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Fired state employee’s retaliation charge reinstated

Fired state employee’s retaliation charge reinstated

A federal appeals court has upheld dismissal of a terminated Arkansas Department of Human Services employee’s discrimination charge, but reinstated her retaliation charge, in a divided ruling.

In 2013, the Little Rock, Arkansas-based Department of Human Services terminated an African-American field investigator, Sharon Meeks, who was later ordered reinstated by a state appeal panel, according to Wednesday’s ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis in LaKyesia Wilson v. Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Ms. Meeks applied for an open program supervisor position with the department’s Division of Aging and Adult Services, and a Caucasian supervisor, Patricia Robins, urged Ms. Wilson, who had been hired by the department in 2011, to also apply for the position, according to the ruling. 

Ms. Wilson got the job, which was a promotion. Ms. Meets was given Ms. Wilson’s old position, but fired three months later.

Ms. Wilson alleged that although she had received positive performance evaluations previously, after Ms. Meeks was fired Ms. Robins began to unfairly criticize her work performance.

Ms. Wilson filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Sept. 8, 2014, and was terminated six weeks later, on Oct. 22. The next day she filed a second EEOC charge alleging retaliation.

Ms. Wilson filed suit in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, which granted the department summary judgment dismissing both the discrimination and retaliation charges, and she appealed.

A three-judge appeals court panel unanimously upheld dismissal of the discrimination charge, but two of the judges ruled in favor of reinstating the retaliation charge.

The majority opinion said, “The six week-period between the EEOC charge and the termination plausibly alleges a but-for causal connection,” that but for retaliation, she would not have been dismissed.

“While the factual allegations here may be consistent with termination for poor performance, they are not an ‘obvious alternative explanation’ that render Wilson’s claim implausible.

“Wilson’s claim ‘permit(s) the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct,’” said the court in quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, and reinstating the retaliation charge.

The dissenting opinion said, “Review of the chronology of events set forth in Wilson’s complaint leads me to conclude she alleged no more than ‘mere possibility’ that unlawful retaliation was the but-for cause of her termination.” 

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