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Causation or Coincidence: Retaliation Claims are Hard to Prove

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Courts recognize the distinction between causation and coincidence in employment retaliation claims. The distinction rarely favors plaintiffs.

This week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment dismissing a worker's compensation retaliation claim against FedEx Freight, finding that the former employee failed to assert a genuine issue of material fact.

Marion Gordon suffered an on-the-job injury at one of FedEx's service centers in 2008. The following day, two FedEx managers made the decision to terminate Gordon's position. Gordon was informed of this decision upon her return from medical leave.

Sure, the circumstances look bad, but the story is more complicated than it seems at first blush.

At the time Gordon's was laid off, FedEx was involved in nationwide downsizing. As part of this effort, management decided to eliminate one full-time position at the East Moline center where Gordon worked. Gordon, a clerk, was one of three full-time employees at the center; the other two full-time employees were operations supervisors. Management concluded that it should keep two operations supervisors at the center, and reasoned that Carolyn McDaniel, one of the operations supervisors, could cover Gordon's responsibilities because she formerly held the same position.

To establish a causal relationship for her retaliation claim, Gordon had to show to "affirmatively show that the discharge was primarily in retaliation for exercising her right file a worker's comp claim. That meant offering sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that FedEx was improperly motivated to let her go. If Gordon met that burden, then FedEx would be required to provide a legitimate reason for its decision to terminate her.

Gordon asserted the following claims to establish the causal link between her termination and her right to seek medical attention: (1) the plan prior to Gordon's injury was to eliminate a supervisor position; (2) the day after her injury, management changed the plan to eliminate Gordon's position instead; and (3) despite "eliminating" Gordon's position, her duties were passed on to a supervisor and later to a part-time employee who took over Gordon's prior position. She also claimed that the temporal proximity between her injury and her dismissal supported causation.

The biggest problem with Gordon's causation theory is that her assertion that the FedEx originally planned to eliminate a supervisor was based on a rumor she heard outside of the work, which is inadmissible hearsay. That left temporal proximity as Gordon's strongest evidence, but Seventh Circuit precedent states that temporal proximity alone is generally not enough to create a genuine issue of material fact. Here, it was not enough to support a favorable finding from a reasonable jury.

Improper motivation is harder to prove when a company is downsizing. Before you head to court with a retaliation claim, make sure you have admissible evidence to support your case.

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