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An employee cannot prevail on claims of sex discrimination or retaliation without showing that the employer's reasons for any alleged adverse employment actions—in this case, its concerns about the employee's supervisory style and the propriety of a romantic relationship between the employee and one of her direct reports—were a pretext for discrimination or retaliation.
In 2013, Dr. Tawny Hiatt sued her former employer, Colorado Seminary. In her lawsuit, Hiatt alleged that her demotion and subsequent resignation were the result of sex discrimination and retaliation. Colorado Seminary owns and operates the University of Denver. Hiatt was employed as a training director at the university's Health and Counseling Center (HCC) from November 2011 until her resignation in June 2014. Hiatt's responsibilities included the supervision of psychology students (i.e., her direct reports) seeking their professional licensure. Dr. Alan Kent, the executive director of the HCC, and Dr. Jacaranda Palmateer, the HCC's director of counseling services, were Hiatt's direct supervisors.
Hiatt received positive evaluations from her direct reports from November 2011 to August 2012. In December 2012, Hiatt developed a romantic relationship with one of her direct reports, Dr. Abby Coven. It was not until January 3, 2013, that Hiatt ended her supervision of Coven. On Jan. 28, 2013, Coven told one of the other direct reports about her relationship with Hiatt. This revelation was immediately reported to Palmateer and the remaining four direct reports. A meeting was held on Feb. 19, 2013, in order for the affected parties to air any concerns about the situation.
Following the meeting, four relevant events occurred:
As a result of these events, on Feb. 22, 2013, Hiatt was presented with three options:
Before making her decision, Hiatt's attorney sent the university a letter claiming these options amounted to sex discrimination. On March 4, 2013, Hiatt accepted the second option—demotion and counseling.
As a condition of her demotion, Hiatt met with an outside consultant, Dr. Shirley Asher. Based on her sessions with Hiatt, Asher opined that Hiatt "likely could return" to a supervisory role, but also noted that she was not likely to change her supervisory style. In August 2013, Kent and Palmateer discussed the possibility of reinstating Hiatt in her supervisory role. Ultimately, they determined that Hiatt should not be reinstated. In September 2013, Hiatt filed an internal grievance with HR and an internal equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaint with the university alleging sex discrimination and retaliation.
Later, Hiatt submitted a letter of resignation that complained of retaliation for filing her internal grievance and EEO complaint. Hiatt then filed suit in the federal district court in Colorado, alleging claims of sex discrimination and retaliation.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]
The district court granted the university's motion for summary judgment as to both EEO claims, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. In doing so, the 10th Circuit provided an excellent and detailed analysis of the standards to be applied in addressing such claims. The 10th Circuit explained that Hiatt was unable to show that the university's reasoning for any of its alleged adverse employment actions was pretextual for discrimination or retaliation. The court held that Kent and Palmateer acted in good faith and had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for Hiatt's demotion based on their own observations, the ethical questions surrounding Hiatt's relations with her direct report, Asher's input and the negative feedback they received from Hiatt's direct reports. The court noted that the relevant inquiry in addressing the issue of pretext is "not whether the employer's proffered reasons were wise, fair or correct, but whether it honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon those beliefs." Stated differently, the court ruled that Hiatt failed to satisfy her burden of showing that the university's reasons for demoting her or failing to reinstate her were "incoherent, weak, inconsistent or contradictory," and, therefore, there was no issue for trial.
Hiatt v. Colo. Seminary, 10th Cir., No. 16-1159 (June 2, 2017).
Professional Pointer: This case presents a vivid reminder of how important it is for HR and employers to act in a timely and consistent manner when addressing workplace issues. Courts give significant credence to documented reasons for workplace actions, especially those reasons that remain consistent through the litigation process.
Domenick Carmagnola is an attorney with Carmagnola & Ritardi LLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Morristown, N.J. Thanks to Randy Pearce, a summer associate at the firm, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.
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