Retaliation in the workplace

Retaliation at work

You’re Fired!
Retaliation at work

We previously wrote here about retaliation against an employee who complains of discrimination.

On June 28, 2019, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Kraft v. The University of Texas Medical Branch, et al. In that opinion, the Court applied the law of retaliation.

The facts in Kraft.

In May of 2014, Kraft complained about age and sex discrimination in the workplace. The University hired outside legal counsel to investigate.

During the investigation, outside counsel documented numerous acts of misconduct and rules violations by Kraft, including having threatened an employee with termination if that employee filed a report with Human Resources.

As a result of the various violations, the report recommended that Kraft be subjected to several disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

Based upon the report, Kraft’s supervisor decided to terminate Kraft’s employment.

Kraft files suit.

Kraft filed suit against the University and others. She sued for age and sex discrimination, as well as retaliation.

The district court granted summary judgment to all Defendants.

Kraft appeals.

On appeal, Kraft only challenged the dismissal of her retaliation claim. Specifically, she posed the critical question “why was I fired?”

Kraft said it was because she had complained about age and sex discrimination. The Defendants said it was because she violated numerous policies as outlined in the investigative report.

Kraft countered by arguing that the report was being used as a mere pretext and that the real reason she was fired was her earlier complaints of discrimination.

The Fifth Circuit affirms.

With respect to the claim of pretext, the Fifth Circuit noted that Kraft had to produce evidence that could lead a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that the adverse employment action (that is, being fired) would not have occurred but for her decision to complain about discrimination in the workplace.

But, the district court had ruled that Kraft had no such evidence, and the Fifth Circuit agreed.

Specifically, Kraft claimed that her supervisor was “uninterested in learning the truth” because she would not provide Kraft with additional details about the investigation. The Court held that this contention was “pure speculation.”

Next, Kraft pointed to evidence that other employees had reasons to retaliate against her. But, the Court said, prejudiced statements by a non-decisionmaker are insufficient when a plaintiff produces no evidence the decisionmaker was influenced by them.

Finally, Kraft argued that the outside counsel report was inaccurate and that the underlying investigation was inadequate.

The Fifth Circuit rejected that argument, holding that the question of whether Kraft actually violated policy was irrelevant.

“The relevant question is whether Kraft was fired because the report said she violated company policy. If [her supervisor] was motivated by the report rather than retaliation, her decision to fire Kraft was not retaliatory regardless of whether the report was accurate.”

Further, “contrary to Kraft’s contention, none of her evidence suggests the investigation was so ‘inexplicably unfair’ that a reasonable jury could infer Defendants did not actually rely on its findings.”

Thus, the district court’s dismissal of Kraft’s case was affirmed.

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