The Fifth Circuit reversed summary judgment in another case recently. In Caldwell v. KHOU-TV Company, Inc., No. 16-20408 (5th Cir. 3/6/2017), the court addressed ADA and FMLA issues. Gerald Caldwell worked at KHOU TV as a video editor. Due to a childhood disease, he needed the aid of crutches for walking. Mr. Caldwell notified his supervisor he would need time off for upcoming surgeries.

About that time the parent company, Gannett Company notified KHOU that the station needed to reduce their work force. One worker was chosen for lay-off based on documented poor work performance. That editor was given prior warning about his performance. Mr. Caldwell received no such warning. Mr. Caldwell was also chosen. The supervisors initially said he was chosen because he had expressed an unwillingness to work in EDR. Later, in its motion for summary judgment, the employer argued that Mr. Caldwell had not taken the initiative to spend as much time in EDR as the other editors.

Mr. Caldwell filed suit based on the ADA and the FMLA. The employer moved for summary judgment, which was granted. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed the summary judgment. The court found there was substantial evidence of pretext. The employer provided different reasons for selecting Mr. Caldwell for the RIF. The employer first claimed Mr. Caldwell shirked his responsibilities by refusing to do the EDR work he had been assigned. The employer provided this expansion in answer to interrogatories and in a letter to Plaintiff’s attorney. But, in a letter to the EEOC, the employer said he was terminated not because he avoided work, but because of his inability and unwillingness to adjust to new technologies. And, before the district court, KHOU argued that Caldwell did not take the initiative to spend as much time in EDR as other editors. And, contrary to all this evidence, the direct supervisor, Philip Bruce, said “absolutely” there were no job performance issues with Mr. Caldwell. These statements, said the higher court, indicated inconsistent explanations, so as to show genuine issue of material fact.

The lower court had looked at the same evidence and discounted it. The district judge found that many of these statements were not made by Mr. Bruce, the direct supervisor. But, the court of appeals noted that no precedent required that all explanations emanate from the direct supervisor. On the contrary, many cases cite articulated reasons from the employer as a whole. The court cited Burrell v. Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Bottling Group, Inc., 482 F.3d 408 412-13 and n. 11 (5th Cir. 2007) for the proposition that simply stated, an employer’s inconsistent explanations for its employment decisions at different times are probative of whether those statements are pretextual and that cases do consider statements by the employer’s representatives before the EEOC, before the district court and the Fifth Circuit. And, that makes sense. The employer sues the “employer,” after all, not individual supervisors.

The higher court noted that the employer’s explanation had evolved from insubordination to a lack of initiative. Mr. Caldwell himself denied ever expressing a preference for or against EDR. The plaintiff’s supervisors also confirmed they did not recall the plaintiff ever expressing a preference against working in EDR. The employee also testified, and the supervisors confirmed, that it was ultimately the employer’s decision to limit his time in EDR, suggesting the employer was not truthful.

[Note: It is always unwise to try to mislead the court. Judges remember that. It will affect the rest of their decisions. That the supervisors apparently disagreed with the company’s  representative seriously undermines any case.]

The higher court also discussed the lack of opportunities for the disabled worker. The court compared not affording employment opportunities to black workers to not providing opportunities to Mr. Caldwell. The plaintiff had argued that the employer chose not to schedule him time in EDR. The lower court had found that he was not scheduled more time in EDR due to his disability. The Fifth Circuit found that lack of opportunity comparable to a case, Vaughn v. Edel, 918 F.2d 517 (5th Cir. 1990), in which an African-American woman was not given the chance to improve her work performance, because the employer did not counsel her about performance problems. In Caldwell, the court said this situation was similar because KHOU did not give Mr. Caldwell time to work in EDR and improve his technical abilities. This lack of time also indicated that the employer did not counsel Mr. Caldwell and warn him that he should spend more time in EDR.

The higher court also reversed summary judgment regarding Plaintiff’s FMLA claim. See the decision here.

This is the last in a series of cases dating back some three years in which the Fifth Circuit has reversed summary judgment. The most common problem in that line of cases is the failure of the district court to construe facts in favor of the plaintiff. We hope district judges will make more of an effort to construe facts in favor of the non-movant, as they should.

