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By September 1, 2011No Comments

For an employer embroiled in a discrimination lawsuit, summary judgment is usually the last opportunity to get the case dismissed before going to trial. A decision by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals demonstrates how lying about the reason for an adverse employment action can torpedo an employer’s defense to a claim of discrimination on summary judgment and allow the case to proceed to trial.

The Case: In Colbert v. Tapella, a 30 year-old African American female employee of the federal Government Printing Office sued her employer for race and gender discrimination after she was passed over for two different promotions that were filled by white males. The decision-makers for the positions did not interview the candidates. Instead, they evaluated each on their written applications, respective qualifications, responses to a questionnaire, and any personal knowledge of the candidates’ work performance. During the initial EEO investigation, one of the decision-makers told the investigator that he did not select the plaintiff, in part, because she “wandered.” When the decision-maker was later deposed, he admitted that he did not tell the truth when he said that the plaintiff wandered. Despite the employer’s attempt to downplay the admission, the decision-maker’s stated rationale for passing over the plaintiff was called into question.

The Ruling: The D.C. Circuit overruled the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding that the lower court erred when it required the plaintiff to prove both that the employer’s reason for not promoting her was pretext, and that race and gender bias was the actual reason she was passed over. The Court of Appeals held that “a jury can conclude that an employer who fabricates a false explanation has something to hide; that ‘something’ may well be discriminatory intent.” Although a plaintiff cannot always avoid summary judgment by showing that the employer’s explanation to be false, the evidence in this case demonstrated that the employer’s proffered non-discriminatory reasons for the non-promotion was unfounded. The court found that the evidence in the record did not support the decision- maker’s statements that the plaintiff was less qualified and lacked the same experience as the white male applicants who were selected for the positions. The Court further noted that there was insufficient, independent evidence that no discrimination had occurred. Instead, the decision-maker’s lie about the plaintiff wandering, his lack of knowledge about the plaintiff’s actual experience, and the employer’s record of failing to promote minorities, provided enough evidence of discrimination to defeat the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Lesson Learned: An employer must base its reason for taking an adverse employment action on a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason that should be supported by facts and not change over time. Changing the articulated reason for taking the adverse action only reveals that it might not have been the real reason for the action. Bear in mind that the people who evaluate your responses might have a different perspective from you. What you might see as a benign misstatement can be perceived by a jury as evidence of a malicious, discriminatory act. It might be trite, but honesty is always the best policy.

Article courtesy of Worklaw® Network firm Shawe Rosenthal (