The Missing Link? NO! The Causal Link Needed to Prove Pretext of Discrimination
Here’s an interesting decision for employers that caught my eye this morning, which illustrates a significant aspect of employment discrimination litigation—there must be a nexus, a link, nay a causal link between the alleged discrimination and the adverse decision.
Facts of One Case Discussing this Causal Link
An employer, a battery manufacturing plant, terminated a maintenance mechanic for allegedly damaging a company laptop.
Remember, in all states but one (hello, Montana), employment is “at will,” meaning that an employer (or employee) can terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, and usually without notice except if, generally, (i) a written employment or collective bargaining agreement states otherwise; or (ii) termination violates federal or state anti-discrimination laws; or (iii) if the reason for termination violates public policy (a narrow exception).
Given that employment is at will, what’s the problem here with the mechanic?
Well, this employee had been on disability leave twice after separate knee surgeries both stemming from the same workers’ comp injury. He claimed he had a “disability,” which would be subject to protection under federal and state disability laws, and that his termination was because of his disability and subsequent leaves.
Upon the employee’s second return to work, the employer restored him to the same position with the same pay. Although he claimed that even though he was restored to his former position, the company terminated him for taking time off to recover from his second surgery.
Why did the company terminate this mechanic?
Because soon after his return to work, a co-worker accused the employee of throwing an object at a company laptop, damaging the company’s property.
The Disability Discrimination Lawsuit and Ruling
The employee filed suit claiming that his termination was wrongful because it was in retaliation for filing a workers’ comp claim and for alleged disability discrimination under the federal Rehabilitation Act.
Like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants with disabilities in matters of hiring, placement, or advancement. The state law claim for workers’ comp (Pennsylvania law) prohibits employers from terminating an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
An aggrieved employee can demonstrate that an employer “wrongfully” terminated him or her by discriminating against that employee based on his or her inclusion in a protected class, i.e., race, age, sex, disability, and other protected classes under both federal and state law.
In this case, the trial court dismissed both claims because the employee could not establish a causal connection between the disabling injury he had suffered at work years earlier and his termination. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.
So, how can an employee demonstrate wrongful termination based on his disability or disability leave? What kind of proof is needed?
My partner Eric Meyer reminded employers of the “basics” just last week! So, I’m going to shameless crib directly from his fabulous blog, with a few tweaks of my own:
First, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating that (1) he is a member of a protected group, (2) he applied for the position in question, (3) he was qualified for the job, and (4) the defendant acted (here, by terminating the employee) under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.
Second, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the decision it made (here, the plaintiff’s termination).
Third, if the defendant provides a legitimate reason for the decision, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff-employee to raise a genuine dispute as to whether the defendant-employer’s proffered reason is mere pretext for discrimination. A plaintiff “can prove pretext by showing that he was better qualified, or by amassing circumstantial evidence that otherwise undermines the credibility of the employer’s stated reasons.”
No Causal Link
In this case, the court applied this burden-shifting framework and concluded that no reasonable jury could find a link between his firing and the injury. In Legal Land, we call this a “causal link” or a “causal connection.” The result—the employee could not affirmatively show that his termination resulted from disability discrimination.
Let’s break this down a bit.
While the employee made out a prima facie case, the employer’s “legitimate non-discriminatory reason” for the termination (the employer’s decision) was sufficiently supported. The record reflected that the employer believed that the employee committed the alleged misconduct, i.e., damaging the laptop, based on the written statement of a co-worker.
OK, second step complete.
The employee cried pretext! He claimed that the District Court erred because he established a causal link between his termination and both his disability (under the Rehabilitation Act) and his workers’ compensation claims (under Pennsylvania law).
Nuh uh, ruled the U.S. Court of Appeals..
The court determined that the employee failed to proffer sufficient evidence to rebut the employer’s legitimate reason for his termination. The court explained:
To do so, he had to bring forth evidence that East Penn did not have an honest belief that he engaged in misconduct justifying termination. … Specifically, he had to demonstrate that East Penn’s explanation was dishonest due to ‘weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions from which a reasonable juror could conclude that the Defendants’ explanation is unworthy of credence, and hence infer that the employer did not act for the asserted [legitimate] reasons.’
This, the employee did not do.
In short, East Penn offered a legitimate explanation for the termination and Frymoyer [the employee] has failed to produce sufficient evidence to raise a factual question regarding whether the reason was pre-textual,” Third Circuit Judge Kent Jordan said.
“Summary judgment based on the lack of a causal link was thus appropriate.” You can read Third Circuit Judge Kent Jordan’s opinion for yourself.
The takeaway for employers is simple—document your legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for termination. Always.