Persons who have a disability are entitled to accommodation if necessary. But, there are limits to the sort of accommodation they can expect. One limit on requests for accommodation is that the person cannot seek an indefinite leave. An employer should not have to wait forever or close to forever for an employee to return to work. In Moss v. Harris County Constable Precinct One, No. 16-20113 (5th Cir. 3/15/2017), the plaintiff, Robert E. Moss had a chronic back injury. He left on FMLA leave. When his FMLA leave ended, his doctor said he needed another six months of leave from work. Three months into that leave, he told his employer he would retire at the end of that six month leave. The new Constable promptly fired him before his six months had elapsed. Mr. Moss filed suit under several different statutes, one of which was the Americans with Disabilities Act. He argued that the Constable failed to accommodate his treatment.

But, the Fifth Circuit found that Plaintiff Moss filed to show he was entitled to an accommodation. It was not clear in the midst of his six month leave that he could perform the essential duties of his job, despite 16 years working with the Constable’s office. His doctor had not released him back to work. Mr. Moss argued that bis leave requests was not indefinite. But, noted the court, his requested leave would have ended the same day he planned to retire. That amounts to an indefinite leave, said the court. See decision here.

I am sure Deputy Moss had some reason for seeking to be counted as an employee through the end of his six months. Perhaps, there was some retirement benefit for reaching a certain date. But, the employer is not required to honor personal reasons.

In the world of jobs, anything is possible. In the employment world, we deal with human behavior in all its manifestations. We see a crazy case in Fisher v. Lufkin Industries, Inc., No. 15-40428 (5th Cir. 2/10/2017). William Fisher had worked for Lufkin Industries off and on for some 20 years when he was fussed at by his boss, Steve Saxton. “Boy, I don’t know why every time come over here [to Fisher’s work area] its a hassle!” His voice was raised. Mr. Fisher is African-American. Fisher reported the use of the term “boy” to HR and said it was racial. HR tasked another manager to look into the matter. That manager found that the use of the term “boy” was used as exclamation, not in a derogatory way.

[I am not sure what that means, but it could mean Mr. Saxton referred that way to white and black workers.]

Mr. Saxton’s manager. David Jinkins, was also asked to look into the matter. About a month later, a co-worker of Mr. Fisher, David Rhoden, approached Manager Jinkins and said he did not like hearing that Fisher had complained about the use of the term “boy.” Mr. Rhoden said Fisher had said he would get Mr. Saxton fired. During this conversation, Mr. Rhoden mentioned that for a long time, Mr. Fisher had been selling DVD’s out of his lunch box and some of the CD’s were pornographic. Rhodes would later testify that it was Mr. Jinkins who asked about the CD’s.

Manager Jinkins asked Rhoden to buy a CD from Fisher, so they could use it as proof. Rhoden resisted. Jenkins said, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Mr. Rhoden bought a CD a few days later. It turned out to be blank. Mr. Jinkins told Rhoden to try again. This time, the CD was pornographic, said Mr. Jinkins. An investigation ensued. The company said Mr. Fisher violated a company rule in selling CD’s on company property. Mr. Fisher did not deny the accusation, nor did he agree with it. The company officials went to Mr. Fisher’s car to search it. As the search began, Mr. Fisher said he received a call from his wife and he had to go. One official said he heard the phone ring. Two other officials present said they did not hear any phone ring. The car was never searched. Mr. Fisher was fired a day later.

Mr. Fisher filed suit. In his lawsuit, he said he had been subjected to reprisal for opposing discriminatory conduct.

The lower court granted summary judgment. The court said the investigation was retaliatory. Many employees sold things at work. Many employees possessed pornographic material at work. There was no specific rule prohibiting selling things at work. But, Mr. Fisher lied to company investigators and did not cooperate in the search of his car, said the district court. Therefore, said the court, the firing was justified. It granted summary judgment apparently seeing the termination by HR, which meant the HR official was not motivated by retaliation.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit was perplexed. It noted that the investigation was retaliatory. The lower court found it was retaliatory and facts supported that finding. But, under the cat’s paw theory, a supervisor can act on the retaliatory motive of a subordinate manager. Manager Jinkins appeared to have a retaliatory motive. His investigation and “sting” operation reflected an unusual interest in Mr. Fisher. The investigation would not have occurred but for Rhoden’s and Jinkin’s retaliatory motive. Mr. Fisher’s lack of cooperation with a retaliatory motivated investigation was “inextricably” tied to the retaliatory motive of Jinkins and Rhoden. The actions of Mr. Rhoden and Mr. Fisher were proximate causes of Fisher’s termination. So, the Fifth Circuit panel reversed the grant of summary judgment. See decision here.

