In Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and Manpower of Texas, LP, No. 14-50944 (5th Cir. 8/10/2015), the Fifth Circuit overruled the district court’s summary judgment. The court addressed a frequent issue, who is responsible for the termination of temporary employees? But, in so doing, the higher court also addressed a more frequent issue, how to apply the summary judgment standard.

Nicole Burton was placed at Freescale by Manpower, a temporary employment agency. Freescale relies on temps. It increases hiring in good times and scales back in the slow times. Ms. Burton received good performance evaluations in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, she broke a wafer. She was counseled for that error. In March, she inhaled chemical fumes at work. She sought  medical treatment. Her health problems continued and she filed a worker’s compensation claim in June. About two weeks after the filing, Freescale decided to fire her. Supposedly, an incident in late June when she was allegedly using the internet was the final straw. But, the evidence was ambiguous regarding whether the supervisor actually knew about the internet incident when he decided to terminate.

The decision to terminate was made in late June. But, the plaintiff was not terminated until late July. In the meantime, Freescale hired and trained her replacement. So, in that one month period, Freescale started collecting documentation of performance problems. Manpower asked for any such documentation. Manpower recommended against termination due to the small amount of documentation and the recent filing of her worker’s compensation complaint. The day after Manpower’s initial reluctance, representatives from Manpower and Freescale, including the supervisor and HR persons, conducted a telephone conference. They established a “communication plan” regarding her termination. They decided Ms. Burton would be fired for four separate incidents, at least two of which occurred after the decision to terminate had already been made. Ms. Burton was then told she was fired. She sued under the ADA. She claimed she was fired because of she was perceived as having a disability and because she filed a worker’s compensation claim.

The district court granted summary judgment. Unlike the court of appeals, the district court accepted Freescale’s accusations at face value with little discussion. The lower court agreed that at least one incident did occur post-termination, but the court simply pointed to “additional” transgressions which were not otherwise included as basis for the termination. The court seemed to think that showing some of the employer’s reasons, or even one reason, were false did not matter if the employer had “fall back” reasons for termination. Order re MSJ, p. 23. The district court also made the remarkable factual conclusion that the decision-maker’s testimony was not inconsistent. The court accorded no inferences in favor of the plaintiff when the decision maker could not recall when he first learned about the internet incident. The burden is on the emplayer to articulate its reasons for termination. If it cannot do so, there are many cases which would afford the plaintiff favorable inferences. Yet, the district court here afforded the plaintiff no such inferences when the employer’s story sputtered. The district court, it seems, did draw factual inferences against the plaintiff.

The plaintiff pointed to deposition testimony regarding the termination, when the supervisor changed her answer completely. At first she said she did not know who first recommended termination. Soon after, she said she was the one who first recommended termination. The plaintiff pointed to that very substantial change as indicating doubts about her testimony. No, said the lower court, the supervisor was simply trying to get her answer straight. But, of course, if the supervisor has trouble getting her story straight, that suggests a trial should be held. “Trying” to get her story straight is the very definition of shaky testimony. Summary judgment is not appropriate when there are questions about such evidence.

The higher court disagreed with the trial court. It found that the district court credited some testimony, while discounting other testimony. It noted that the district court flat ignored the supervisor changing her answer. This was in contravention of the decision a year ago in Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861 (2014). Burton, at p. 20 (slip opinion).

The district court even defended the managers, saying they were deposed two years after the incidents in question. “A person cannot be expected to be able to recall every single detail from two-and-one half years prior.” Order re MSJ, p. 26. But, really, that is why summary judgment should be denied. Summary judgment means “quick” judgment. A quick judgment should not be granted if there are doubts about the evidence. That is the point of summary judgment.

But, even so, the higher court seemed annoyed a bit with the language used by the employer’s attorney. At one point discussing pretext, the court noted that Freescale conceded that there was some evidence showing that the Freescale supervisor was aware of the medical treatment. The court noted the truth of that statement and remarked  that it just “scratches” the surface. Burton, p. 11 (slip opinion). Later, in a footnote, the court took a rare direct swipe at the language used by Freescale’s attorney.

  “Disparaging the evidence is a theme throughout Freescale’s brief. In addition to labelling Burton’s accounts of deposition testimony as ‘creative slicing and dicing’ and writing off the testimony regarding the defendants’ policies as ‘generic.’ Freescale also complained that ‘Burton attempts to pick apart verbiage used in Manpower’s EEOC Position Statement.’ We do not find this sort of dismissive bluster compelling in the slightest.”

Burton, p. 26 n.16 (slip opinion). That is judge speak indicating the judges were annoyed by the over-the-top language used by the attorney. Courts of appeals prefer more thoughtful analysis.

The higher court would not agree with the lower court that the employer simply provided “additional” reasons to the EEOC. The stories provided to the EEOC and provided to the court do differ regarding the reasons for the termination. The employers “peddled” the July reasons for termination only until discovery revealed the decision had already been made in June, noted the court. The higher court did what the lower court would not, it looked behind the defenses offered by the employer and found they did not hold up.

Regarding the joint employer issue, the court rightly noted that the critical factor is control of the employee. Evidence indicated Freescale had the greater degree of control by far. Manpower then argued that it was not involved in the decision, so it should be granted summary judgment. The court noted, however, that there was evidence that Manpower knew this termination was questionable. The temporary agency should have done more than simply acquiesce in the decision. And, said the higher court, that the placement agency “had no choice” contractually but to comply with a discriminatory decision is no defense at all. Its contract with Freescale also required it to follow all state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Regarding the “perceived as disabled” issue, the court explained that the plaintiff only needs to show that she was perceived as impaired and that the employer discriminated against her on that basis. Freescale urged that it was not aware of any disability. The court commented simply that there was no shortage of contrary evidence. See the decision here.