Seventh Circuit Finds that Employer’s Shifting Reasons for Termination Defeat Summary Judgment

Contributed by Sara Zorich

On June 11, 2013, in Hitchcock v. Angel Corps, Inc., 12-3515, 2013 WL 2507243 (7th Cir. June 11, 2013), the Seventh Circuit overturned Defendant’s motion for summary judgment granted by the Northern District of Indiana in Plaintiff’s pregnancy discrimination case.  The Court held that the multiple and shifting reasons proffered by the Defendant for its termination of Hitchcock precluded the granting of Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Hitchcock alleged that the Defendant terminated her because she was pregnant.  Shortly after discovering she was pregnant, Hitchcock’s supervisor allegedly asked her if she was quitting after giving birth and that he needed a decision as soon as possible if she was returning after the birth.  An affidavit of Hitchcock’s co-worker also claimed that the supervisor asked her to rethink having a third child because she seemed to already have issues with her attendance.  Hitchcock also alleged that her workload significantly increased and she encountered increased supervision after she and her supervisor discussed her pregnancy. 

Defendant is a non-medical home care agency that performs personal care services for its clients.  The Seventh Circuit took issue with what it perceived as Defendant’s evolving and inconsistent explanation regarding Hitchcock’s termination.  First, on May 3, 2010, Defendant stated that Hitchcock’s termination was for completing an admission on an expired client and that her actions compromised the health and safety of the client.  Then later in support of the motion for summary judgment the following reasons were offered for the termination: (1) Defendant’s supervisor indicated that Hitchcock would have compromised the health and safety of the client by failing to deal with dried blood on the patient’s mouth and failing to take other steps; (2) one of the owners of the Defendant Corporation stated that Hitchcock was terminated because she performed a deficient assessment of a potential client who already passed away; and (3) Defendant’s brief claimed that the firing was for Hitchcock’s failure to call 911 after leaving the client’s home.

Defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted by the Northern District of Indiana, however, the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the case holding that Hitchcock submitted evidence that the supervisor who fired her had an animus toward pregnant women, treated Hitchcock differently after learning she was pregnant and Hitchcock was fired only weeks later.  Further, the Court held that the reasons Defendant proffered for Hitchcock’s termination shifted and were inconsistent, which could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Hitchcock was fired because she was pregnant.

Take Away for Employers: Employers are reminded to carefully document the reasons for an employee’s termination.  If the reason for the termination is not clearly documented and employees recall different or varying reasons or bases for the termination during a later proceeding, this could lead a court to conclude that the reason proffered at the time of termination was not the truth and can be interpreted as evidence of pretext defeating a motion for summary judgment.