In a per curiam decision, the Fifth Circuit reversed summary judgment for the employer. In Stennett v. Tupelo Public School District, No. 13-60783 (5th Cir. 7/30/2015), Ms. Stennett argued she was more qualified than the persons chosen for various district jobs. Ms. Stennett had formerly worked for the Tupelo Public School District for some 30 years, gradually rising up through the ranks. She was laid off and told she could re-apply for various jobs. She did apply for three different positions for the 2010-11 school year. She was not even interviewed. She was then 64 years old. TPSD then re-hired several former TPSD employees, who were much younger. Ms. Stennett was the only former administrator who was not re-hired by TPSD. The next school year, the plaintiff applied for seven different positions with TPSD and was not hired. She was only interviewed for two of the positions. Yet, the district court granted summary judgment. The employer argued that the teachers who were chosen were more qualified.

The Fifth Circuit reversed summary judgment. It found that in looking at the evidence as a whole, she was much more qualified than the persons who were selected for the positions. On that basis, it found there was sufficient issue of material fact. It said a reasonable jury could conclude Ms. Stennett was more qualified than the persons who were chosen. She was not even interviewed for a position as an Administrative Intern. The court also noted that the employer relied on subjective qualifications that were not included in the job postings. One principal, for example, was looking for someone “to kind of complement him.” Another wanted someone who could provide instructions to the teachers. As the court mentioned, reliance on previously undisclosed job requirements itself can raise a genuine issue of material fact.

This is an unusual case. The court even noted that unlike most cases involving one particular job, Ms. Stennett was turned down for multiple positions. It is difficult to accuse several different persons of discrimination. People just do not generally believe discrimination can occur across different persons. But, Ms. Stennett was able to show undisclosed job requirements, and a lack of explanation by one principal regarding why he did not even interview Ms. Stennett. The plaintiff also showed that the Superintendent had promised to help her find a new position, but did nothing to help her. The superintendent himself did not interview the plaintiff for one position for which he was the hiring official. All this, said the court, amounted to genuine issue of material fact. See decision here. The decision is not published. But, it should be. It goes into substantial detail regarding how to analyze pretextual explanations.

 

Judges matter. The life experiences they bring to the bench matter. So, when I see a concurrence like the one written by Judge Jones of the Fifth Circuit, I become concerned. In Pineda v. JTCH Apartments, LLC, No. 15-10932 (5th Cir. 12/19/2016), the employee recovered some $5,000 in damages. Santiago Pineda was a maintenance worker for the apartments. He and his wife lived in the apartments. He sued to recover unpaid overtime. Three days after filing suit, the apartment owner evicted Mr. Pineda and his wife for nonpayment of rent. The eviction action sought repayment of the rent from Maria Pena, Mr. Pineda’s wife. After being evicted, Maria Pena joined the lawsuit and alleged retaliation. After a three day trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff $1400 in lost wages and $3700 for the retaliation claim. The judge awarded liquidated damages, which in effect doubled the lost wage award.

The judge then awarded the plaintiff’s attorney some $76,000 in attorney’s fees. The judge reduced the attorney fee request by 25% because, said the trial court, the amount sought was “grossly” disproportionate to the amount recovered.

Both parties appealed. The plaintiffs appealed because they believe the court should have allowed emotional damages. Many courts have allowed a claim for emotional distress damages under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This three-judge panel concluded there was no reason why the district court could not have done so. It found the lower court should have allowed a claim for emotional distress damages.

The defendant argued that the claim for attorney’s fees was too high. It claimed the plaintiff’s attorney did not settle the case when he could have. This is a claim unique to Texas state law, described as the “doctrine of excessive demand.” They also claimed the complaint was filed in bad faith. But, said the court, the defendant waived this argument by not bringing it before the trial court. The higher court then ordered the case be remanded to address the claim for emotional distress damages. But, cautioned the court, the attorney’s fees are already quite high. So, counsel should proceed expeditiously.

Judge Jones then dissented, accusing the plaintiff’s attorney of engaging in hardball tactics in freezing the bank account of the employer during the lawsuit. Judge Jones accused the plaintiff attorney of freezing the bank account ex parte – meaning it was done without notice to the defendant. She also claimed that testimony “implied” that Mr. Pineda may have sued for this “tiny” sum only because the apartment manager reported Mr. Pineda for possible child abuse. She described the attorney’s efforts as possible procedural abuse. My concern is that having done collections type legal work, I know that freezing bank accounts is exceedingly difficult. It is possible to freeze the account ex parte, but if so, one must provide notice to the defendant immediately. Too, this vase reflects the purpose of having a statute that allows for attorney fees. If there were no attorney’s fees available, then such smaller claims would not be pursued.

