What Did the Fifth Circuit Do During the Summer? Three Surprising Employment Law Decisions

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has a reputation for being hostile to employment law claims. But according to Texas Lawyer, three cases over the summer indicate that the reputation may be undeserved.

The first, fittingly enough, concerned the reputation of a Houston police officer. In Zamora v. City of Houston, Christopher Zamora claimed that his support of a fellow officer’s discrimination claim resulted in retaliation in violation of Title VII. Zamora received a 10-day suspension for alleged dishonesty during the investigation. Although an arbitrator overturned the suspension, Zamora’s superiors allegedly continued to publicly question his honestly. Initially, a jury agreed with Zamora. The city appealed, noting that Zamora’s promotion to sergeant, multiple commendations, and selection for a prestigious training program proved that it did not retaliate. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, noting that a damaged reputation continues to harm an employee even after exoneration, especially when two superiors express doubts about the employee. Zamora’s present job success does not guarantee that his reputation will not limit future success. The court upheld the discrimination claim.

In the second case, a teacher, Mary Alice Stennet, sued Tupelo Public School District for age discrimination. Stennet, who taught for 38 years, held several degrees in education, and had experience both as a teacher and administrator, lost her job at an experimental school in a public school district when the district outsourced the school to a private contractor. Not satisfied with the contractor, the district again took over the school and invited all former teachers to reapply. The four oldest teachers, including Stennet, were not rehired. Stennet was the only former administrator not rehired. She applied for seven open positions, all of which went to younger, less experienced people.

A trial court issued a summary judgment in favor of the school district, which the Fifth Circuit overruled. The court found that Stennet’s qualifications, which were exemplary and directly relevant to the positions for which she applied, were strong enough to create a question as to whether she was discriminated against. Concluding that a rational jury could conclude that the district’s reasons for not hiring Stennet were suspect, the court ruled that Stennet gets a jury trial.

In Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor, Nicole Burton alleged that she was terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Burton claimed that she had chest pains and heart palpitations caused by fumes from a microchip platform break. A trial court issued a summary judgment in favor of the defendants, whom they believed presented legitimate reasons for Burton’s firing. The Fifth Circuit, after examining the evidence, found otherwise, upholding the decision to toss out a claim for retaliatory termination but reversing the ADA judgment for the defendants. The court stated that the employer had not written up Burton for poor performance, nor had it given evidence of counseling. In addition, the Fifth Circuit panel found evidence that the employer gave reasons for the termination that were unknown until after the fact. As a result, Burton will have her day in trial court after all.

While three decisions in favor of employees cannot be construed as an ideological shift from the Fifth Circuit, these rulings do indicate that the court isn’t as arbitrary as some think.

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