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A former employee of a paper manufacturing mill could proceed to trial with his Title VII retaliation claim in light of a supervisor's alleged threat, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana held.
Graphic Packaging International Inc. hired the plaintiff in 1996 as a worker in its paper mill in West Monroe, La. Graphic Packaging was a union facility governed by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the company and the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial, and Service Workers International Union, AFL-CIO, and its Local 13-0364. Among the provisions within the CBA was a progressive discipline policy.
Consistent with the CBA's progressive discipline framework, the plaintiff received an oral reprimand, a written reprimand and another written reprimand on Feb. 5, 2014, May 16, 2014, and Feb. 10, 2015, respectively, for various infractions.
On April 22, 2015, the company received notification that the plaintiff had filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging race discrimination. Not long after, on May 14, 2015, he was issued a three-day disciplinary suspension for his prior infractions.
On July 10, 2015, Graphic Packaging terminated the plaintiff in connection with his violation of certain mill rules, which resulted in damage to a reel of paper. The union then invoked arbitration on his behalf. The arbitrator determined that the company's decision to terminate his employment was consistent with the CBA's progressive discipline provisions.
Following his termination and unsuccessful arbitration, the plaintiff sued, alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The company filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of his claim without the need for a trial. In deciding whether summary judgment was appropriate, the court examined whether the plaintiff had established a causal connection between his protected activity—filing a charge of discrimination—and discharge.
The court noted that the plaintiff had alleged direct evidence, as opposed to circumstantial evidence, of retaliatory motive. Namely, he claimed that in mid-June, after he had filed his charge of discrimination with the EEOC, he was called into a supervisor's office and threated with termination if the rumor that he had filed a charge was indeed true. In seeking to rebut his allegation, the company pointed to the prior progressive discipline, as well as his violation of mill rules, which ultimately resulted in his termination. The company also noted that the plaintiff had never mentioned the alleged threatening discussion with his supervisor during the prior arbitration.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]
In rejecting the company's argument, the court reasoned that while it had offered legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for its decision to terminate the plaintiff, summary judgment was nevertheless inappropriate, given that he had offered direct evidence of intent to retaliate.
Bailey v. Graphic Packaging International Inc., W.D. La., No. 16-1422 (Feb. 1, 2018).
Professional Pointer: Potential retaliation claims pose a challenging scenario for employers seeking to take legitimate disciplinary action against employees who happen to have engaged in protected activity at or around the time of their misconduct. Depending on the factual circumstances, good practices may include erring on the side of less severe disciplinary action regarding policy infractions and ensuring that the disciplinary action is particularly well-documented. In addition, employers should keep in mind that the more time that passes between an employee's protected activity and the adverse action, the less likely an employee will be able to succeed in establishing causation.
Jonathan E. O'Connell, SHRM-SCP, is a labor and employment attorney practicing with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
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