Too, I do not know how many maintenance workers Judge Jones has known throughout her lifetime, but at least to the maintenance workers I have known, $1400 is not a “tiny” sum. In truth, Judge Jones may have never spoken to an actual maintenance worker. Yes, a judge’s life experiences do matter.

As I review the Docket Sheet, I do not see anything out of the ordinary in this lawsuit. It was not over-worked in some way. Neither party seems to have filed unnecessary motions. The defendant did not seek dismissal or summary judgment. The reality is that even relatively small amounts require a great deal of attorney time. If there is a problem of some sort, it may be that the plaintiff did not accept the amount offered in settlement. But, that is not unusual. Judge Jones appears to be looking for issues with which to cast the plaintiff in a negative light.

 

More and more employers are relying on staffing agencies to fill certain jobs. But, many employers retain so much control that they remain the employers in all but name. So, if the client employer is the employer in fact, what would be the status of the staffing agency? The Fifth Circuit addresses that issue in Nicholson v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., No. 15-10582 (7/18/2016). Helen Nicholson sued both the staffing agency, Securitas, and the client employer, Fidelity. But, Fidelity settled early in the lawsuit. Securitas moved for summary judgment, which was granted. Ms. Nicholson was a receptionist for Fidelity. She was 83 years of age. She was well-liked in that position. Yet, Fidelity asked that she be removed. Securitas placed a 29 year old woman in her place. Securitas then claims it could not find another position for Ms. Nicholson and she was terminated ten days later. The employee filed suit for age discrimination.

Securitas first claims it was not Ms. Nicholson’s employer. Yet, the contract it signed with the employee clearly identifies Securitas as her employer. And, in its answer to the Plaintiff’s Complaint, the staffing agency alleged that it was her employer. So, the higher court did not apply the “right to control” test. It simply found that the employer had already admitted it was her employer.

The discussion then turns to the evidence of pretext. Securitas argued that it was not aware of any discrimination by Fidelity. Fidelity simply asked them to place someone else in the position. Securitas management testified they they never questioned a client employer. But, the Fifth Circuit, relying on its decision in Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., 798 F.3d 222 (5th Cir. 2015), noted that a staffing agency participates in a discriminatory action if it knew or should have known about the discrimination. I previously wrote about the decision in Burton here.

The plaintiff conceded in her brief that she had no evidence that Securitas knew Fidelity’s action was based on a discriminatory motive. Instead, she argued that Securitas should have known the action was discriminatory. The plaintiff pointed out Securitas’ own policies which require counseling for substandard performance. There was no counseling when Fidelity asked that Ms. Nicholson be removed. Too, there was no investigation as to the reasons for the move. Securitas management did not ask why the move was necessary. Although, the Securitas manager also testified that it should look into the reasons for a complaint. The manager said they should “verify” the reason for a termination. So, construing the evidence in favor of the non-movant, Securitas failed to follow its own procedures in looking into the reason for the change in receptionist. So, the court reversed the summary judgment as to the age claim and the request by by Fidelity to move Ms. Nicholson.

Regarding the termination by Securitas, the court affirmed summary judgment. Ms. Nicholson was fired essentially because she did not obtain her security card and she testified she could not see herself performing a traditional security position. See the Fifth Circuit decision here.

The Fifth Circuit is a risky place to do business. Sometimes, it just reaches some strange conclusions. The case of Allen v. Radio One of Texas II, LLC, No. 11-20781, 2013 WL 703832 (5th Cir. 2/26/2013) illustrates the lack of predictability at the Fifth Circuit. In that case, Corina Allen worked at a radio station as general sales manager.  After complaints about her from subordinates and co-workers, she was warned and then fired. Three weeks after her termination, she sent a letter threatening the station with a lawsuit and suggesting they settle. The Fifth Circuit seemed to be troubled by this letter. The letter did not mention sex discrimination. The opinion does not say who wrote the letter. But, I would expect her lawyer sent the letter.

