Employee’s Own Words Doom Job Duties Dispute in Discrimination Case

A university affirmative action director’s discrimination and retaliation lawsuit failed and, recently, so did her appeal due to her own written and oral statements. The California Court of Appeal ruled that the university’s stated reason for termination was a legitimate one and not just a pretext for discrimination. The employee’s own words established that the job task that the employer cited in her termination was a vital element of her job, and that the failure to perform the task could have negative consequences for the university.

Conchita Serri’s lawsuit stemmed from her employment with Santa Clara University, where she served as the director of affirmative action. In 2006, a dispute arose between Serri and the university president regarding the school’s affirmative action plans. The director told the president that the university had not had a valid plan for years and that the university should hire a consultant to assist in the creation of a plan. Instead, the president removed the responsibility from Serri and reassigned the task to another employee.

The university eventually terminated Serri for her failure to prepare the plans, her failure to notify the administration about the lack of plans, and her misrepresentations about the plans. The director sued, alleging that the school’s actions were motivated by gender bias and retaliation. At trial, the university moved for summary judgment, arguing that it fired Serri for a legitimate and non-discriminatory reason:  namely, her failure to do her job competently with regard to completing affirmative action plans.

The trial court agreed and granted the summary judgment. On appeal, the director argued that the stated reason for termination was a pretext because the creation of the plans was not a fundamental aspect of her job and the failure to complete the plans could not cause the university harm in terms of fines or other punishment from the federal government.

The appeals court concluded that the trial court properly decided that the university’s stated reason for termination was legitimate and not a pretext. The appeals court was not persuaded by the employee’s arguments that the creation of the plans was not a central duty of her job. Ultimately, the director’s own words undermined her case. The employee had previously authored a description of her employment position stating that preparing the plans was a “primary job” duty, and she later authored an email to the president labeling the creation of the plans as “one of the roles that define my position.”

The court also rejected the employee’s argument regarding the university’s exposure to federal punitive action. Again, the court found the employee’s own previous statements damaging to her case, noting that the director was the person who told the president that the school would likely face a federal audit regarding the affirmative action plan situation. Additionally, the university did not assert that it fired Serri because it faced federal sanctions, simply that the director failed to perform a task that was an essential aspect of her job.

In the end, the evidence favoring the employer in Serri’s case proved to be too much for the employee to overcome. Employment discrimination cases can be difficult to prove. Having knowledgeable counsel in your corner may greatly help your chances of success at trial. For advice and representation in your employment discrimination case, consult the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment law attorneys can help you get the recovery you deserve. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

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Employee Allowed to Pursue Sexual Harassment Case, Despite Language in Job Application, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, April 30, 2014

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