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What is a 'prima facie' case in a wrongful termination suit?

Several weeks back, this blog discussed the way the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers federal courts in Oklahoma, approaches lawsuits for wrongful termination based upon discrimination when the claim is predicated on circumstantial evidence. We looked at a three-part burden shifting test the court used, following precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court. This week, let's take a look at the first part of this test, which is whether the plaintiff (the employee) is a member of a class protected by federal law from discrimination, whether there was some form of adverse action against him or her and whether the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination.

The above description of the first prong of the test is often referred to in legal circles as establishing a 'prima facie' case. This is a Latin term just meaning, approximately, 'on its face.' Basically, the term is generally used to describe a situation in which whatever is alleged in a lawsuit meets the minimum legal requirements to support the suit. So how does this apply to Oklahoma wrongful termination cases? Well, the factors described in the first paragraph must be present, to even get to further inquiry as to the alleged wrongful termination.

In the case we are discussing, called Bennett v. Windstream Communications, the 10th Circuit actually found that the plaintiff employee had not, in fact, established a prima facie case. The plaintiff had alleged wrongful termination on the basis of sex and age. Both those classes are protected under federal law, so the first art of the test would have been met. There was a factual dispute about whether her termination was involuntary, but the court did not reach a decision on that because they decided she had not met the third part of the test. The kicker in the case was whether the facts gave rise to an inference of discriminatory intent. According to the court, a policy of 'checking-in' was applied to other employees of different ages and genders, the plaintiff had not asked for accommodation with regard to flexible work schedules, and it was her own poor attendance that caused her to miss cross-training opportunities.

None of the above findings mean that the employee in the case was not actually discriminated against; she may have been. What it means is that she could not show, through the evidence in the case, that the basic legal requirements were met. This underscores how difficult manywrongful termination cases can be, as there is rarely absolute proof of discriminatory intent, and many actions are open to interpretation.

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