Defendant Future Electronics ("Future") hired plaintiff Jean Mayer in 1991 in Bolton, Massachusetts. In 2003, she underwent treatment for breast cancer. Upon returning to work, Ms. Mayer was subject to lifting restrictions. In 2004, Ms. Mayer was transferred to Southaven, Mississippi, where she initially worked in quality control. This position required lifting packages and Ms. Mayer informed her supervisor of the difficulty she had in doing so. She was reassigned to a repacking position and informed that her supervisor would assist her in lifting heavy packages, however, her supervisor often was unable to do so.
Consequently, Ms. Mayer requested a transfer, and the Vice President of Distributions warned her "to be careful and stop complaining." Ms. Mayer successfully transferred to a data entry position, which did not require lifting, but did require she stand to type and to hold her arms in an awkward position above shoulder level. Ms. Mayer again informed her supervisor of these difficulties with the data entry position. The supervisor remarked that, "the doctor didnít say anything about something being wrong with your legs."
In 2005, Ms. Mayer applied for and received a transfer to customer service, where she remained until her termination seven months later for disruptive behavior. At no point prior to termination had Ms. Mayer been cited or formerly counseled for any behavioral problems. Ms. Mayer brought suit alleging that Future failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation, and discriminated against her on the basis of disability, by treating her less favorably than employees without disabilities. Ms. Mayer also claimed that Future retaliated against her requesting an accommodation.
To prove her retaliation claim, Ms. Mayer needed to show that she engaged in a protected activity, that she suffered an adverse employment action, and that there was a causal link between the activity and the employment action. Here, Future argued that there were 227 days between Mayer's request for an accommodation and her termination; therefore, Future contended, there was no causal link between the protected activity and the adverse action. Future further argued that Ms. Mayer's supervisor's comment, "the doctor didnít say anything about something being wrong with your legs," occurred nine months before Mayer was fired. Ms. Mayer established a causal connection between the request for accommodations and the termination by providing evidence of Future's hostility toward her. Notably, she pointed to evidence that her supervisors did not want to accommodate her.
To prove her discrimination claim, Mayer needed to show that she has a disability, is qualified for the position, suffered an adverse employment action, and was treated less favorably than an employee without disabilities. Ms. Mayer established that she was treated less favorably from other employees because she was terminated without a formal warning regarding her conduct, despite such warnings being given to similarly situated employees without disabilities. The burden of proof then shifted to the defendant to offer a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Here, Future explained they terminated Mayer due to disruptive behavior. The burden consequently shifted back to Ms. Mayer to offer evidence to prove that Future's reason for termination is instead a pretext for discrimination.
To prove that Future's reason for termination was a pretext for discrimination, Ms. Mayer pointed to her supervisor's comments in response to requests for accommodations, and the fact that her supervisors were unable to give specific examples of Mayer's alleged disruptive behavior. Specifically, Mayer argued her supervisor's comments were proximate in time to the decision to terminate her. Further, Mayer contends that, although a supervisor mentioned during a performance review that she needed to work on interpersonal relationships with her co-workers, no formal action was ever taken; in fact, Mayer received formal recognition of her good work in 2006.
The court found that Mayer presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of fact that Future retaliated against her for engaging in a protected activity (here, requesting an accommodation). The court also found that Mayer presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of fact whether Future's reason for her termination was pre-textual. The court noted that a jury could infer discrimination based on the comments her supervisor made in response to her request for accommodations, and agreed with Mayer's position that seven and a half months was sufficiently proximate. The court decided that a jury could infer discrimination based on evidence that the defendant terminated Mayer without formal warnings and that Mayer's only negative feedback was at one performance review. Regarding Mayer's retaliation claims, the court found she presented enough information to create an issue of material fact as to whether Future retaliated against her for requesting accommodations.
Courts must sometimes determine whether an employer's reason for discharging an employee is "pretext," or a false (and illegal) motive used to conceal the employer's actual motive. To rebut an employer's reason for an adverse action, a plaintiff must prove either that the reason is a pretext for discrimination; or that the employer's motivation for discharging the employee is valid, but is also accompanied by referencing the plaintiff's "protected characteristic," (here, the plaintiff's disability). In Ms. Mayer's case, this was proven by statements made directly to her, and by discussions among human resources personnel.