Shirley v. Chrysler First, Inc.

Decision Date27 August 1992
Docket NumberNo. 91-1658,91-1658
Citation970 F.2d 39
Parties59 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1434, 59 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 41,740, 61 USLW 2219 Doris Hill SHIRLEY, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. CHRYSLER FIRST, INC., Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Joseph N. Studdard, W. David Dunn, Dunn, Webb, McEwen & Studdard, Columbus, Miss., for defendant-appellant.

Bennie L. Jones, Jr., Barbara W. Clark, West Point, Miss., for plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

Before SMITH and EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judges, and RAINEY, District Judge. *

EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judge:

After Doris H. Shirley was terminated from her employment with Chrysler First, Inc., she brought suit in the district court, alleging retaliation for her filing of an EEOC charge against Chrysler, and age and sex discrimination. After a bench trial, the district court found for Shirley on the retaliation claim, but for Chrysler on the age and sex claims. On appeal, Chrysler contends that the district court incorrectly found that Shirley's termination was the result of retaliation, that the passage of fourteen months between Shirley's EEOC complaint and her discharge indicates that her discharge was not the result of retaliation, and that Shirley was improperly awarded front pay as damages. Finding no error, we affirm.

I

The facts of this case are uncomplicated and straightforward. Shirley worked in the Tupelo, Mississippi branch of Chrysler as a unit manager since 1980. In September 1988, Shirley filed a charge against Chrysler with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The EEOC investigated the charge and determined that the evidence did not establish a Title VII violation. 1 The EEOC subsequently dismissed Shirley's charge on September 21, 1989.

In November 1989, approximately fourteen months after Shirley filed the charge, Chrysler terminated her employment. Shirley testified that her immediate supervisor, Bob Garner, mentioned her EEOC complaint to her frequently. 2 When Garner testified about Shirley's inappropriate activities at work, 3 Shirley denied that her actions were inappropriate and stated that she did not falsify documents or accept inaccurate information on loan applications. On December 1, 1989, Shirley filed a complaint against Chrysler in federal court, alleging age discrimination in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 623(a), sex discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, and unlawful retaliation for filing her EEOC charge, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 623(d) and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).

After a bench trial, the district court found for Chrysler on the sex and age discrimination claims. However, the district court found for Shirley on the retaliation claim. The district court awarded Shirley damages of approximately $63,000. Chrysler filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment or for new trial, and the district court denied this motion.

II
A

Chrysler contends that the district court erred in finding that Shirley's termination was in retaliation for her previous filing of an EEOC complaint, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) and 29 U.S.C. § 623(d). We review the district court's factual findings for clear error and its conclusions of law for legal error. 4

Chrysler contends that its motion for new trial or motion to alter or amend judgment should have been granted, because the district court erred in finding that Shirley's termination was in retaliation for her previous filing of an EEOC complaint, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) and 29 U.S.C. § 623(d). We disagree.

Section § 2000e-3(a) of Title 42 prohibits an employer from "discriminat[ing] against any of his employees ... because [the employee] has ... made a charge ... under this subchapter." 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-3(a) (West 1981). Similarly, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee who has made a charge or participated in a proceeding under this act. See 29 U.S.C.A. § 623(d) (West 1985). A plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of retaliation by showing: (1) that she engaged in activity protected by Title VII or the ADEA; (2) that an adverse employment action occurred; and (3) that there was a causal connection between the participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment decision. See Jones v. Flagship Int'l, 793 F.2d 714, 724 (5th Cir.1986) (Title VII case) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1065, 107 S.Ct. 952, 93 L.Ed.2d 1001 (1987); Hollander v. American Cyanamid Co., 895 F.2d 80, 85 (2d Cir.1990) (ADEA case). Once the prima facie case is established, the burden of producing some nondiscriminatory reason falls upon the defendant. See EEOC v. J.M. Huber Corp., 927 F.2d 1322, 1326 (5th Cir.1991) (citation omitted). The employee then assumes the burden of showing that the reasons given were a pretext for retaliation. Id. 5

