The Seventh Circuit held that an employer’s shifting and inconsistent reasons for an employee’s termination were sufficient to show that the real reason for the employee’s termination was retaliatory in nature. Pantoja v. American NTN Bearing Manufacturing Corporation, No. 06-1252 (7th Cir., August 6, 2007).
A Hispanic employee, Pantoja, sued his former employer for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on his race and national origin pursuant to Title VII and 42 U.S.C. §1981. During Pantoja’s nine (9) years as a machine operator, he had complained to upper level management officials that he was being treated worse than a white male employee, who moved up the ranks much more quickly than him. Pantoja started complaining in 2001 and complained again to the Employer’s human resource department that he was unfairly treated after his bid for promotion to the fourth-ranked mechanic was denied in February 2002. After Pantoja’s complaint in February 2002, the Employer started giving him warnings that were incomplete and without notice to Pantoja and also gave him a lower performance rating than the rating he received in his previous formal evaluation. In August of 2002, the Employer terminated Pantoja’s employment. The Employer gave various reasons for the termination, including that he left his work for 30 minutes without obtaining permission.
The Court upheld the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of the Employer on the discrimination and harassment claims, stating that Pantoja did not offer any evidence that would support the proposition that the Employer’s expectations were tailored to the race or national origin of the employee. Pantoja argued that the Employer terminated his employment one day after his manager learned about his discrimination complaints. Based on the evidence that Pantoja presented to support his retaliation claim (i.e., the temporary proximity of a chain of events leading up to his termination), the Court held that a reasonable jury could infer the retaliation motive in Pantoja’s termination and reversed the lower court’s judgment dismissing his retaliation claim.
The Court reached the above decision not only because the Employer terminated the employee shortly after the manager learned that he had complained about discrimination, but because the Employer had shifting and inconsistent reasons for terminating the employee. The Court found that the Employer may be able to explain that no one was satisfied with Pantoja and every manager had a different concern. However, at this stage of the litigation, such a factual dispute precludes the grant of summary judgment.