Termination’s Timing Suggests Possible Retaliation

Terminating an employee within hours after she reported concerns about alleged gender discrimination amounted to significant evidence that the employer’s stated reasons for firing her might have been pretext for retaliation, according to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

REJ Properties Inc., a private financial advisory practice affiliated with Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc., employed the plaintiff as an associate financial advisor. The plaintiff worked under an Ameriprise Franchise financial advisor. After the plaintiff worked for the company for two and a half years, her boss fired her on the same day she complained to a visiting Ameriprise compliance officer about REJ Properties’ alleged noncompliance with pay regulations and purported gender discrimination.

The plaintiff sued REJ Properties, asserting claims of hostile work environment, gender discrimination, disparate pay under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act, retaliation under Title VII and Louisiana state law, 42 U.S.C. §1985 conspiracy, and breach of contract. The district court granted a motion in REJ Properties’ favor that dismissed all the plaintiff’s claims.

On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision and affirmed the ruling as to all claims except for the plaintiff’s Title VII retaliation claim, which the appeals court sent back to the district court for further proceedings.

In evaluating the retaliation claim, the appeals court noted that hours before the company terminated the plaintiff, the plaintiff told the compliance officer she was “was not sure if she was not treated fairly” at the company because she is a woman. The conversation with the plaintiff led the compliance officer to recommend to the plaintiff’s boss that REJ Properties hire a labor attorney.

Although the plaintiff’s boss denied that the compliance officer relayed the plaintiff’s gender-related complaint to him, the compliance officer’s notes reflected that the officer did convey that information to the plaintiff’s boss. The appeals court found these facts to be sufficient to shift the burden to REJ Properties to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing the plaintiff.

REJ Properties asserted it fired the plaintiff because her boss was constantly receiving complaints from her co-workers about her workplace behavior.

The plaintiff asserted that REJ Properties’ reason was pretextual, pointing to the fact that her firing occurred in the immediate aftermath of her conversation with the compliance officer. In addition, the plaintiff testified that her boss told her that she was fired because she had dinged his perfect record—not because of constant complaints from her co-workers.

The plaintiff’s boss also admitted that immediately before firing the plaintiff, he asked her, “[D]o I have to worry about you suing me?” and told her that the compliance officer suggested the company hire a labor attorney. Finally, although her boss testified that the plaintiff’s co-workers had been complaining about her behavior for months, her firing occurred only after her boss and the compliance officer spoke.

Based on the evidence presented by the plaintiff, the appeals court explained that a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the company terminated the plaintiff in retaliation for her complaints to the compliance officer, and that REJ Properties’ reason for firing her was pretext for unlawful retaliation.

Badgerow v. REJ Properties Inc., 5th Cir., No. 19-30584 (Sept. 11, 2020).

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