled under her stewardship and two formal complaints were filed against her for harassing workers, intervening causes that would destroy any causal connection that might have been made (Kenney v. Aspen Technologies, Inc., July 6, 2020, Readler, C.).

Hired, fired. In 2015 the employer, an automobile parts manufacturer in Michigan, was in need of a production manager due to the launch of three new programs. It sought the help of a former employee, who had been a plant manager there for several years but had resigned to move away. Even though the employer had had concerns about the employee’s harsh interactions with subordinates during her previous tenure, it sought her out based on the belief that she could “tighten up the ship” with regards to managing the employees. She was re-hired on the spot, without an interview, and started in May.

By the end of July, however, she had been fired. According to the employer, the termination was because of the spike in the number of workers quitting during that time, as well as two formal complaints that were made about the employee and her treatment of workers. In the three months between her hiring and firing, the attrition rate, which was already problematically high because of a previous slow-down in business, doubled. At the same time, the company needed to increase its workforce in order to keep up with the new increase in business.

Discrimination complaints. Indeed, soon after she came back on board, the employee expressed her own concerns about the need for new employees and increased recruitment. According to the employee, in response to a question she asked, the HR manager told her that the employer was not “pulling from Detroit and Flint” because the principal shareholder “did not like that demographic,” which she was told had to do with race. According to the plaintiff, she told the HR manager that racially discriminatory hiring practices were illegal.

She complained also to the VP who told her that the principal “has a problem with black people.” Those witnesses denied that the employee complained about discriminatory activity, although they acknowledged speaking with her about job recruitment efforts. The HR manager also acknowledged that they discussed Detroit and Flint, but stated that the concern she voiced was about the problems with carpooling that occurred with such long distances. The employee also alleged that she complained about the differential treatment of black workers with regard to certain allegations of fraud.

The employee contended that it was these complaints of discrimination, rather than the increased attrition rate, that led to her termination. She filed suit, alleging violations of Title VII and state law, but the district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment. She appealed.

No causal connection. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. The appeals court found it “relatively easy to resolve” the first three prima facie elements of the employee’s retaliation claim. There was enough evidence to draw an inference in the employee’s favor that she complained to two of the three decisionmakers regarding racially discriminatory hiring practices and she was fired.

However, the “viability” of the employee’s claim turned on causation, the court explained, and it concluded that causation was lacking in this case. Although there was only a 75-day gap between the employee’s protected activity and her termination, that temporal proximity was not, on its own, “a convincing case for proving causation.” The employee failed to provide other evidence to support a causal connection. She did not dispute that two formal complaints were made about her or that the employer faced hiring challenges. She also did not point to evidence that any of the employees who quit did so for a reason other than her style of management.

No undue scrutiny. With regard to her claim that her work was subjected to heightened scrutiny after her protected activity, the court saw no evidence of undue scrutiny. Although the employee contended that the employer was aware of her management style based on her first stint of employment and that she was never seriously disciplined for it, the court did not find the comparison appropriate. There was an eight-year gap between that period of employment and this one and there was no evidence that her conduct during her first stint was materially similar to the conduct that led to her termination. It was important to consider that in 2015 there had been a period of increased production, a high rate of attrition that could be attributed directly to her, and formal complaints against her.

Intervening causes, no pretext showing. Additionally, the court noted that in this case there were at least two intervening causes between the protected activity in May and adverse employment action that could dispel any inference of causation. There were complaints filed against the employee and there were documented instances of workers quitting because of her management style. Either of those facts would qualify as an intervening cause. As to her claim that she complained in June or July about differential treatment of black and white employees with regard to alleged fraud, her own testimony on the issue was vague and the timeline was conjectural. Those assertions could not overcome the “otherwise largely undisputed point” that the workers’ complaints were an intervening cause between her initial protected activity in May and her discharge. Finally, even if she did establish causation, the result would be the same because she failed to establish that the employer’s “above-board reason for firing her” was pretextual.

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