Going to a trial with an employment discrimination case is expensive. Which is one reason why many employers will ask the court to dismiss a claim before trial using a process known as "summary judgment"

But a recent federal court case illustrates the difficulty that employers still have in getting courts to grant summary judgment and how cases that seem small can end up becoming big.  

The case, Rolon v. Pep Boys — Manny, Moe & Jack, 601 F. Supp. 2d. 464 (D.Conn. 2009) (download here) , arose out of claims by a customer service representative that she was discriminated and retaliated against because of her gender and pregnancy.    She claimed that two months after she returned to work because of her pregnancy in 2006, she was questioned about her use in 2003 of an employee discount for relatives and friends who were not eligible for it.  The company said it’s investigation of this employee arose out of a separate investigation in the fall of 2005.

The company ultimately terminated the plaintiff’s employment for alleged improper use of the employee discount. The plaintiff alleged that this was a coverup for discrimination and that comments by her supervisor such as "Go home and be with your baby. We don’t have work for you", supported her discrimination claims.  She also claimed she had management approval for her use because no employee discount could be used without management approval.

The federal court held that there was sufficient evidence and a sufficient dispute about certain facts that entitled the plaintiff to a trial.  Of course, the court did not address the ultimate merits of the claim and whether the plaintiff was right or wrong. The only issue for the court to look at was whether there was enough evidence that could support a claim of discrimination. Here, the court said there was.

For employers, this case is a classic example of how termination decisions will be scrutinized by the court.  Although the court doesn’t address the issue head on, it goes out of its way to point out that the events that the employee was being fired over concerned just $200 and occurred three years prior to the actual termination.  In its decision, the court fails to note of any similarly situated employees who might have been terminated or other examples of how the policy had been consistently applied.

The employment at will doctrine in Connecticut allows employers to fire employees for any reason or no reason. While that technically remains true, that doesn’t mean that courts won’t review reasons that may seem a little fishy to it.  Here, it seems that the court was troubled by the reason for the termination decision and said that there was enough evidence (if credited by a jury) that suggested that the reason was a pretext for discrimination.

Ultimately, the employer here may very well prevail at trial.  But to do so, it’ll have to make an expensive point over a $200 employee discount misuse.