August 21, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Termination of Employee Did Not Violate Title VII

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Lobato v. State of New Mexico Environment Department on Tuesday, November 5, 2013.

Michael Lobato was a probationary employee at the New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED). His status as a probationary employee meant he could be fired at will and without a right to appeal the decision, so long as the department’s reasons were provided in writing. Before completing his probationary period, Lobato was fired. In a letter explaining its decision, NMED cited Lobato’s dishonesty, failure to cooperate with management, and unprofessional attitude toward coworkers and the public. Lobato, who is Hispanic and of Mexican ancestry, alleged that these proffered rationales were pretextual and that NMED was in fact motivated by racial and national origin prejudice. He also alleged NMED wanted to punish him for whistleblowing. Thus, Lobato claimed, the dismissal violated his rights under Title VII, New Mexico’s civil rights and whistleblower laws, and the First Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to NMED on all claims, and Lobato appealed.

Title VII prohibits employers from discharging employees on account of race or national origin. It also forbids retaliating against an employee who reports or opposes violations of Title VII. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1); id. § 2000e-3(a). The court analyzed this claim using the burden-shifting framework established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under this framework, Lobato had the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, then the burden shifted to NMED to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment decision. If NMED could make such a showing, the burden would shift back to Lobato to show there was a genuine dispute about whether the proffered explanation was pretext for discrimination.

The parties did not dispute the first two steps in the McDonnell Douglas framework. The court’s analysis thus turned on the third step—pretext. Where, as here, an employer advances a number of reasons for an adverse employment action, the Tenth Circuit has adopted a general rule that an employee must proffer evidence that shows each of the employer’s justifications is pretextual. Bryant v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 432 F.3d 1114, 1126 (10th Cir. 2005).

After a thorough review of the facts, the Tenth Circuit held that Lobato failed to raise a genuine dispute that NMED’s decision to terminate him was motivated by anything other than the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons NMED offered in its termination letter.


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