7th Circuit rules Indiana worker did not prove pretext in firing

In considering the arguments made by an Indiana woman who claimed her former employer discriminated against her on the basis of her age and disability, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found she could not overcome the pretext hurdle because she essentially offered only a hunch without any supporting evidence.

Linda Brooks sued Avancez after she was fired in May 2019. She claimed she was subjected to comments about being too old to do the work or too slow. Also, she asserted she was disciplined for behavior while co-workers who exhibited the same or worse conduct were not sanctioned at all.

Brooks described herself as a “service connected veteran” and said the age discrimination she suffered while on the job exacerbated her preexisting post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, Avancez contended Brooks was terminated because she threatened other company employees.

In one meeting between human resources and her shift supervisor, Brooks told the supervisor, “[I] have PTSD and anything can happen.” She also told a coworker, “(W)e can take it outside,” and in another meeting with human resources, she made a statement to her union representative that was interpreted as a threat.

The 7th Circuit affirmed the Northern Indiana District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer in Linda Brooks v. Avancez, 21-1933.

Brooks claimed disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and retaliation claims under both acts.

As part of its review, the appellate panel noted that in this case, the question of pretext — that is, whether the company was lying or giving a phony reason for the firing — overlapped with inquiry into whether the employee was meeting the employer’s expectations. Even if an employer’s reasons for dismissal were wrong or inaccurate, pretext does not apply if the employer honestly believes those reasons.

In the present case, the 7th Circuit explained that the question was not whether Brooks’ words should have been taken as threats, or even if she did utter them. Rather, the question was whether the employer honestly believed it had a nondiscriminatory reason for discharging her.

The 7th Circuit determined Brooks did not provide evidence that Avancez’s stated reason for her firing was pretext for illegal discrimination.

“In sum, Avancez has met its burden of production by providing a non-discriminatory reason for termination — that it earnestly and honestly believed that Brooks had threatened co-workers,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the court. “Brooks’ evidence of pretext, on the other hand, is both scattershot and not relevant to the adverse actions that form the basis of her complaint.”

Brooks did concede that in both incidents with human resources, management immediately asserted she had made threats. In addition, the termination paperwork signed by management also listed the threats as the first reason for termination.

The 7th Circuit noted the possibility that an employer’s preconceived stereotype of a particular worker might influence what the employer hears or claims to hear in such an interaction. Yet, guessing at an employer’s inner prejudice is not enough to defeat summary judgment.

Rovner said that to defeat summary judgment, the worker must “support her hunch with evidence.”

“If Avancez’s decision-makers harbored some discriminatory prejudice about people with PTSD that altered their interpretation of Brooks’ comment and made them believe it was a threat when it was not, Brooks has not presented a thread of evidence to support this theory,” Rovner wrote. “In fact, the only adverse employment action that she claims was based on PTSD was her termination for making a threat and using her PTSD as the excuse for making it.”

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