Can an employer ever win a motion for summary judgment on a discrimination case in state court?
The prevailing wisdom is no. A fool’s errand, some might say.
But a new Connecticut Appellate Court case (Alvarez v. City of Middletown) shows at least what’s possible.
The case has some details that stand out. The Plaintiff was a probationary police officer who was seeking a more permanent position. In the course of his employment, he had performance deficiencies that were noted. In February 2015, an individual made a complaint that the Plaintiff groped her and made her feel his genitals through his pants while he was responding to a reported domestic incident at her home.
While the investigation was ongoing, the Plaintiff’s performance still showed deficiencies including a failure to file written reports. He was sent a letter that he would face a probationary discharge but he resigned before that happened.
The Plaintiff then sued on race and national origin. Perhaps surprisingly, the employer filed for — and won — summary judgment. On appeal, the Plaintiff said that there were material issues of fact. The Appellate Court disagreed.
First, the plaintiff argued that he was ‘‘not alone in his performance issues’’ and that the defendant ‘‘did not discipline other officers for the same issues.’’ But as the Appellate court noted, there was no evidence provided to substantiate that assertion. The court said that was needed.
Second, the plaintiff said that during his job interview, he was asked ‘‘if I had any side bitches or side girls or baby mama drama in Waterbury that he had to concern himself with because he didn’t want that type of issues in the police department.’’ The Appellate Court said that while it might be “tasteless” it didn’t have anything to do with his race or national origin.
Moreover, the court found that the “same actor” inference was appropriate because the person who asked the question, was the same person who hired him and was the same was who fired him. ‘‘The premise underlying this inference is that if the person who fires an employee is the same person that hired him, one cannot logically impute to that person an invidious intent to discriminate against the employee.’’ Given the inference here, the court said summary judgment was appropriate.
While this isn’t the first Appellate Court to adopt the same actor inference, the use of the inference here should — if the lower court listens carefully — send a message that summary judgment is a viable mechanism for courts handling such cases.
But, to be a bit cynical, one case isn’t going to change prevailing wisdom. Or the courts.
And so, employers might be better served by viewing this case as an outlier — a nice exception to show that summary judgment might still be possible.