Years ago, it was believed that summary judgment motions by employers should be rarely granted.
And yet, judges in Connecticut district court keep granting these motions. A recent federal court case in Connecticut is the latest example of how courts are using their power to weed out cases before they reach a jury.
In Miller v. Ethan Allen Global (download here), a customer service supervisor who resigned after having performance issues, claimed that she was “assaulted” twice by employees. (I use the word “assault” in the legal definition stage which is a bit different than conventional wisdom on assaults.) The court said that these incidents were insufficient to send the case to a trial.
What were the incidents?
First, she claimed her supervisor knocked her hand off of a phone and shoved her shoulder when she was on the phone to make a call regarding a customer complaint. The supervisor allegedly said she did not care and that the employee was to stay off the phone.
Second, she said she was involved in a physical altercation with a co-worker. She claimed that the co-worker came to her desk, slammed down a one-page e-mail from one of her employees, grabbed the back of her neck and told her to tell her “goddamn employees to stop emailing me with the same questions over and over again”. The Plaintiff claimed that when she spoke to her supervisor about it, her supervisor responded by laughing and telling the plantiff to “go tell her to f*ck off.” The plaintiff did not seek treatment but claimed her neck was sore for a day and a half.
After these two incidents and after her performance had been roundly criticized, the plaintiff offered to resign. The employer took her up on her offer. Quickly.
But even the resignation did not end a lawsuit.
The plaintiff filed suit in federal court in Connecticut claiming that she was the victim of age discrimination and a hostile work environment (among other reasons). The court rather easily disposed of the claims for a variety of reasons, including that she resigned (instead of being fired) and did not suffer any “adverse employment action”.
As to the “two incidents of alleged assault”, the court said that these are insufficient to raise a material issue of fact with regard to an adverse employment action.
“Only in limited circumstances does a single, acute incident of abuse qualify as an adverse employment action.” [Citation omitted.] While [Plaintiff] alleges two separate incidents, neither incident was so “extraordinarily severe” as to “alter the conditions of a working environment,” as evidenced by the fact that [Plaintiff] continued to work at EA in the same position and with the same responsibilities…. Further, the two incidences involved two different people. Taking the facts in the light most favorable to [Plaintiff], she does not set forth evidence to support her allegation that she suffered an adverse employment action. Consequently, she fails to set forth a prima facie case under the ADEA.
For employers, the case is another indication that federal courts remain at least receptive to motions for summary judgment — something that can’t be said of state courts. If an employer is sued in state court and has an option of removing it to federal court (on jurisdiction grounds), it’s worth serious consideration in most employment discrimination cases.