Retaliation Claims Survive Summary Judgment; Court Cites Temporal Proximity Between Complaints and Termination and Inconsistent Explanations For Termination

In Valentia Villetti, Faiza Jibril, M.D. v. Guidepoint Global LLC, 21-2059-cv, 2022 WL 2525662 (2d Cir. July 7, 2022), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, inter alia, vacated the lower court’s summary judgment on plaintiff’s retaliation claims asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

From the decision:

Villetti alleges 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. Moreover, construed most favorably to Villetti, her complaint to HR about Sebag and the Guidepoint consultant’s alleged discrimination constituted protected activity.5 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 has 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.” (internal alterations adopted and quotation marks omitted)).6

As Villetti has established a prima facie case, the burden shifts to Guidepoint to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action. Summa, 708 F.3d at 125. Guidepoint points 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.” Appellee’s Br. at 18.

Because of these articulated reasons, the presumption of retaliation arising from the prima facie case dissipates under McDonnell Douglas, and Villetti must provide evidence that the nonretaliatory reasons are merely pretexts for retaliation. Weinstock, 224 F.3d at 42. To be sure, we have emphasized that once an employer has proffered non-retaliatory reasons, temporal proximity alone is not enough for a plaintiff to survive summary judgment. El Sayed v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 627 F.3d 931, 933 (2d Cir. 2010). However, we have also held that “[a] plaintiff may prove that retaliation was a but-for cause of an adverse employment action by demonstrating weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for its action[s].” Zann Kwan, 737 F.3d at 846.

Here, in addition to the temporal proximity between her complaint (March 12, 2018) and her subsequent termination (March 19, 2018), Villetti has 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.” Joint App’x at 828–29. 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.” Id. at 407. 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.7 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.” Appellee’s Br. at 18.

Additionally, although Pool’s simultaneous termination might dispel any inference of disparate treatment based on gender (as discussed supra), his termination merely three days after filing his own complaint could provide a reasonable inference, construing the evidence most favorably to Villetti, that they were both fired in retaliation for their complaints. Guidepoint points to no evidence in the record regarding the reasons for Pool’s termination, and Sebag gave only vague and contradictory answers when asked about Pool. See Joint App’x at 832 (not recalling when Pool “left” but agreeing he did not “know whether [Pool] was dismissed or whether he left voluntarily”); id. at 836 (stating he did not recall “receiv[ing] any complaints about … Pool”). Further, even though Guidepoint claims that Villetti’s traveling to Boston without proper authorization was a reason for her termination, Villetti, as the district court noted, disputed “whether [she] needed prior approval or authorization to travel.” Special App’x at 2.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Villetti, as we must, we conclude that “[f]rom such discrepancies[,] 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). Coupled with Pool’s termination and “the very close temporal proximity between [Villetti’s] protected conduct and her termination,” these inconsistencies “are sufficient to create a triable issue of fact with regard to whether [her] complaint was a but-for cause of her termination.” Zann Kwan, 737 F.3d at 847. We recognize that these inferences are not the only reasonable inferences to be drawn from the record, and that Guidepoint may be able to rebut these inferences with other evidence. However, any such competing reasonable inferences in the record, including any credibility assessments of the witnesses necessary to evaluate such inferences, cannot be resolved on summary judgment.8 See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (“Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge, whether he is ruling on a motion for summary judgment or for a directed verdict.”).

Based on this, the court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to preclude summary judgment on plaintiff Villetti’s retaliation claims.

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