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Employer Liability: Timing Is Everything: Gender Bias Claims Iced By Employer’s Records

by Timothy K. Baldwin

In Bonilla-Ramirez v. MVM, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit recently ruled that an employer didn’t discriminate against an employee based on gender or illegally retaliate against her when it terminated her for violating its standards of conduct. The 1st Circuit focused on whether the employer had a legitimate reason for terminating the employee and on the timing of the employee’s complaints.

Dispute with coworker prompts investigation

The employee worked for a company that provides airport security services to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Her duties included working security at an airport ICE detention facility. After the employee complained to a supervisor that a coworker was ordering her around and criticizing her for personal cell phone use, the coworker made a cross-complaint against her for using foul language.

The dueling cross-complaints prompted the employer to conduct an investigation, which revealed that the employee had committed several violations of the company’s standards of conduct. Her infractions included abandoning her post for approximately two hours with an off-duty coworker, engaging in “piggybacking” at the airport (following another person through a secure door without swiping a badge or entering a personal key code), and using her personal cell phone during work hours.

The company reported its findings to ICE. Two weeks later, the company officially cited the employee for committing the security violations. It gave her a verbal warning, took away her airport security badge, and notified her that she would be reassigned to another facility.

A month after the employee was informed of her reassignment, she filed a charge of gender discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). By happenstance or otherwise, later on the same day she filed the EEOC charge, ICE e-mailed her employer and asked for her immediate removal. Within a few hours of receiving ICE’s e-mail, the employer instructed its staff to make sure she was removed, and it terminated her employment the next day.

The employee later filed a federal lawsuit against the company, alleging it unlawfully subjected her to gender discrimination by disciplining her and retaliated against her when she complained of unequal treatment and discrimination. The lower court dismissed her case without a trial, and she appealed.

1st Circuit examines employer’s records

The employee argued that the company’s decision to terminate her employment was pretextual, or an excuse for discrimination. She claimed the real reason for her termination was based on her gender, but the court looked at the company’s records and found no evidence to support her claim.

The court began its analysis by finding the company had met its burden of asserting a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for disciplining the employee. Specifically, the court acknowledged that the employee committed violations of both the employer’s and ICE’s standards of conduct by abandoning her post, using her personal cell phone, and piggybacking through security checkpoints. The court reasoned that those violations were more than sufficient to conclude that the company had a legitimate reason to impose discipline and terminate her.

The employee attempted to argue that the company’s reasons for her termination were pretextual because it treated similarly situated male employees differently. The court acknowledged that her legal theory was sound, and she attempted to identify male employees who committed violations similar to hers but weren’t terminated. However, the court found there was no evidence to back up her claims of similarity between her and her male colleagues, and emphasized that ICE never asked the company to remove any of the male employees she identified as being similarly situated.

The court also ruled that none of the male coworkers the employee identified committed misconduct that the company considered a security violation. The court found it significant that other employees who did commit security violations similar to the employee’s encountered a similar fate. Like the employee, they lost their airport badges, and the company terminated their employment after ICE requested that they no longer provide services for it.

Because the employee couldn’t point to any evidence that the company treated similarly situated male employees differently than her, the court found that her gender discrimination claim had no merit.

Termination shortly after complaint not evidence of retaliation

The employee also accused the company of retaliating against her when she complained about gender discrimination. In support of her claim, she noted that the company terminated her one day after she filed a charge with EEOC.

In most cases, courts rule that an adverse employment action like termination that occurs shortly after an employee makes a complaint is sufficient evidence to permit a lawsuit to proceed. However, in this case, the court ruled that the company’s decision to terminate the employee was “readily explained” by the timing of ICE’s request that she be removed. ICE made the request the same day the employee filed her charge with the EEOC, and the court found there was no evidence that the company prompted ICE to request her removal because of her charge of discrimination.

Before terminating her, the company stripped the employee of her security badge and reassigned her. The employee argued that those actions also constituted unlawful retaliation. The court rejected that theory, reasoning that the company removed her badge and reassigned her before she filed a charge with the EEOC, so it simply wasn’t plausible that those disciplinary actions were taken in retaliation for her discrimination charge.

The court further found that the employee’s original complaint to the company about her coworker, which triggered the sequence of events leading to her termination and occurred before she lost her badge and was reassigned, didn’t give rise to a retaliation claim because there was nothing in her complaint that put the company on notice of gender discrimination. Instead, the court concluded that the employee made a routine complaint to register her disapproval about workplace behavior.

Bottom line for employers

In run-of-the-mill discrimination cases, employees allege that their employer treated them differently because of their age, gender, or race. One of the most effective methods of overcoming these types of claims is to keep accurate records for each employee that explain your rationale for any discipline and when it occurred.

Normally, an adverse employment action that occurs shortly after an employee complains of discrimination can be enough for a court to determine that a retaliation case should proceed to trial, which makes a favorable outcome for the employee more likely. In this case, the employer terminated the employee one day after she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Nevertheless, the employer prevailed in large part because it kept accurate records that explained the basis and timing of the employee’s termination, negating any inference of pretext.

To discuss this or any other topic with Tim, you can reach him at tbaldwin@whelancorrente.com or 401-270-0330.

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