In FLSA cases in which retaliation is alleged, it is incumbent upon the employer to defend by showing that the disciplinary process had started prior to the protected activity, meaning that the employer must show that the employee’s engaging in the protected activity could not salvage a job that was legitimately in danger. If such evidence is not already in existence, then there is the risk that the retaliation complaint will have life breathed back into it, possibly leading to an unpredictable jury trial. A recent case illustrates this maxim.
In Cantu v. Vitol, filed in federal court in the Southern District of Texas, the employer fired two people. The employer filed a summary judgment motion and, for one of the workers, it made a sufficient showing that it had already commenced disciplinary actions against the worker and had actually planned to dismiss her well before she instituted legal action against the Company for failure to pay overtime.
So, the district court granted summary judgment as to that employee. The court, however, did not agree that the employer had presented sufficient evidence i.e. documents/paper trail, showing performance or conduct issues with the second employee, so the motion was denied as to that worker. The court made specific mention of the fact that there was no proof that the termination decision had been made before the lawsuit was filed.
The employees, a pair of contract administrators for an energy trading company, sought back-due overtime. The employees had sent notice of their lawsuit to the Company and were then both fired only days after. Both claimed their discharges were in retaliation for their protected activity. The Company made a showing that one of the employees had a longstanding dispute with one of the traders; there was also evidence that other traders were unhappy with this employee’s work. Significantly, the Company also demonstrated that it had started to look for a replacement for the employee before the suit was filed.
As to the second worker, the evidence was less convincing and, indeed, rather scanty. The Company failed to produce any of the e-mail messages that it claimed showed that concerns about the employee’s work performance had been raised prior to her discharge. Also significant, and making the situation even more problematic for the employer, was the fact that when the employee received a change in responsibilities and increase in workload, she complained about overtime and then she allegedly began to experience different and harsher treatment from Company management, culminating in her firing.