The parties agree that Shirley passes the first two prongs of the retaliation test, as she filed an EEOC claim alleging age and sex discrimination, and that she was terminated from her position. They disagree, however, about the causal connection between her termination and the protected activity. Chrysler asserts that Shirley presented insufficient evidence of retaliation to the district court and that there is no causal connection between her filing the EEOC complaint and her subsequent termination. Chrysler asserts that it is only Shirley's self-serving, conclusory and uncorroborated statements which support her claim. Furthermore, Chrysler contends that, even if Shirley has established a prima facie case of retaliation, Chrysler has articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the discharge--the three instances of alleged credit falsification. 6 Shirley counters these arguments by asserting that, but for her filing of the EEOC complaint, she would not have been terminated.

The district court's finding that Chrysler retaliated against Shirley for filing an EEOC complaint is not clearly erroneous. Shirley filed her EEOC complaint in September 1988, and the EEOC dismissed the complaint in September 1989. Only two months later, in November 1989, Shirley was fired. Shirley presented evidence, albeit her own testimony, that her boss, Bob Garner, mentioned her EEOC complaint to her at least twice a week and "harassed [her] to death about it." Shirley testified that Garner was "trying to run [her] off" and was "real abusive" to her as he made disparaging comments about her EEOC complaint. Furthermore, Shirley stated that prior to her discharge she had never been placed on probation, and not suspended until after she had filed her EEOC complaint--her performance evaluations indicate no such problem. 7 A former supervisor, Charles Pate, testified that Shirley had always fulfilled her job requirements. We find it surprising that suddenly, after Shirley filed her EEOC complaint, problems with her work surfaced. As the district court succinctly noted:

After [Shirley] was denied the promotion to the branch manager's job, she filed her claim alleging sex and/or age discrimination with the EEOC. Approximately fourteen months later, plaintiff was discharged. It is especially noteworthy that after having been a faithful employee of this corporation for about nine years without ever having been reprimanded orally or in writing for any type of conduct, and having had prior experience in the loan related fields before working for Chrysler First, the defendant suddenly found three so-called flagrant indiscretions or violations, which it accused this plaintiff of committing, namely, the altering of loan records.

Record on Appeal, vol. II, at 335-36 (district court's findings of fact and conclusions of law).

The district court found that "but for" Shirley's EEOC complaint, she would not have been terminated. Since this finding is not clearly erroneous, the court did not err in entering judgment in favor of Shirley. See Jack v. Texaco Research Ctr., 743 F.2d 1129, 1131 (5th Cir.1984) (employee must prove there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment decision; the connection required is causation-in-fact or "but for" causation).

B

In a related argument, Chrysler argues that the passage of fourteen months between the filing of Shirley's initial EEOC charge and Chrysler's alleged retaliatory conduct serves as direct, probative evidence that the termination of Shirley's employment was not related to her filing the EEOC complaint against Chrysler. In essence, Chrysler argues that the passage of fourteen months should be legally conclusive proof against retaliation. We disagree.

Chrysler points to an Eighth Circuit decision in which the court set forth a fourth requirement for establishing a prima facie case of retaliation. See Couty v. Dole, 886 F.2d 147, 148 (8th Cir.1989) (citations omitted). In Couty, the court stated that a plaintiff must show "that the discharge followed the protected activity so closely in time as to justify an inference of a retaliatory motive." Id. Chrysler also points to decisions from the District of Columbia, Sixth and Eleventh Circuits that have discussed how much weight should be given a lapse of time. 8 Chrysler points to no Fifth Circuit cases discussing this point.

Shirley cites Hamilton v. Rodgers, 791 F.2d 439 (5th Cir.1986), in which we considered a district court finding of retaliation under Title VII, in which the plaintiff's deceased husband had filed an EEOC charge in the fall of 1980, and then was suspended and then reinstated at a lower rank and with less pay in the summer of 1982. Consideration of such dates is part of our analysis, but not in itself conclusive of our determinations of retaliation. See, e.g., Jones v. Flagship Int'l, 793 F.2d 714 (5th Cir.1986) (Jones failed to establish that Flagship engaged in unlawful retaliation under Title VII; district court...

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