When an employer moves for summary dismissal of a plaintiff’s employment discrimination or harassment claim, it must show that there is no genuine issue of material fact in dispute, thereby allowing the judge to make a decision based on legal standards applicable to the claim. This month, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff’s own testimony, if reasonably specific, presents adequate evidence of a factual dispute to deny the employer’s motion for summary judgment.
In Rivera-Rivera v. Medina & Medina, Inc., the plaintiff alleged that she was subjected to years of derogatory remarks and abuse relating to her age. She also claimed that she was retaliated against after she filed an EEOC charge complaining about her bosses’ behavior. The employer moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted the motion, stating that the plaintiff’s testimony about the abuse was insufficient to bear her burden of proof because she was not able to identify exact dates, words used, and individuals involved with the alleged abuse.
On appeal, the First Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the case for jury trial. The court said that the district court judge had imposed too high a standard for the plaintiff. Her recollections about her treatment were sufficiently detailed to constitute material evidence even if they did not contain specifics. Given the fact that the alleged abuse went on for two years, the plaintiff could not be expected to recall each specific incident in detail.
This case is troubling for employers because the First Circuit allowed the claim to survive summary judgment primarily based on the plaintiff’s own general recollections about her experiences. While clearly influenced by the severity of the alleged abuses, this standard makes it difficult for an employer to avoid jury trial on discrimination and harassment claims. If the plaintiff’s general recollections are enough to meet her burden of proof, a determined party could allege sufficient mistreatment to avoid summary judgment, even in the absence of corroborating proof.