A few months later, Ms. Allen filed an EEOC charge alleging sex discrimination. Ms. Allen briefly worked for CBS radio, a competitor to Radio One. About the time of her EEOC charge, she called Radio One seeking business. Ms. Allen had left CBS Radio and was now working for herself. The plaintiff sold radio advertising. Ms. Allen was seeking to do business with her former employer. But, Radio One said they could not do business with her because of her EEOC charge.

It is curious that the appellate decision mentions her brief employment with CBS Radio. She was terminated from that position before her call to Radio One. There is no apparent reason why that brief employment would be relevant. So, it is curious that the higher court mentioned it.

The court’s description that she called Radio One “about” the time of she filed her EEOC charge is also confusing. She must have filed her charge before she called Radio One. Since, Radio One referred to her charge as the reason for not doing business with her. She recorded that phone call. One would think that is pretty clear evidence of retaliatory motive. Radio One refused to do business with her because she had opposed their discriminatory conduct. Or, at least, a jury could see it that way

And, that is how the jury did see it. The issue of whether that refusal to do business with her amounted to retaliation went to the jury. The jury found that refusal did indeed constitute reprisal for filing her EEOC charge. The jury awarded $6,100 in lost income, $10,000 for emotional pain and suffering, and $750,000 in punitive damages. The district court would reform the punitive damages down to the cap of $300,000. But, it still remains a large verdict.

But, as in all trials, the defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) at the close of the plaintiff’s case. The district court denied the motion, saying there was sufficient evidence upon which a jury could find for the plaintiff. As the Fifth Circuit noted, the judgment as a matter of law is a device by which federal courts ensure no jury will reach crazy verdicts. A judge can stop the trial in its tracks by finding, after the plaintiff has presented all her evidence, that not enough evidence has been presented. Or, the defendant can re-new its JMOL motion at the close of the entire trial. At that point again, the judge can take the decision away from the jury. It can rule that the plaintiff does not have sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable jury can find in her favor.

The trial judge in the Allen case denied the motion at the time. But, the defendant appealed the denial of a JMOL. And, that is what the Fifth Circuit looked at.

The higher court said no, the plaintiff had not presented adequate evidence. The higher court simply found that the refusal to do business with Ms. Allen came too long after her termination. It was 18 months after her termination and a year after she filed her EEOC charge. It was not reasonable, said the court, that an employee would contemplate just before filing her EEOC charge that she might not be able to do business in the future because of her complaint. See the court’s decision here.

The court offered no actual analysis other than its own opinion that this fear would not occur to the average employee. The experience of the panel is apparently far different than mine. Because, I can attest that most plaintiffs contemplate just about every possible contingency before they take even the smallest legal action against her employer. Most, perhaps all employees, fret about such a thing until the cows come home.

So, the higher court found there was insufficient evidence for the verdict. That means Ms. Allen gets nothing. She loses her trial. All because one panel of three judges substituted their experience for that of the jury.

The Fifth Circuit issued an interesting decision reversing summary judgment. In Heinsohn v. Carabin and Shaw, No. 15-50300, 2016 WL 4011160 (5th Cir. 7/26/2017), the higher court found the employer did not have policies in place to support its claim that it fired a Legal Assistant for missing an appeal deadline and for allegedly trying to cover up the missed deadlines. In Heinsohn, the lower court granted summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff failed to show genuine issue of material fact regarding the reasons for her firing.

According to the Fifth Circuit, the law firm failed in showing it had a practice of requiring a Legal Assistant to take any particular action in response to a missed deadline. The plaintiff claimed she did not miss any deadline. But, noted the court, even if she did,  the law firm did not present evidence indicating it had a policy requiring the plaintiff to report a missed deadline. For example, the senior partner testified he would “expect” any employee to report a missed deadline or come to the attorney and ask for guidance. The court asked what does “expect” mean? Does that mean “assume,” or does it mean “require”? Heinsohn, at p. 24 (slip opinion). There was no written policy and the senior partner’s explanation was ambiguous.

The challenge for the employer was that the actual supervising attorney testified he did not really have a problem with the Legal Assistant supposedly missing a deadline. He seemed satisfied that the two missed deadlines were not her fault. As many lawyers have advised employers, employers need to have written policies in place. Without clear policies, the employee will be able to show genuine issue of material fact regarding performance issues.

