Wayne Black worked for the Grant County PUD for thirteen years. From 2005 to 2016, everything went smoothly. Black was recognized as a strong employee and was eventually promoted to a supervisor position.
In 2016, things took a turn. In July of that year, Black was reprimanded for an incident of insubordination. Shortly thereafter, he was stripped of his supervisor position for selling a tool belt that belonged to the PUD.
New supervisor positions came open in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2018. Black applied for both positions. Both were awarded to other people. Black subsequently sued the PUD, alleging that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his age and religious beliefs.
The case proceeded to discovery. During the course of conducting witness interviews, counsel for the PUD was told that Black had instructed several PUD employees to submit falsified time records during the time that Black was their supervisor. The PUD investigated the matter and determined that the reports were true. The PUD terminated Black for time card fraud, right in the middle of the case.
Black found himself in a classic “fight or flight” scenario. Without missing a beat, he amended his complaint to assert new claims for retaliation. His theory was that he was fired in retaliation for bringing the lawsuit, and that the PUD’s reliance on time card fraud as its justification was a mere pretext.
Judge Peterson did not buy the pretext argument. Applying the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework on summary judgment, she concluded that there was no “causal link” between Black’s filing of the lawsuit and his firing eight months later. Judge Peterson acknowledged that the temporal sequence of events could arguably give rise to an inference of retaliatory intent. Ultimately, though, she ruled that Black failed to make a sufficient showing that the PUD’s explanation was unworthy of belief.
Reading between the lines, the PUD’s evidence of time card fraud must have been pretty substantial. Had the evidence been thinner, Black’s retaliation claims would likely have been sent to a jury.
The case is Black v. Grant County Public Utility District, Case No. 17-CV-365-RMP. Judge Peterson’s summary judgment order is available here.