By Deborah Hammonds, J.D.
A senior HR analyst who claimed she was transferred and later fired because she complained of being mistreated by her supervisor was allowed to proceed with her ADA, FMLA, and state law claims after a federal district court in Connecticut denied her employer’s motion for summary judgment (Szestakow v Metropolitan District Commission
, September 6, 2016, Eginton, W.).
Complained about supervisor.
The long-time employee had filed a written complaint asserting that her supervisor had treated her in a derogatory and hostile manner for the previous five years, including refusing to conduct annual performance reviews; failing to address a request to reclassify her position to a higher pay grade; and making belittling comments about her to the HR staff. An outside investigation concluded that her claims did not amount to a hostile work environment or a violation of the employer’s policies. The employee was told of the investigation’s findings, her supervisor was informed that performance reviews needed to be conducted annually, and a review the employee’s reclassification request was initiated.
Several months later, the employee took a leave of absence based on her own medical issues and to care for her son, who had special needs. When she returned to work, she was informed that her position had been reclassified with the adjustment made retroactive to when the reclassification request should have been completed. A short time later, the employee complained that her supervisor repeatedly rescheduled the meeting to discuss her change in job duties due to the reclassification and about the perceived animosity concerning her attendance at her son’s medical appointment.
Transferred to end interpersonal conflict.
Another investigation ensued and the report concluded that no law or policy had been violated; the HR department personnel simply failed to get along. The employee was transferred to customer service with no change in her salary or benefits. Unable to reach the HR contact overseeing her transfer, the employee went to her office after hours to collect her belongings. An investigation was initiated to determine if she improperly removed any confidential or sensitive department information (she had not). Within the next few months, she applied for two open positions in the HR department but was rejected because she was considered ineligible based on her transfer out of HR.
In November 2008, the employee filed a charge with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) asserting discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and hostile work environment based on physical disability and prior opposition to perceived discriminatory conduct. In June 2010, she was transferred to the emergency command center. While her job title did not change, the employee complained that her new work was clerical in nature and was insufficient to keep her busy. In October 2011, a reduction in force (RIF) was instituted based in part on the loss of a large, long-held contract. The employee’s position was eliminated and she filed a second charge with the CHRO.
Moving for summary judgment, the employer argued that none of the allegations, including the removal of job responsibilities in March 2008; transfer out of HR; denial of the opportunity to apply for two open HR positions; investigation in fall 2008; and exiling her to customer service and command center, constituted an adverse employment action. But the employee argued that her transfer took her out of a career in HR, which she had spent 20 years cultivating. She was removed from a position in which she held status and authority because of her expertise and relegated to a role in which she performed menial tasks or no work at all. She was moved from the central office to a satellite office, and placed in a cubicle about the size of a bathroom stall.
A jury could find the employer’s actions were likely to dissuade a reasonable worker in the employee’s position from exercising her legal rights. Although the employer set forth a legitimate basis for the employee’s transfer and change in job duties (to prevent further personality conflict), a triable issue existed as to whether there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse actions. Summary judgment was denied as to the FMLA retaliation claim.
As for her retaliatory discharge claim, the employer argued that the employee could not show an inference of retaliatory intent. The employer pointed to a lack of temporal proximity between her protected activity and discharge and argued that she failed to dispute any of the facts underlying the explanation of the termination decision. The employee responded that the decision to select her for the RIF came just four months after her employer was served with discovery requests and four weeks after serving a notice of deposition. Moreover, she had evidence that she may have been "preselected" as a candidate for layoff—weeks before the layoff selection methodology had been established.
The court noted that the employee’s name did appear in multiple documents that contemplated lay-off-selection-candidates prior to the official start of the selection process. One of the lists was characterized as having been "randomly" populated, but the large proportion of employees appearing on the list who were eventually selected for layoff raised an inference that the list was not truly random and that the employer’s explanation of its decision to terminate the employee could be unworthy of credence. Because of the contested facts underlying the decision to terminate, summary judgment was denied.
Finally, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the employee failed to allege a prima facie case of disability discrimination. Her employer began taking adverse actions against her shortly after learning of her disabilities and almost immediately after she returned to work from her medical leave of absence. While a transfer to a comparable position to alleviate personality conflicts can constitute a legitimate business decision, the employee argued that her transfer was to a less prestigious department with which she had little experience and that effected a radical change in the nature of her work and set back her career. Because the factual circumstances, intent, and state of mind of the employer were in dispute, summary judgment was also denied on this claim.