WORK WITH US
Factual Disputes About Employer’s Reasons For Terminating Employee Blocked Summary Judgment
In January 2018, Denise Watkins, a Black shift supervisor in the dispatch department of the Sheriff’s Office (Office) in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, received a commendation from her supervisor, Lieutenant Marshall Carmouche, for superb work. On February 9, 2018, however, Lieutenant Carmouche counseled Watkins about her poor performance, including “sleeping on the job” and making personal phone calls while on duty.
On February 20, 2018, Watkins provided the Office with a doctor’s note advising that she required three 24-hour shifts “off” per week due to anxiety. Two days later, Lieutenant Carmouche filed charges with the Office’s disciplinary review board that Watkins’ workplace performance was unsuitable for employment based on the same conduct identified during Watkins’ counseling. In response to these charges, Watkins admitted to sleeping on the job but explained that she had developed medical issues that affected her sleep. On February 23, 2018, Watkins emailed Lieutenant Carmouche to ask about the status of her medical leave.
On March 1, 2018, the disciplinary review board unanimously recommended that Watkins be fired for one identified infraction – sleeping on the job. Based on this recommendation, Sheriff Mike Tregre fired Watkins. Another dispatch supervisor, a white male, was also caught sleeping on the job, but only received counseling for his conduct.
Watkins then sued Sheriff Tregre, alleging race discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and retaliatory discharge under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Watkins alleged Sheriff Tregre treated her worse than her white peers and fired her in retaliation for her request for medical leave. Sheriff Tregre moved for summary judgment on the grounds that he fired Watkins for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons – her poor work performance. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment for Sheriff Tregre. Watkins appealed.
On appeal, Watkins argued that Sheriff Tregre’s reasons for her termination were pretextual. In support, she referred to evidence showing that the white male dispatch supervisor was not fired for sleeping on the job. She also had evidence that Lieutenant Carmouche submitted charges against her to the Office’s disciplinary review board two days after she submitted a medical note, and that Sheriff Tregre terminated her seven days thereafter. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed, finding that Watkins’ evidence created a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Sheriff Tregre’s stated reason for firing Watkins was a pretext for racial discrimination and/or retaliation for requesting medical leave. In reaching this decision, the Fifth Circuit noted its obligation to view the evidence in the light most favorable to Watkins when analyzing Sheriff Tregre’s summary judgment motion.
On these grounds, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded the matter to the district court for further proceedings.
Watkins v. Tregre, 2021 WL 1826269 (5th Cir. May 7, 2021).
Courts will deny an employer’s motion for summary judgment if there is conflicting evidence whether the employer’s identified reasons for taking adverse action against an employee is pretextual.