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It always feels good to be right, right? Well, this employees’ rights blog is feeling extra good at the moment. Why? Well, we have previously blogged about the many reasons why a retaliation claim is the easiest employment claim to prove in court. Today, we take a look at a federal case out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that proves us very, very right.

The case: Villetti v. Guidepoint Global LLC. The situation: Two employees, Valentia Villetti and Faiza Jibril appealed a motion for summary judgment that was granted by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Their argument: The district court erred in dismissing their case because Villetti and Jibril felt that there were genuine issues of material fact surrounding their claims of gender discrimination and retaliation. Remember, Summary judgment is appropriate only if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

Jibil’s Discrimination Claim

Jibil’s claimed that Guidepoint failed to hire her as a Healthcare Content Strategist because of her gender. The court disagreed. Employment discrimination claims are analyzed by federal courts under the McDonnell Douglass burden-shifting framework. (Best Law Read: How Do You Win A Discrimination At Work Lawsuit?). Pursuant to this framework, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination; the employer must then “produc[e] evidence that the adverse employment actions were taken for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason”; and the plaintiff must then “demonstrate that the proffered reason was not the true reason for the employment decision,” but rather, was a pretext for discrimination. Bucalo v. Shelter Island Union Free Sch. Dist., 691 F.3d 119, 128–29 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal alterations adopted and quotation marks omitted). (Best Law Read: What does prima facie mean?)

To establish a prima facie case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for a failure-to-hire claim, Jibril must prove that: “(1) [s]he is a member of a protected class, (2) [s]he was qualified for the job for which [s]he applied, (3) [s]he was denied the job, and (4) the denial occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of invidious discrimination.” Vivenzio v. City of Syracuse, 611 F.3d 98, 106 (2d Cir. 2010). The trial court held that Jibril’s gender obviously placed her in a protected class and that she was not hired for the position. However, even assuming that Jibril was also qualified for the position, Jibril failed to establish the fourth element of a prima facie case, that there was any inference of invidious discrimination.

Jibril conceded that two other women interviewed for the same position that Jibril was allegedly denied because of her gender, and one of those women was ultimately hired to fill it. In fact, Guidepoint ended up hiring a total of fifteen individuals—both men and women—” to perform aspects of the position sought by Jibril.” Moreover, Guidepoint later attempted to recruit Jibril for a different position. In light of this context, the court agreed with the district court and granted summary judgment to Guidepoint on Jibril’s discrimination claim because there was insufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case.

Villetti’s Discrimination Claim

Similar to Jibril’s claim, Villetti asserted that Guidepoint subjected her to disparate treatment and wrongful termination because of her gender in connection with her termination. On this claim, the court found that although an employee’s at the prima facie stage is “not onerous,” Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297, 308 (2d Cir. 2015), an employee cannot establish a prima facie case with only “purely conclusory allegations of discrimination, absent any concrete particulars,” Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir. 1985); Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 555 (2d Cir. 2005)

The court emphasized that when the firing decisionmaker is also the hiring decisionmaker, “it is difficult to impute to [him] an invidious motivation that would be inconsistent with the decision to hire.” Grady v. Affiliated Cent., Inc., 130 F.3d 553, 560 (2d Cir. 1997); see also Jetter v. Knoth Corp., 324 F.3d 73, 76 (2d Cir. 2003). As the district court noted, the “same actor inference” is particularly apt in this case, as there is no dispute that Sebag, a manager at Guidepoint, both hired and fired Villetti and that termination “occurred only a short time after hiring,” Grady, 130 F.3d at 560—namely, after only six months. (Best Law Read: Can I Prove My Boss Is Racist If He Is The One Who Hired Me?).

Even if a court was not entitled to rely on the same actor inference in this case, Villetti offered no evidence supporting her claim of gender discrimination. Villetti alleges that she “saw numerous actions taken by Sebag that [she] believed constituted sex discrimination,” but she pointed to only one specific instance—a call from Sebag when she was in Boston—as a time when “Sebag was dismissive or belittling of her.” Moreover, Villetti conceded that Sebag “was angry with” Villetti’s male supervisor, Bouker Pool, “as well as with her,” and that Sebag terminated Pool on the same day that Villetti was terminated. The fact that Villetti’s male supervisor simultaneously experienced the same adverse action further undermined Villetti’s claim that she was treated differently by Sebag, in connection with her termination, based upon her gender. As a result, the court affirmed the district court’s granting of summary judgment and dismissed Villetti’s gender discrimination claim.

