A federal court in Tennessee recently rejected an employer’s attempts to have a retaliation case dismissed. In Sanders v. Whites Creek Healthcare, LLC, Lesia Sanders had filed a retaliation case under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), claiming that she was terminated from her position after reporting her employer’s illegal labor practices.
Sanders allegedly observed that a member of Human Resources was altering the employees’ time sheets and failing to pay hourly employees proper wages for work they performed off the clock. On “numerous” occasions, she allegedly informed her immediate supervisor that certain employees were not being properly compensated, and she also attempted to inform her District Manager, only to be ignored. Following her report, Sanders was placed on a performance improvement plan, followed by suspension and then termination. Sanders’s termination letter reportedly stated that her sole reason for termination was that she was aware a member of Human Resources was violating federal law and the employer’s policies yet “continued to condone” Human Resources’ practice.
Sanders filed a lawsuit in federal district court, and Whites Creek Healthcare filed a motion for summary judgment to have it dismissed. The federal court looked at whether, as Whites Creek Healthcare claimed, there was no genuine issue of material fact, and Whites Creek Healthcare was therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
First, the court made note of the FLSA standard for retaliation. To establish a “prima facie” case, the employee needed to prove that (1) she engaged in a protected activity under the FLSA; (2) her exercise of that protected activity was known by the employer; (3) the employer thereafter took an adverse employment action against her; and (4) there was a causal connection between the adverse employment action and the protected activity. If Sanders could establish a prima facie case, the burden then shifted to the employer to establish a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer met that burden, the employee must then prove that the reason provided was just a pretext for retaliation.
Whites Creek Healthcare argued that Sanders could not establish a causal connection between any supposed protected activity and her termination, nor could she establish that Whites Creek Healthcare’s legitimate reason was pretext. The court disagreed, finding that based on Sanders’s evidence, a reasonable jury might find that Whites Creek Healthcare was violating the FLSA, that she acted in ways that attempted to report, rather than condone, the activity, and that she was terminated for that reason. Sanders also claimed that just days before she was terminated, she sent a complaint letter to the Human Resources Department, stating that she tried to bring certain things to the Regional Director’s attention but was ignored, that she was not given the essential things she needed to work with in the dietary department, that she received limited support from her supervisor, that some of her employees worked off the clock despite her advising against it, and that the off-the-clock work was not reported because the time sheets were altered. The court noted that a reasonable jury could find this letter to be a protected activity.
Therefore, the court rejected Whites Creek Healthcare’s motion for summary judgment and permitted Sanders’ case to proceed.
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