It may be okay to terminate someone after they complain about discrimination if…


A university professor did not have her employment contract renewed after two years on the job.

Why not?

She claimed it was in retaliation for previous internal complaints of discrimination. According to the school, there were several decision-makers, and most didn’t know she had complained. (So, how could they have retaliated?) Besides, it reduced her employment term because of “budget constraints and department needs.” However, the professor pointed out that the school hired two new tenured professors.

That’s a lot to unpack.

Let’s start with what a plaintiff must initially show to have a shot at establishing retaliation:

  1. the employee engaged in activity protected by Title VII,
  2. the employer took adverse employment action against the employee, and
  3. a causal connection exists between that protected activity and the adverse employment action.

I want to focus on the third element and the school’s argument that most people who decided not to renew the plaintiff’s employment contract didn’t know that she had complained. If none of them knew about her earlier complaints, there would be no causal connection between her complaint and termination. But, even if one of them knew and had input on the decision — a decision taken shortly after the plaintiff complained — that’s enough to create a possible nexus.

But, if the defendant has a legitimate business reason for terminating the plaintiff’s employment, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate pretext. It’s a very low bar, and the school’s “budget constraints and department needs” rationale gets it done.

So, now it’s up to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant’s explanations are false or unbelievable (in a bad way). The plaintiff emphasized that “hiring two new faculty around the time it released [her] from her employment does not comport with budgetary constraints being present.”

Close, but no cigar.

The defendant had two bases for ending her contract: “budget constraints and department needs.” The plaintiff failed to rebut the latter, which was not lost on the court:

The evidence highlighted by [the plaintiff]—that the department hired two new faculty members around the time she was terminated—does not undermine [the defendant’s] explanation without additional evidence that at least one of the two new faculty members was hired to teach the same classes that [the plaintiff] had taught. [The plaintiff] has not identified evidence that the two new professors—who, unlike [her], were hired to fill tenure-track positions—served the same “teaching needs” that she had served.

It’s okay to have multiple reasons for terminating an employee as long as they are legitimate (especially when the employee has complained about discrimination). Here, since the plaintiff could not rebut all of the defendant’s reasons for ending her employer, her retaliation claim failed.

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