In a recent case, the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a claim of racial discrimination, but found that there may be sufficient evidence of retaliatory termination. When the plaintiff was terminated two weeks after speaking with her employer about discriminatory conduct, the court determined that the time frame constituted a “close temporal proximity” that supports a potential inference of causation.
Newel Ali v. BC Architects Engineers, PLC
In Newel Ali v. BC Architects Engineers, PLC, Newel Ali, an Arab-American woman, was hired by BC Architects Engineers, PLC (“BC”) as a computer-aided design drafter in March 2015. When a structural engineer with the firm quit, Ali was asked to assume his duties. Later, Ali traveled to Turkey on vacation, and when she returned, a Caucasian male was assigned to the structural engineer position and Ali was reassigned to her previous position. In December 2015, BC was hiring additional structural engineers. Ali indicated her interest in a position, but BC instead hired a Chinese Asian male and another man “of a different race than Ali.” Ali was later offered the position of project coordinator, which she accepted. Ali again traveled to Turkey the following March, and upon her return, she was again demoted to her original position.
On March 30, Ali spoke with BC owners about her demotion indicating her belief that there was discrimination in the company. On April 15, 2016, Ali emailed the BC owners a letter “documenting discrimination and retaliation within the company.” Ali claimed she experienced gender discrimination and retaliation and mistreatment due to her national origin. Ali was fired an hour after she sent the email. She filed suit alleging racial discrimination and retaliation.
Similar to Title VII, Section 1981 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race. Ali alleged that BC refused to promote her and then fired her because of her race. To state a successful claim of § 1981 race-discrimination, a plaintiff must establish that “but for race” she wouldn’t have suffered the loss of a legally protected right. Here, the court determined that Ali’s allegations were “insufficient” to support a claim of racial discrimination. Additionally, Ali admitted that BC didn’t want to promote her because she was a talented design drafter and BC didn’t want to move her from that position until they found an equally skilled design drafter. The court noted that Ali’s remaining allegations were too speculative and nonspecific.
Section 1981 also prohibits retaliation for “opposing race discrimination.” To establish a claim of retaliation under § 1981, a plaintiff must show that “but for” her participation in protected activity, she would not have suffered a materially adverse employment action. Ali claimed retaliation based on her denied promotion and termination. Ali orally complained about race discrimination about three months before applying for the structural engineer position. The court found that the three-month temporal proximity was “too tenuous to support a reasonable inference of causation.”
However, the court concluded that Ali had sufficiently alleged a claim for retaliatory termination. The court reasoned that the two weeks between Ali’s March 30th report and her firing constituted a “close temporal proximity” that supports an inference of causation, sufficient to state a claim for retaliatory termination.
What Does Newel Ali v. BC Architects Engineers, PLC Mean for Employers?
The key takeaway from Newel Ali for employers is to be cautious when an employee makes a claim of discrimination and take steps to address any complaints appropriately before making any adverse employment actions. Here, while the court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim of employment discrimination, it did find there may be sufficient evidence of retaliation. If an employee makes a similar claim, employers should make sure they do not take any adverse employment actions against that employee based on the complaint made. Employers should also be cautious that any adverse employment actions could not be perceived as being made in response to a discrimination complaint. As the court here points out, the time between when an employee makes a complaint and is terminated may be used as a factor when deciding whether sufficient evidence of discrimination or retaliation exists. Employers should have policies in place and managers or human resource personnel trained in how to respond to such complaints. Employers must have a non-discriminatory or retaliatory basis for firing employees and evidence of this basis should be clearly detailed in the employee’s file.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, P.C. today at 202-360-4230. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.