Red light? Green light? Trial.

Every week or two, the federal court in Connecticut is asked to decide a motion for summary judgment in a discrimination case.  I’ve yet to discuss what these motions are in detail on this blog, but a recent federal case in Connecticut provides a good learning example.

To simplify (drastically?) a federal court case in Connecticut, after a lawsuit is filed by an employee and responded to by the defendant/employer, the parties engage in what is called discovery — interrogatories, requests for production and depositions — all in the hopes of getting information that can help them at trial.

But at the end of discovery — before a trial happens — the parties (and typically the defendant) have an opportunity to file a “motion for summary judgment.”  Such a motion is the defendant’s chance to say, “Based on the undisputed facts, we should win on the law.”  Or, in other words, there’s no need for a trial.

What people unfamiliar with the legal process often misunderstand, however, is that the court isn’t merely looking at the law in deciding whether the case merits a trial. Rather, the court first looks to see whether all the material (or, in plain English, important) facts are undisputed.

If there are genuine disagreements as to key factual issues, then the case has to go to a trial to let a jury or judge decide the key facts.

A car accident case is the easiest way to understand this.  Suppose there is an accident at an intersection and the key issue is who had the right of way.  Driver A says the light was green. Driver B says light was red.  Witness C says the light had just turned yellow.   In this situation, there is a genuine issue as to what color the light was and therefore, who had the right of way. It’ll be up to a jury to weigh the evidence and decide who is to blame for the accident.

The same thing happens in employment discrimination cases.  And the case of Hopkins v. New England Health Care Employees Welfare Fund et al. (download here), provides an example of when a court will and will not grant a motion for summary judgment.

As to an employee’s claim of retaliation, the court concludes that summary judgment is appropriate for the employer because the employee “had admitted that she was not discriminated against on any basis recognized… even if the [employer] retaliated against her, it could not have been because of any action that she took under Title VII.”  In other words, there is no dispute on the facts and based on those facts, the employer is entitled to win.

But as to the disability discrimination claim, the court rejects the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

The court concludes that the employee has come forward with evidence that she was told she would be set up as “the fall guy” for a poor audit. As a result, the court concludes that the employee has put forth evidence which, if believed, could support a claim that the reasons for her termination were false and that the real reason was disability discrimination.

The court’s conclusions get to the heart of when summary judgment will be rejected by the court:

“This case is in many ways a classic he-said/she-said one, which involves an assessment of the credibility of witnesses and the resolution of competing inferences that can be drawn from disputed facts. Such cases are not appropriate for a court to deicde on summary judgment.”

The end result? The employee can get a trial on some of her claims.

For employers, it’s important to understand that a denial of a motion for summary judgment doesn’t necessarily mean that the employer is going to lose at trial.

Unfortunately, going to trial now is quite expensive and often times, the denial of a motion for summary judgment forces the employer into a settlement that may cost more than before.

Early assessment of cases by employers is crucial. If a case is likely to make it past summary judgment, the employer may, in some cases, be better off trying to resolve the case early on before additional legal expenses and inflated expectations creep in.