Viable Retaliation Claim For An Employee Terminated Several Months After He Complained About Discrimination By His Supervisor

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In a recent unpublished decision, Bakhtiar v. Infineon Technologies Americas Corp.the Superior Court in Worcester County (Yarashus, J.) found that an employee could establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Massachusetts law (G.L.c. 151B, § 1) even though eight months passed between his complaint of discriminatory treatment by his supervisor and his termination.

Plaintiff was an engineer who was laid off along with fifteen other employees, thirteen of whom were Caucasian. Plaintiff identified as non-Caucasian and as Iranian, his national origin. During the many years he worked for the defendant company, he received positive performance reviews and bonuses.  He alleged that, after he was assigned to a new supervisor, that supervisor gave him negative reviews based solely on discriminatory animus.  Plaintiff met with the company's human resources manager twice and expressed his concerns that his job performance had been incorrectly characterized and that he was treated differently by his supervisor because of his race and national origin. Eight months later, he was terminated as part of a reduction in force.  

In order to make out a prima facie case for retaliation, a plaintiff must produce evidence that he "engaged in protected conduct, that he suffered some adverse action, and that a causal connection existed between the protected conduct and the adverse action."  The Court found that there was no material dispute that Plaintiff suffered an adverse action - e.g., his termination - and that his report to human resources qualified as protected activity.  The only issue remaining to be proven was causation, meaning that his report to human resources was the cause of his termination.

An inference of causation is permissible if an employee, who performs well, is terminated in the immediate aftermath of the employee's complaint of discrimination. Here, Plaintiff's termination did not happen immediately; eight months had passed between his complaints to human resources and his termination. Nonetheless, the Court found that such timespan did not, as a matter of law, break the inference of causal connection.  It reasoned that there is a question of fact as to "whether the retaliation took place at the first available opportunity and was improperly influenced by Bakhtiar's supervisor's allegedly biased reviews and input." Critically, the company permitted the allegedly biased supervisor to participate in the decision-making concerning the reduction in force.

While recognizing that this may be a case of first impression, the Court concluded that the Plaintiff "has sufficient evidence from which a fact-finder might conclude that the decision to lay him off was the result of discriminatory animus and/or retaliation, wrapped into the first available reduction in force so that it would appear to be neutral on its face."

As this case shows, the decision to terminate an employee - even if not made immediately after an employee's complaint of discrimination - may give rise to potential liability for retaliation under Massachusetts law.

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