Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals recently overturned a decision of the Ohio Court of Claims in a case alleging gender discrimination. The Court of Claims had rendered summary judgment in favor of the employer, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), but the Court of Appeals found that the trial court overstepped its authority in making that decision. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Court of Claims, presumably for either trial or settlement.

The plaintiff, a truck driver named Anne Eschborn, was the only female employee at her assigned post. She was terminated from employment and was told the reason was lack of work. However, she later received a letter stating that she had been terminated for poor performance, for using foul language, and for sexual harassment. She admitted to using foul language in a few instances at work and that these were sexual in nature.

At the outset, the appellate court noted the legal standard in discrimination cases in Ohio. The analysis, often cited as the “McDonnell Douglas burden shifting,” goes as follows: If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that the employer had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer does so, the burden of proof shifts back to the plaintiff, who then must prove that the employer’s reasons are merely a pretext for discrimination.

A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case either directly or indirectly. Directly, a plaintiff may present evidence of any nature to show that the adverse employment action taken by the employer was more likely than not motivated by discriminatory intent. Indirectly, a plaintiff may show that “(1) he or she was a member of a statutorily protected class; (2) he or she was subjected to an adverse employment action; (3) he or she was qualified for the position; and (4) he or she was replaced by, or that the removal permitted the retention of, a person not belonging to the protected class.”

The Court of Claims found that Eschborn failed to present a prima facie case of discrimination. The Court of Claims determined that Eschborn could satisfy the first three elements of her prima facie case but could not satisfy the last element because the evidence was insufficient to support the conclusion that a person outside of the protected class replaced her or that other comparable, nonprotected persons were treated more favorably.

The evidence showed that ODOT assigned another employee to the post that Eschborn occupied prior to her termination. The trial court held that the evidence merely established a redistribution of work, not a replacement (with someone outside of the protected class). Therefore, the Court of Claims granted summary judgment to ODOT.

Summary judgment is a device used to terminate litigation before trial. It is granted sparingly because of the difficult burden of proof. In order to be granted summary judgment, a party must show that no dispute exists regarding all of the facts and evidence in the record, and that reasonable minds could come to only one conclusion, against the other party.

Generally, in a civil trial, the jury decides what the facts are, and the judge applies the law to those facts. The Court of Claims does not use juries, and so judges are the triers of fact. In this case, the plaintiff argued that the judge was making factual determinations that should have been left to a trier of fact.

Here, the issue is that no trial took place at which the judge could weigh the evidence presented to make a factual determination. Reasonable minds could differ on the meaning of the evidence about the replacement. Therefore, the two parties were in dispute of the facts, which is a genuine issue for a trial. If any genuine issues exist for the trier of fact to consider, a court cannot grant summary judgment. The Court of Appeals therefore agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the trial court had overstepped its authority in granting summary judgment. The Court of Appeals also pointed to evidence in the record that similar male employees were not disciplined for using foul language.

While this case is certainly better for law students studying summary judgment than for school administrators, the case facts contain some practical lessons regarding employment law, discrimination, and harassment. First, without the shifting explanations for termination, the employee’s claim of discrimination would likely not have been made. Employers must be clear in their communications to employees, especially communications of a disciplinary nature. Make sure that department heads and supervisors are on the same page regarding an employment matter before moving forward. Second, employers should keep in mind that discipline must be uniform among employees to prevent claims of better treatment of persons outside of a protected class. It is difficult for an employer to credibly state that foul language was a basis for termination, and not a pretext for discrimination, when other similar employees are not disciplined for similar behavior.

Eschborn v. Dept. of Transp., 2018-Ohio-1808.