It’s common sense, really: Employers accused of taking action against an employee for an illegal reason must be prepared to say what the real reason was – and that it was perfectly legitimate.
In a typical case, articulating a nondiscriminatory reason volleys the burden to the plaintiff to show that the proffered reason is not real but instead is just a pretext for unlawful bias.
And if the plaintiff can’t show pretext, the case usually ends.
Good Reasons Carry the Day
Nadine Lima, who is African-American, worked as a school principal for the City of East Providence in Rhode Island.
In 2014, Lima sued the East Providence School Department, claiming it retaliated against her because she advocated for stronger affirmative action practices.
The parties settled that case, with the department agreeing to create and fund an affirmative action position and not to retaliate against Lima.
Second Action Is Similar
Lima later filed a new action, again asserting that the department retaliated against her based on her advocacy for affirmative action.
In the second suit, she added a claim that the district subjected her to a hostile work environment.
To support her claims, Lima pointed to a number of specific work-related incidents.
First, she said the school superintendent denied her requests for a room divider and rug for her classroom. The superintendent invited her to “make a convincing case” for the rug, but she did not follow up.
More Special Needs Students
Second, Lima said the district “burdened” her school with a high percentage of students who had special needs. She asked the superintendent for help in the form of added staff, and the superintendent granted the request.
Third, Lima said the district wrongfully excluded her from the process used to dismiss a substitute teacher she had complained about.
Fourth, she said the district did her performance reviews too close in time to one another. But the intervals were the same for her as they were for other principals.
Lima claimed that the department retaliated against her by transferring her to a new post as a pre-K principal.
The district court ruled for the defendants, and Lima appealed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed.
Here’s How It Works
It explained that to win, Lima first had to establish a prima facie case. Then, the burden would shift to the employer to offer a legitimate reason or reasons for taking the challenged action. If the district cleared that hurdle, the burden would shift back to Lima to show the proffered reasons were just a mask for discrimination.
The court acknowledged that the district gave Lima a job assignment that she did not want. And it assumed for purposes of its ruling that the assignment was sufficiently “hostile” to meet her initial burden on her hostile work environment claim.
But the department offered two good reasons for that decision. First, Lima had considerable experience as an elementary school principal. And second, she was officially credentialed for pre-K work.
Faced with those solid reasons, Lima did not produce any evidence that would allow a rational factfinder to conclude they were pretextual.
None of Lima’s other allegations sufficiently supported her hostile job environment claim, the court said.
Not Enough Evidence
She never followed up on her rug request; the school gave her extra help when she asked for it; it dismissed the substitute teacher she complained about; and her performance review intervals were no different than they were for other principals.
Lima’s retaliation claim was similarly deficient, the appeals court said. To prove unlawful retaliation, Lima had to show she engaged in protected conduct; that she suffered an adverse employment action; and that there was a causal connection between the protected conduct and the adverse action. She did not satisfy all of these specific requirements, the court said.
Assuming that Lima stated a prima facie case of retaliation based on her transfer, her case again stalled because the department offered two legitimate reasons for the transfer. She did not show those reasons were pretextual.
The employer showed that it had good reasons to transfer her to the new position, the court said.
There was no admissible evidence that the job transfer was retaliatory, the appeals court ruled.
The decision of the lower court in favor of the defendants was affirmed.
Lima v. City of East Providence, No. 17 F.4th 202 (1st Cir. 2021).