The higher court also addressed the allegation that Mrs. Heinsohn was fired for being out on pregnancy leave. The plaintiff testified via an affidavit that the law firm wanted a guaranteed, specific date by which she would return to work. She said that was the employer’s true concern, that she could not specify a date when she would return from pregnancy leave. The lower court struck that portion of the plaintiff’s testimony saying it contradicted her email exchange with the law firm. But, the Fifth Circuit disagreed, noting that Fed.R.Ev. Rule 1002 does not require a witness to provide the best evidence in her power. Heinsohn at p. 10. That is, her testimony in an affidavit was sufficient to create a factual issue, even if one interpretation of her email would indicate something to the contrary. As the court noted, when the magistrate judge discounted one source of testimony in favor of another, it was assessing credibility.

The court also relied on Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861 (2014) and Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., 798 F.3d 222 (5th Cir. 2015), in finding that that Mrs. Heinsohn’s testimony should not be disregarded simply because it is “self-serving.” If all such testimony was so discounted, then the testimony of the employer and its employees should be similarly disregarded. Heinsohn, at p. 29. See opinion here.

It is unfortunate that some lower courts still appear to not understand the ruling in Tolan v. Cotton.

Back when I was in law school, lo those many years ago, Prof. Fuller, who was always a gentleman and very genial, made a comment about jokes in a law school exam. He explained that professors, after staying up late, wading through hundreds of pages, are not in a joking mood. So, he warned us first year laws students, that if we made a joke in our answers, it better be “damn funny.” Law exams are always written and open ended. Prof. Fuller never swore, so his use of the phrase caught our attention.

The Fifth Circuit has its own version of Hoffman Fuller’s warning. In the case of Forum Subsea Rentals v. Elsharhawy, No. 14-20717 (5th Cir. 2/26/2016), a lawyer submitted a motion asking for a rehearing by the entire panel of judges. The lawyer was trying to tell the Court that it had overlooked an argument about personal jurisdiction. To make his point, he opened his motion with an imaginary conversation between the lawyer and the client. It went like this:

“Lawyer: I regret to inform you that the court of appeals affirmed.

Client: What reason did they give?”

The conversation then developed between the lawyer and the client that the Fifth Circuit did not address the argument concerning personal jurisdiction. The lawyer then concluded:

“Lawyer: Have faith. The Fifth Circuit has to tackle thousands of cases a year, so mistakes will happen once in a while, but the Court is conscientious about fixing them on rehearing.”

The Fifth Circuit did respond. It issued its decision this way:

“Judge 1: Did you see Appellant’s petition for rehearing?

Judge 2: No, what do they say?

Judge 3: Well, they begin with a strange hypothetical conversation between a lawyer and client.

Judge 1: I cannot imagine why thought that was a good idea.

Judge 2: What’s their argument?

Judge 3: They say we made a mistake by not expressly addressing their personal jurisdiction argument.

Judge 2: That’s silly. It goes without saying that there was personal jurisdiction here.

Judge 1: I agree. The company reached out to Appellee in Texas, traveled to Texas to negotiate the contract, and entered into a contract with a Texas corporation.

Judge 2: So, what do you think we should do about their petition?

Judge 1: Deny it.

Judge 3: I agree. deny.

Judge 2: Sounds right.

IT IS ORDERED that Appellant’s Petition for Panel Rehearing is DENIED.”

See Above the Law post here. So, the Fifth Circuit responded in kind to a silly technique used by the appellant. As Prof. Fuller said many years ago, if you make a joke when judges are tired and have worked very hard, it better be darn funny.

The point of summary judgment is to dismiss cases that have no genuine chance of winning in front of a jury, or cases that a jury should not even hear. Summary judgment should result in dismissal of  cases that lack any real issue of fact. Why have a trial if there is no genuine issue? “Summary” means quick. So, if there is no real issue of fact, then it makes sense for the judge to decide the case quickly. But, at some point, some judges have hijacked the summary judgment motion to serve as a vehicle for judicial fact-finding. We see such an example in Wheat v. Florida Parish Juvenile Justice Commission, No. 14-30788 (5th Cir. 1/5/2016).

Lillie Wheat worked as a detention officer at a juvenile detention facility operated by the Florida Parish Juvenile Justice Commission. She rose through the ranks to Assistant Director of Female Services in 2008. In 2009, she took time off under the Family Medical Leave Act for surgery. She was terminated after her leave ran out. She filed suit for FMLA retaliation. She settled her claim and was reinstated to her old job in 2011. The Assistant Director position was filled, so she returned as regular officer but at her old, higher salary. After a couple of issues with juvenile inmates, Ms. Wheat was fired in 2012. She filed suit saying she was fired due to her gender – regarding an issues with a female juvenile inmate – and for FMLA retaliation.

