Another sexual harassment retaliation case was decided recently, this one in Tennessee federal court. In Lawson v. White, Ms. Lawson charged her director with retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Tennessee Human Rights Act after she reported being sexually harassed by another employee. The federal district court denied Lawson’s employer’s motion for summary judgment, allowing the case to move forward.
Lawson began working for Monroe County’s EMS as a paramedic in January 2006 under former director Mr. Smith. In August 2009, Lawson was allegedly harassed by a coworker. After Lawson reported the harassment to Smith, Smith terminated the coworker’s employment. During this time, defendant Randy White was employed with a privately owned ambulance service called iCare EMS. While there, White hired and worked alongside Lawson’s former coworker. Then in August 2010, Monroe County’s new mayor appointed White to serve as the new EMS director. As part of the transition of a new administration, various County employees were required to submit resumes and applications to be considered for continued employment. Roughly 50 or 60 former EMS employees did so, including Lawson.
White reviewed these employees’ resumes and conducted interviews, then based his hiring decisions on them, as well as his prior experience working with some of the applicants. In the end, three employees were terminated, including Lawson. White then rehired Lawson’s former coworker to fill an EMS position.
White’s recommendations against Lawson were allegedly based on communications that he had with the administrator at East Tennessee Health Care, with regard to complaints against Lawson by patients and staff. One complaint stated that Lawson had been verbally disrespectful toward staff members and made physical contact with one facility resident that was offensive or aggressive. Both of these incidents allegedly occurred before White was appointed the director. Lawson claims that once he received the communications, White never spoke with Smith to determine whether the complaints had any merit, and that an investigation would have revealed that the complaints were baseless.
Lawson filed a complaint based on the fact that White terminated her after learning that she had reported sexual harassment from her former coworker. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Lawson could not establish a causal connection between her reporting the sexual harassment in 2009 and her termination a year later. Moreover, Lawson could not show that a relationship between White and her former coworker would have any effect on whether she was retained as an employee. Lawson argued that White was aware of her complaint prior to the termination, that he was friends with her former coworker, and that White hired her former coworker to the Monroe County EMS position despite learning he had been terminated for harassment. All of these were enough to suggest a causal connection.
The federal court agreed. The court found that Lawson had established a prima facie case, and that there was a close temporal proximity between White’s knowledge of Lawson’s complaint and her discharge. Next, the court found that Lawson effectively provided evidence that White’s reasonable explanation (that the termination was based on complaints about Lawson) was pretext, given that Smith had investigated them and found them baseless. Because Lawson’s evidence established a question of fact regarding Whit’s motivation and knowledge, the court chose to deny the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
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