Villetti’s Retaliation Claim

Now for the star of the show. As we told you before, retaliation claims are the easiest to prove in court. Let’s see why. Retaliation claims under Title VII are similarly governed by the McDonnell Douglas framework. Summa, 708 F.3d at 125. To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, the plaintiff must show that: “(1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) her employer was aware of this activity; (3) the employer took adverse employment action against her; and (4) a causal connection exists between the alleged adverse action and the protected activity.” Id.

Villetti alleged that Guidepoint terminated her in retaliation for an email that she sent to the company’s human resources department complaining of Sebag’s and a Guidepoint consultant’s behavior and a series of what she considered adverse employment actions against female employees. It is undisputed that Guidepoint was aware of this email and later took adverse employment action against Villetti. Villetti’s complaint to HR about Sebag and the Guidepoint consultant’s alleged discrimination constituted protected activity. Additionally, by putting forth evidence that she was terminated within such a short temporal proximity to making her complaint to HR—approximately one week—Villetti adequately established a prima facie case that her termination was attributable to retaliation. Gorman-Bakos v. Cornell Co-op. Extension of Schenectady Cty., 252 F.3d 545, 554 (2d Cir. 2001) (“[A] plaintiff can indirectly establish a causal connection to support a discrimination or retaliation claim by showing that the protected activity was closely followed in time by the adverse employment action.”).

Continuing with the McDonnell Douglass framework, as Villetti established a prima facie case, the burden shifted to Guidepoint to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action. Summa, 708 F.3d at 125. Guidepoint pointed to two non-retaliatory reasons for terminating Villetti: (1) a co-worker’s “complaints regarding Villetti to both Pool and Guidepoint’s human resources department”; and (2) Villetti’s unauthorized trip to Boston and the fact that Pool, her male supervisor, was terminated, along with Villetti, shortly after that trip.

Because Guidepoint articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Villetti, the burden shifted back to Villetti to provide evidence that the nonretaliatory reasons are merely pretexts for retaliation. Weinstock, 224 F.3d at 42.

In addition to the temporal proximity between her complaint (March 12, 2018) and her subsequent termination (March 19, 2018), Villetti pointed to various inconsistencies in Guidepoint’s proffered reasons for her termination. For example, in his deposition, Sebag suggested that Villetti was terminated because she did not meet Guidepoint’s expectations of performance by failing to conduct the required number of remote teleconferences, although he could not recall if her performance was poor in any other way. Indeed, although Sebag briefly mentioned the reasons articulated by Guidepoint in this lawsuit for her termination—namely, the co-worker complaint or an unauthorized trip to Boston—he did not specifically identify those as his reasons for firing Villetti. Moreover, in its motion for summary judgment before the district court, Guidepoint stated that Sebag’s decision to terminate Villetti was made after the company conducted “an internal investigation wherein several employees were interviewed.” However, Sebag never mentioned this investigation during his deposition or provided any other details about the decision-making process that led to Villetti’s termination. Further, Guidepoint provided no documentation detailing the investigation’s findings or corroborating its existence, citing only to Villetti’s termination letter in its summary judgment papers, which outlined no reasons for the separation. On appeal, Guidepoint no longer references the alleged internal investigation at all, instead asserting that because Villetti “was an at-will employee of Guidepoint … Guidepoint was not required to provide any description of why it discharged Villetti.”

As a result, the court found that a reasonable juror could infer that the explanations given by Guidepoint were pretextual, developed over time to counter the evidence suggesting retaliation. E.E.O.C. v. Ethan Allen, Inc., 44 F.3d 116, 120 (2d Cir. 1994). The court denied summary judgment on Villetti’s retaliation claim and remanded it back down to the district court for further proceedings.

As you can see, even though the plaintiff’s gender discrimination claims were dismissed, Villetti was able to maintain her case because she also had a retaliation claim. We were not kidding when we said retaliation is the easiest employment claim to prove.

How do I know if I have a retaliation claim?

Best Employment Lawyer Answer: Many discrimination claims also have accompanying retaliation claims. You need an attorney that is well versed in employment disputes and has a history of fighting employers in court to figure out what possible claims you may have. Employment discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination cases are very complex. There is no reason to attempt to figure out your case on your own. If you are searching “I need a lawyer race, national origin, gender, age, religion or disability discrimination issues on your own, you should call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?). Call Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm’s dedicated employees’ rights lawyers in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina to get help now.


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