Retaliatory Firing Claim Survives Dismissal in Light of Evidence that Reduction-in-Force Was Pretextual

In Lott v. Coreone Techs., LLC, No. 14-CV-5848 (CM), 2016 WL 462486 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 2, 2016), plaintiff asserted age discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation claims against his former employer.

The court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to some of plaintiff’s claims (e.g., discriminatory failure to promote and discriminatory termination), but denied it as to other claims (e.g., discriminatory denial of equity awards, discriminatory denial of bonus, and retaliatory termination).

As to plaintiff’s bonus claim, the court held that “[t]he Company’s shifting justifications for why it did not pay Lott a bonus could allow a jury to conclude that the Company was motivated by discrimination.”

As to plaintiff’s allegation of retaliatory firing, the court explained:

The first retaliatory action that Lott alleges is that the Company fired him after learning that he filed an EEOC charge. Lott has provided some evidence to establish that the Company’s legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for his firing—the reduction in force—was pretextual, and so the Company’s motion for summary judgment on this claim is denied.

Lott has met the elements of a prima facie case of retaliation. His attempt to assert his rights against age and disability discrimination, including his decision to file a charge with the EEOC on October 31, 2013, is a protected activity. CoreOne became aware of this activity by December 30, 2013, and Lott’s subsequent firing is clearly an adverse action. 

The Company argues that Lott has not presented sufficient evidence to establish the final element, because Lott was not fired until more than six months after he first complained of discrimination and four months after he filed his EEOC charge. But the Company has cherry-picked dates to support its argument. Within a month of the Company receiving notification of Lott’s EEOC charge, it placed Lott’s name on the RIF List. All Lott has to show is that his firing occurred in circumstances from which a reasonable jury could infer retaliatory intent. Plaintiff has clearly shown a sufficiently close temporal relationship between his EEOC complaint and his placement on the RIF List to establish the causation.

The temporal relationship also provides evidence to rebut the Company’s legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for firing Lott, particularly in the context of Lott’s negotiation of his equity award that fall. The Company admits that it responded to Lott’s suggestion that he would be seeking legal action against the Company by adding a release of claims provision to the October 2013 Equity Agreement. A jury could certainly conclude, based on that episode, that the Company again responded to the threat of a lawsuit by placing Lott on the RIF List.

Having presented evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that his firing was pretextual, Lott’s retaliation claims based on his firing survive summary judgment.

It also denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to other retaliatory acts – namely, denying him earned equity and predicating his receipt of equity on his signing a release of claims.

Specifically, the Company “predicated his receipt of equity on his signing a release of claims” which the court viewed as an admission of “knowledge of protected activity and a causal link between Lott’s discussion of legal action against the Company.”

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