Supreme Court clarifies employment discrimination case

The Indiana Supreme Court clarified an employment discrimination case Friday afternoon in one of the last opinions written by retiring Justice Brent Dickson. The decision explained when summary judgment should be used and what courts should be looking for when deciding such cases, ultimately affirming the Court of Appeals.

Adam Gaff appealed a case where summary judgment was granted to his employer, Indiana-Purdue University of Fort Wayne, after he was terminated. He said the trial court erred when it granted summary judgment as that violated his federal and state constitutional claims.

Indiana’s summary judgment standard is higher than the federal standard, and the COA said Indiana’s standard does not apply to lawsuits that fall under the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII standard, as Gaff’s did. It affirmed summary judgment for the school. The Supreme Court, however, said Indiana’s standard ruled.

Dickson wrote a plaintiff seeking a federal statutory cause of action in Indiana courts is subject to federal law. However, state court proceedings in which a claim is pursued are governed by the law of forum, in Gaff’s case Indiana law.

“Thus, while the plaintiff’s cause of action arises under federal law, summary judgment proceedings arising under Indiana Trial Rule 56 are governed by Indiana summary judgment procedure jurisprudence,” Dickson wrote.

Because of that, instead of the moving party, Gaff, having to show IPFW lacks evidence on a necessary element, IPFW had to affirmatively negate Gaff’s case.

The Supreme Court said IPFW did that because the only “protected activity” Gaff claims under the statute is his complaint that a co-worker called him derogatory names based on his weight and sexual orientation. Those did not meet the definition of discrimination because of sex, race, national origin or some other protected class, so IPFW satisfied its burden to negate the plaintiff’s claim.

The case is Adam Gaff v. Indiana-Purdue University of Fort Wayne, 02S03-1604-PL-201.

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