APPELLATE COURT AFFIRMED TEBO DID NOT SUFFER GENDER DISCRIMINATION BUT REVERSED SUMMARY JUDGMENT INITIALLY FOUND IN FAVOR OF DEBARY ON RETALIATION
GENDER DISCRIMINATION CASE:
Assuming Stacy Tebo made a prima facie case of discriminatory discharge, she failed to show that the City’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing her were pretext for gender discrimination. The termination letter, and its addendum, identified several non-discriminatory reasons for Tebo’s termination, all of which Parrott has maintained throughout the litigation were the actual basis for his decision.
Specifically, the record demonstrates Parrott believed Tebo was trying to undermine him to other employees, the mayor and the city council, provided false and misleading statements concerning an internal investigation into allegations against another city employee, failed to obey certain directives given to her by a supervisor, and used an unauthorized email account to send and receive official communications. Whether he – and by extension, the city – was mistaken in these beliefs is not relevant to our inquiry and is not our role to determine whether Tebo was, for example, actually insubordinate. The inquiry into pretext centers on the employer’s belief, not the employee’s belief, and, to the blunt about it, not on reality as it exists outside of the decision makers head.
Tebo failed to rebut these reasons head-on with evidence that they were false or that the decision to terminate her was made solely because of her gender. Unless it is shown that the reason was false and that discrimination was the real reason, the appellate court affirms the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of DeBary as to Tebo’s gender-discrimination claims.
Where, as here, a plaintiff (Stacy Tebo) uses circumstantial evidence to prove retaliation under Title VII, the court applied McDonnel Douglass burden-shifting approach. The plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of providing retaliation by a preponderance of evidence and that the reason provided by the employer is a pretext for prohibited retaliatory contract.
To establish a prima facie claim of retaliation under Title VII, Ms. Tebo must prove that she (1) engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) suffered a materially adverse action and (3) there was some causal relation between the two events. While the parties appear to agree Tebo suffered a materially adverse action –- her’ termination – – Appellees contest whether she has met the remaining two elements. However, like the District Court, we conclude Tebo set forth a prima facie case of retaliation.
Appellees argue Tebo did not engage in statutorily protected activity because her “informal complaint to the EEOC was not really a claim of discrimination, “but part of her ongoing deliberate effort to undermine Parrott. To the extent Appellees assert Tebo’s letter to the EEOc is not protected activity because it was not a formal complaint, we have previously determined that informal complaints can constitute protected activity. The protection afforded by the statute is not limited to individuals who have filed formal complaints. As to the Appellee’s assertion that Tebo’s letter is not protected because it was part of her ongoing insubordination, we do not find this argument compelling. (In other words because of Tebo’s insubordination, the courts did not find the argument of the informal EEOC complaint argument as compelling.)
Appellees correctly note that they have held that “the manner in which an employee expresses her opposition to an allegedly discriminatory employment practice must be reasonable”. But even assuming, we agreed with the Appellees that Tebo’s general conduct toward and concerning Parrott was otherwise unreasonable, there is no indication that the specific activity at issue here – -Tebo’s informal complaint to the EEOC — was conducted in an unreasonable or disruptive manner.
Appellees also argue Tebo failed to show a causal connection between the protected activity and her termination because several intervening acts – – specifically Tebo’s actions identified in the termination letter – broke any causal link. The close temporal proximity between Tebo’s protected activity and her termination – the record indicates Parrott terminated Tebo a mere 32 days after receiving her informal complaint – is sufficient to satisfy the causation element.
Having concluded Tebo established a prima facie case of retaliation, we turn to whether she offered sufficient evidence to create a jury issue as to whether Appellees’ proffered reasons for Tebo’s termination were pretext for retaliation. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to her, a jury could reasonably infer that Parrott retaliated against her after he was notified on March 16, 2015 that she sent a letter to the EEOC alleging he had engaged in a pattern of discriminatory conduct. The record shows close temporal proximity between the protected activity and her termination, indicating that the two were related. Parrott admitted he learned of Tebo’s letter to the EEOC on March 16, 2015 and began drafting her termination around the same time…three days of learning of Tebo’s letter, Parrott had taken away one of her significant job duties and given it to another employee. Within 16 days, the City Council stripped her of her job title and voted to replace her with Parrott and within a month, Parrott fired her.
The District court found the temporal proximity “troubling” but ultimately concluded it was insufficient, on its own, to create a triable issue as to pretext. Temporal proximity, though relevant, is insufficient on its own to establish pretext. Here there is circumstantial evidence beyond the mere timing of Tebo’s firing to suggest Parrott’s proffered reasons for her termination were pretextual. All of the reasons for tebo’s firing listed in the termination letter arose from conduct that occurred – – or, in the case of Tebo’s unauthorized email account, was discovered – after Parrott learned of the EEOC complaint and began drafting the letter. From this, a reasonable juror could conclude that Parrott was looking for reasons to fire Tebo after he learned of her letter to the EEOC. Accordingly, the Appellate Court reverses the district court’s ruling granting summary Judgment to the City of DeBary as to Tebo’s retaliation claims and remand for further proceedings.