It has been generally understood that in retaliation cases, temporal proximity alone does not establish the required causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. In Mickey v. Zeidler Tool & Die Co., decided today, the 6th Circuit has held that where an adverse employment action occurs very close in time after an employer learns of a protected activity, such temporal proximity between events is significant enough to constitute evidence of a causal connection for the purposes of satisfying a prima facie case of retaliation.
Charles Mickey, age 67, was a 33-year employee of Zeidler Tool & Die. After the company's owner, Harold DeForge, cut his responsibilities and pay following Mickey's refusal to retire, Mickey filed an age discrimination charge with the EEOC. DeForge first learned of Mickey's EEOC charge when he arrived at the company on the morning of October 19, 2004. When Mickey arrived at 7:30 that same morning, DeForge followed him into his office and immediately fired him. The district court dismissed Mickey's retaliation claim on summary judgment, relying on the proposition that temporal proximity, without more, is insufficient for a reasonable juror to concluded that DeForge would not have terminated Mickey but for the EEOC charge.
The 6th Circuit reversed that dismissal, ruling that where an adverse employment action occurs very close in time after an employer learns of a protected activity, such temporal proximity, in and of itself, is significant to constitute evidence of a causal nexus. Contrarily, where some time elapses between when the employer learns of the protected activity and the adverse action, the employee must present other evidence of retaliatory conduct to establish the required causality. The Court explained its rationale for this distinction:
[If] an employer immediately retaliates against an employee upon learning of his protected activity, the employee would be unable to couple temporal proximity with any such other evidence of retaliation because the two actions happened consecutively, and little other than the protected activity could motivate the retaliation. Thus, employers who retaliate swiftly and immediately upon learning of protected activity would ironically have a stronger defense than those who delay in taking adverse retaliatory action....
In those limited number of cases–like the one at bar–where an employer fires an employee immediately after learning of a protected activity, we can infer a causal connection between the two actions, even if Mickey had not presented other evidence of retaliation.
Hedging its bets, the Court continued, and further reasoned that even if the nearly instantaneous temporal proximity was insufficient to establish the nexus, Mickey's alleged disparate treatment before DeForge learned of the EEOC charge also was sufficient evidence of a retaliatory motive.
A strong concurring opinion took the majority to task for its fall-back position:
"Retaliate," according to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, available at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/retaliate (last visited January 24, 2008), is either a transitive verb meaning "to repay (as an injury) in kind," or an intransitive verb meaning "to return like for like; especially: to get revenge." One cannot repay or act in response to or get revenge for something that has not yet happened. No reasonable juror could conclude that DeForge intended to retaliate against Mickey for his filing the EEOC charge before he was aware that Mickey had done so, let alone before Mickey had undertaken the protected activity in the first place, and therefore, DeForge's actions prior to Mickey's filing of the EEOC charge cannot be evidence of retaliation for that protected activity. This evidence is immaterial to Mickey's retaliation claim and cannot be used to support it.
The impact of this decision will be fought over the meaning of the phrase "very close in time." The majority is vague in its understanding of that phrase. Employers will push very hard for Judge Batchelder's concurring interpretation: "[I]n a case in which the employer's learning of the protected activity is so closely followed by the employer's taking of an adverse action that the two are virtually contemporaneous — exactly the circumstances in this case — the temporal proximity between the two is alone sufficient to establish the causal connection necessary for the fourth prong of a prima facie case of retaliation." Employees, meanwhile, will push in the opposite direction and attempt to have courts stretch out the timeline.
We will have to wait and see where courts draw the line — minutes, as was the case in Mickey, days, weeks, or longer. It's hard to argue that Mickey presents a unique case, because the termination was a knee-jerk reaction to learning of the EEOC charge. The longer an employer allows an employee to stay on the job, however, the less likely a retaliatory motive exists, unless there is some other evidence of that motive. We will simply to have wait and see how long is too long.