Some employers operate under the assumption that “at-will” employment means that an employee does not have to be given any reason for termination of his or her employment. However, that theory may allow an employee to overcome an employer’s motion to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit, since in order to overcome such a motion, a plaintiff simply has to set forth facts sufficient to state a “plausible” claim for relief. That standard means that a plaintiff can set forth claims that would allow the court to draw inferences of discrimination, because of the absence of documentation or other evidence to the contrary.

A court clinician who specialized in placing individuals into drug treatment programs has avoided dismissal of her sexual harassment claims against a drug court judge and against the behavioral health network that put her into the court clinician job, after being removed from her position. (Tammy Cagle v. Thomas Estes & Behavioral Health Network, Inc., U.S District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Case No. 3:18-cv-10123, Aug. 22, 2018.)

Facts of the Case:

Tammy Cagle, a licensed social worker, applied to Behavioral Health Network (BHN) in June of 2016 for the position of specialty court clinician to the Pittsfield, Massachusetts drug court. BHN was under contract with the state’s Department of Mental Health (DMH) to fill that position. In July 2016, Judge Thomas Estes, the presiding judge of the Pittsfield drug court, approved Cagle’s hiring after meeting with her. Estes was Cagel’s sole supervisor from July through November 2016. After that, and during the period until March 2017, Cagle had other supervisors, but Estes was her only “consistent” supervisor.

Cagle alleges that in beginning in August 2016, Estes directed her to meet alone with him in chambers, and that she was the only drug court team member that did so. She also alleges that Estes acted inappropriately with her on various occasions, including one incident in a hotel room during a work-related conference. Cagle claims that after that incident, Estes told her that if anyone found out about their encounter, it would “be worse” for her in drug court. Cagle never reported Estes’ conduct to BHN.

Between December 2016 and March 2017, Cagle’s clinical supervisor from BHN met with her frequently, and both he and BHN’s Director of Forensics praised Cagle’s job performance on multiple occasions. In addition, on March 16, 2017, Judge Estes specifically indicated to BHN that Cagle was a “top-notch clinician.”

However, on March 17, 2017, Cagle received a call from BHN’s Director of Forensics, saying that as the result of a complaint being filed against her, Cagle was being placed on administrative leave immediately and was not permitted to return to the drug court. No details were provided, and the identity of the source of the complaint was not revealed. Cagle immediately texted Estes, who denied knowing anything about the situation.

Four days later, Cagle was reassigned to a non-drug court position, and at a lower salary. Subsequently, Estes reportedly criticized Cagle’s previous work, telling BHN that Cagle had “no people skills” and that court staff had made “many complaints” about her. On April 18, 2017, Cagle resigned her position.

Cagle’s Motion to Dismiss:

In response to Cagle’s federal court complaint against both BHN and Judge Estes, BHN filed a Motion to Dismiss. The district court denied that motion, allowing the case to proceed.

In order to prove employer liability (whether against an individual employer or a joint employer), a plaintiff must show that the employer knew or should have known of the discriminatory behavior being complained of, and that the employer failed to take prompt corrective measures within its control.

The same standard applies to an employer whose employee has claimed to have been harassed by a non-employee.

Therefore, in Cagle’s case, the issue was whether or not Cagle’s federal court complaint sufficiently alleged that BHN knew or should have known about the hostile work environment caused by Estes.

The District Court’s Decision:

Importantly for purposes of a Motion to Dismiss, the law does not require that a plaintiff herself bring alleged misconduct to the employer’s attention, so long as the employer has notice. Here, the district court determined that Cagle’s complaint “plausibly raises the possibility that BHN knew or should have known of the sexual harassment.”

It based that determination on the fact that in spite of earlier compliments from BHN on Cagle’s performance, and the absence of negative evaluations in Cagle’s personnel file, BHN informed Cagle that she was being removed permanently from her drug court position, while refusing to describe the alleged “multiple complaints” upon which that action was being taken. However, they allegedly did inform Cagle that her removal from the position partially related to a decision on her part to incarcerate a criminal defendant while he waited for a bd in a drug treatment program. In reality, however, Judge Estes made actual decisions related to sanctions for drug defendants, including incarceration.

Based on those facts, along with the timing of the March 16 accolade from Estes (Cagle was a “top-notch clinician”), and the March 17 placement on administrative leave with subsequent removal from the drug court, the district court found an inference that “BHN’s stated reason for Plaintiff’s removal from the drug court was not the real reason, or the whole reason, for ending the assignment,” and denied the Motion to Dismiss.

The court in this case quoted the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ocasio-Hernandez v. Fortuno-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 18 (1st Cir. 2011): “The lack of any plausible alternative justification for the plaintiffs’ terminations makes the inference of . . . discrimination from the facts alleged more reasonable.” In other words, the combination of “abundant facts” of sexual harassment, in combination with the timing of Cagle’s discipline, created an inference sufficient to allow Cagle’s case to go forward.

At-Will Employment Doctrine:

Many employers interpret “at-will” employment to mean that they do not have to provide a reason for termination, as long as they do not believe the action to have been based on discrimination. However, that is not the legally safest interpretation. Employers should recognize that before disciplining or terminating an employee, supporting facts for that action should be carefully reviewed and documented to assure consistency and a clear decision-making process that will withstand legal scrutiny.