Inconsistent Factual Accounts Could Support an Inference of Retaliation

Q.  Is there anything I should look out for in documenting my legitimate business reason for terminating an employee?

A.  The United States Appeals Court for the Seventh Circuit (covering Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) recently issued an opinion that serves as a warning that inconsistent explanations of an employer’s reason for an adverse employment decision could support an inference of retaliation. In Donley v. Stryker Sales Corp., No. 17-1195 (7th Cir. Oct. 15, 2018), the plaintiff filed an internal complaint with the company’s human resources department that a manager was harassing a female coworker. The human resources director investigated the complaint and the company then terminated the manager, albeit with a hefty severance package.  Shortly after the termination, however, the plaintiff also was terminated.  The company claims that it fired the plaintiff for taking improper photographs of the CEO of a vendor, who was drunk at a work event approximately six weeks prior to plaintiff’s harassment complaint.

This is where the story shifts. In its response to the EEOC charge, the company alleged that the plaintiff showed the pictures she had taken to her supervisor on the night of the party and that he told her to delete them.  At his deposition, however, the supervisor claimed that he did not see the pictures on the night of the party.  Rather, he heard about them from coworkers, and told the human resources director about them.  The human resources director, on the other hand, testified at her deposition, that she learned about the photographs from another employee during his exit interview and decided to investigate the issue.

Plaintiff claimed that her supervisor and the human resources director knew about the photographs prior to the investigation and approved of them. It was not until after plaintiff brought the harassment complaint – in fact one day after the manager was terminated – that the human resources director initiated an investigation into the purportedly improper photographs.  Plaintiff argued that this timing was suspicious, and supported her claim that she was terminated for bringing the harassment complaint to the attention of the human resources director.

The lower court granted summary judgment to the employer. The Seventh Circuit reversed, however, finding that there was a disputed issue of fact whether the employer used the photographs – which it had previously approved – as a pretext for the termination.  According to the Court:  “[A]n employer’s shifting factual accounts and explanations for an adverse employment decision can often support a reasonable inference that the facts are in dispute and that an employer’s stated reason was not the real reason for its decision.”

Lessons learned? Retaliation claims can be difficult to defend, particularly when the adverse employment action occurs close in time to the employee’s protected activity.  When executing an adverse employment decision, employers should make sure that the adverse action is supported by a legitimate business reason.  Moreover, when defending this decision in a subsequent agency proceeding and lawsuit, it is important to create a consistent factual record of the stated reason for the decision.

— Tracey E. Diamond