In prior posts, I’ve talked about the difficulty for employers in getting a motion for summary judgment granted in state court in discrimination cases.
(Motions for summary judgment are procedural tools that can be used when there are no disputed issues of material fact and therefore the court can decide the case on law — obviating the need for a trial.)
But it’s not impossible. And a case decided by the Connecticut Appellate Court last week demonstrates what it takes for an employer to be successful in such a case.
In Marrero v. Hoffman of Simsbury, Inc., a plaintiff brought forth claims against her former employer, alleging wrongful termination based on pregnancy discrimination and gender discrimination in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act.
The plaintiff had worked as a service advisor for the defendant since 2010. Although she was a skilled salesperson, her supervisors had consistently raised concerns about her attitude and conduct, resulting in six separate written warnings related to incidents of insubordination and poor behavior. The pivotal event leading to her dismissal occurred during a confrontation with her supervisor, where she mentioned her pregnancy after receiving feedback about her sales numbers and customer service.
She brought claims of gender discrimination and pregnancy discrimination.
The plaintiff argued that her replacement being from the same protected class was evidence that her termination was gender-discriminatory. (Most of the time, a plaintiff will argue that a replacement by someone outside the protected class is evidence of discrimination. Here, the fact that the replacement was another woman was no barrier to her attorney making the same claim.)
She contended that the defendant’s decision to promote another female employee in her place was a response to her complaint filed with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). However, the court found that the plaintiff failed to present evidence regarding when the defendant became aware of her CHRO complaint. Therefore, the inference of gender discrimination based on the promotion of a female replacement was not supported by the record.
Additionally, the plaintiff’s claim of gender discrimination was based on her supervisor’s alleged preferential treatment towards male colleagues. Still, the court deemed her evidence of him going for drinks with male colleagues while not inviting her as insufficient to establish discriminatory intent.
As a result, the court concluded that the plaintiff did not meet the requirements to establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination, and therefore, the question of whether the defendant’s reason for her dismissal was a pretext for discrimination did not need to be addressed.
As to the pregnancy discrimination claim, the plaintiff argued that her supervisor was aware of her pregnancy when he terminated her employment, which the supervisor denied. However, the court relied on the plaintiff’s own testimony stating that she never disclosed her pregnancy to her supervisor or any other employee. She had told her supervisor it was “none of his business.” Given this contradiction in testimony, the court upheld the trial court’s decision to credit the supervisor’s statement over the plaintiff’s testimony.
The court went further to say that even if the plaintiff had managed to establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination, she failed to present sufficient evidence to show that the defendant’s nondiscriminatory reason for her dismissal was pretextual. The defendant had provided evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her termination based on her performance reviews and documented warnings for insubordination and attitude issues, which the plaintiff did not effectively dispute.
So what’s the takeaway for employers? Document, document, document. Being able to show that the reasons for your employment decision are documented and supported by evidence is a key factor in discrimination cases like this.