7th Circuit: Fired Bargersville clerk-treasurer employee’s retaliation claims won’t stand

A woman who claimed she was fired for criticizing her superior’s choice to overturn a decision she made regarding a customer’s utility services did not convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that she was retaliated against.

After nearly 20 years of working in the clerk-treasurer’s office for the town of Bargersville, Beth Sweet was fired for multiple reasons, including her declining work performance and resistance to change or adapting in her work environment.

Sweet was responsible for collecting utility bills and setting up payment plans for customers before Steve Longstreet was elected as clerk-treasurer in 2012.

Under Longstreet’s leadership, the office transitioned outsourced collections to a private firm, and Sweet was shifted to a more general customer service role in which she communicated with customers and managed disconnections on overdue utility accounts.

In that role, her performance significantly declined, and reviews claimed she was argumentative, resistant to change and disorganized, among other things.

In August 2017, Sweet noticed that a wealthy resident, Jim Parsetich, had fallen behind on his utility payments. Although she disconnected his service, Longstreet reconnected the utilities and overturned her decision, which Sweet opposed because Parsetich happened to be Longstreet’s business partner.

A few months later, Sweet was fired, and she subsequently sued on retaliation grounds in violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Sweet argued she was terminated for vocalizing her opposition to the reconnection, but the Indiana Southern District Court held that Sweet failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation and entered summary judgment for the defendants.

The 7th Circuit  affirmed Wednesday, finding Sweet’s evidence in support of a retaliatory motive was “paltry” in Beth A. Sweet v. Town of Bargersville and Steve Longstreet, 20-2061.

As to causation, the 7th Circuit noted that Sweet complained about Longstreet’s decision to reconnect Parsetich’s utilities in August 2017, and she was fired five months later, in January 2018.

“That time lapse is simply too great to support an inference of retaliatory motive,” Chief Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the 7th Circuit, noting that a five-month gap is “much longer” than anything it has accepted as evidence of retaliatory motive in other rulings.

The appellate court additionally questioned the purpose of an affidavit Sweet relied on to support her argument from a former co-worker who had the same supervisor as Sweet and was also fired. The 7th Circuit found that the affidavit from Jennifer Ashbaugh-Ernest added nothing to Sweet’s case, pointing out that the affidavit never mentioned anything about Longstreet or his involvement in the decision to fire Sweet.

Lastly, it concluded that Sweet’s “shifting” explanations for why she was fired were not enough to establish retaliatory motive.

“Rather, the evidence as a whole points in the same direction: Sweet was fired for multiple reasons, as summarized in Longstreet’s affidavit, which is not nearly as limited as Sweet implies,” Sykes concluded.

“In short, Sweet has not produced sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer retaliatory motive. Because her criticism of Longstreet was not constitutionally protected and the record does not suggest that her speech was a motivating factor in the termination of her employment, the judge appropriately entered summary judgment for the defendants.”

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