Ms. Wheat advanced several claims for retaliation, a missed raise, the assignment of janitorial duties upon her return, and her request to be transferred away from a difficult juvenile inmate. The majority opinion actually refused to consider many of the retaliation incidents, but did address these three identified acts of retaliation. The majority opinion rejected the janitorial duties claim. Said the court, an “unsupported,” “bare bones” claim that janitorial duties is materially adverse to her career is not enough. The court was saying that her own claim that being assigned janitorial duties was harmful to her career was not enough. The claim lacks “contextual” detail to make that an adverse claim. That finding is counter-intuitive. If a relatively long-term employee like Lillie Wheat cannot testify to what is harmful to her career, who can?

Responding to the dissent, the majority added that there was no evidence that being assigned janitorial duties after being an Assistant Director constituted treating her differently than other detention officers. “Properly read, the record does not exclude the possibility that some ‘janitorial duties’ were expected of JDS officers generally – but especially those, like Wheat, who had just recently been hired or reinstated.” And, in that sentence, the court finds there is no way Ms. Wheat can allege the assignment was adverse.

The court then addressed her positive but late performance evaluations. Although it was positive, it stated that she would not receive a 4% pay raise. Noted the majority opinion, Ms. Wheat checked the box saying she reviewed and agreed with this rating. Ms. Wheat did not appeal this rating at the time. Again in responding to the dissent, the majority argued that the raise “may” have been affected by the lateness of the evaluation. So, that means the dissent agrees she might not meet her burden at trial regarding that factual issue. This possibility is not enough to create a dispute fact, said the majority.

The majority did agree that the termination itself is materially adverse. So, yes, that act does constitute actionable retaliation. Ms. Wheat did show she was treated differently regarding her prior issues with juvenile inmates. Some detention officers were discharged for mis-treating inmates, while others were not. So, the court reversed summary judgment regarding the termination itself.

In dissent, Judge Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi noted that the majority opinion essentially draws available factual issues against the Plaintiff. For example, regarding the assignment of janitorial duties, Judge Reeves points out that her “bare bones” assertion should be enough. This is summary judgment, not trial. Ms. Wheat is a witness like any other. She also has a relatively long period of working at the detention facility. She is in a position to identify what is harmful to her career. Judge Reeves suggests that simple “common sense” suggests that being assigned janitorial duties when she is senior to many other workers is retaliatory. Or, as the judge explains, whether the janitorial duties were adverse to her is a strong enough issue that a jury should decide it. The dissent pointed to some decisions which explicitly found that a senior person being assigned janitorial duties constitutes negative treatment of that worker.

[Indeed, the majority opinion, seems to countenance that some persons would perceive this assignment as materially adverse when it acknowledges the “possibility.” The court’s use of the word “possibility” suggests a new standard for summary judgment, one that disregards “possible” factual issues. If “possible” facts are now excluded from summary judgment consideration, few cases will pass muster. Too, the disregard of her “unsupported” allegation ignores several cases that find plaintiffs are indeed competent to testify to their own observations. See, e.g. Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863 (2014); Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015); Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor, LP, No. 14-50944 (5th Cir. 8/10/2015).]

The dissent pointed out that the Fifth Circuit in Wilson v. Monarch Paper Co., 939 F.2d 1138, 1145 (5th Cir. 1991), found the assignment of a white collar executive to janitorial duties to be retaliatory. But, now, when  this same issue concerns a blue collar executive, the same court finds that no, this treatment was not retaliatory. In a judicial version of a snit, the dissent described the majority’s view as “we-don’t-know-what-janitorial-duties-really” means.

I have to say that phrase is accurate. What sort of evidence is needed to address what janitorial duties mean? Some judges appear to lack experience with real jobs, with real consequences. I am also concerned that the Fifth Circuit seemed to fault the employee in some way for not objecting to her performance evaluation or for not appealing it. Workers who have returned to work as she returned are under a magnifying glass as it is. The majority opinion seems to expect her to disregard the scrutiny and pretend she is a normal worker. That is asking too much from someone who must bring the bread home everyday. All workers tolerate difficult issues from their bosses. Workers who return to work after a lawsuit may have to tolerate even more abuse. It flies in the face of economic reality to expect Ms. Wheat to object to every possible issue. This is a poorly reasoned opinion. See decision here.