Friday, November 10, 2017

Rubio v. Hyatt Corp.: Temporal Proximity and Pregnancy Discrimination

In Rubio v. Hyatt Corp., No. 17-7833 (E.D. La. Nov. 8, 2017), District Court Judge Carl Barbier denied the defendant's motion to dismiss Kiyoko Rubio's pregnancy discrimination claim where Rubio alleged that she was terminated six days after notifying the defendant of her pregnancy. I thought it worth highlighting this decision because it illustrates the significance of temporal proximity in establishing pregnancy discrimination.

If a plaintiff alleges retaliation, one of the ways that she can try to establish causation is with evidence that the challenged employment action was taken shortly after the plaintiff complained about retaliation. This evidence of temporal proximity allows a reasonable fact finder to infer that the adverse action was motivated by the protected activity. Similarly, if a plaintiff presents evidence that her employer took an adverse action shortly after learning that she was pregnant, a fact finder could reasonably infer that the adverse action was motivated by the plaintiff's pregnancy.

The significance of temporal proximity, however, is limited. What if an employer was already planning to take an adverse action when the employer learned about the plaintiff's pregnancy or protected activity? Or maybe it decided for nondiscriminatory reasons that it should take some action after it had already learned that an employee is pregnant. Can it still proceed with the action? The answer, of course, is yes. An employee is not protected against adverse consequences that are not motivated by her protected status. For example, in Breeden v. Clark County School District, where an employee alleged that her transfer was retaliatory, the Supreme Court explained: "Employers need not suspend previously planned transfers upon discovering that a Title VII suit has been filed, and their proceeding along lines previously contemplated, though not yet definitively determined, is no evidence whatever of causality."

In this case, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss. This motion is filed at an early stage in judicial proceedings and challenges the adequacy of a plaintiff's complaint, which is merely required to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." In making this determination, Judge Barbier essentially considered whether the alleged facts were sufficient to establish a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination. A prima facie creates only a weak inference of discrimination, which is overcome if the employer presents evidence of a nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged action. To prevail in such circumstances, a plaintiff must show that the employer's asserted reason is a pretext for pregnancy discrimination.  

Citing Fifth Circuit precedent, Judge Barbier noted that, although temporal proximity alone may be sufficient to establish a prima facie case, it is not enough to ultimately establish that the employer's asserted reason is pretextual. To be sure, if an employer is treated adversely shortly after telling her employer she is pregnant, that may look fishy, and the timing is some evidence of discrimination. But the timing may merely be a coincidence, and while an employer is prohibited from taking an action because of an employee's pregnancy, it is not prohibited from taking an action in spite of an employee's pregnancy. Thus, where there is evidence that an action was motivated by a nondiscriminatory reason, a plaintiff usually cannot merely point to temporal proximity and must also present some evidence that discredits the employer's asserted reason. For example, if an employer asserts that an employee was fired because of her poor performance, the employee likely would be required to present some evidence that she was not performing poorly or that other employees with similar performance were not fired.

This case is somewhat unusual because the defendant has contended that it did not actually fire the plaintiff and that she instead did not return to work and stopped communicating with them. So assuming the defendant never offers a nondiscriminatory reason to rebut Rubio's allegation that she was fired because of her pregnancy, Rubio could conceivably prevail without showing pretext. 

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.