Often when we consider the issue of temporal proximity in a retaliation case, we examine it from the standpoint of whether temporal proximity is sufficient to infer retaliatory intent when the adverse action happens right on the heels of the protected activity. What happens, however, if the converse is true — if a long period of time elapses between the protected activity and the adverse action. Can an employer save itself from a retaliation claim simply by waiting it out? This was the question the court faced in Malin v. Hospira, Inc. (7th Cir. 8/7/14).
Deborah Malin worked in the IT department of the Abbott Laboratories’s hospital product division (spun off to a new company, Hospira, in 2006). In July 2003, she informed her direct boss, Bob Balogh, that she was going to complain to HR about sexual harassment by her indirect supervisor, Satish Shah, who reported to Mike Carlin. Before she could complain to HR, Balogh told her that Carlin told him to do everything in his power to stop Malin from going to HR. Malin ignored the stop sign and lodged her harassment complaint with HR.
Between the 2003 complaint and the 2006 Hospira reorganization, Malin applied for several promotions but received none of them. On June 14, 2006, the management team (including Carlin, then the CIO) met to discuss new roles for current IT employees. Five days later, Malin took emergency Family and Medical Leave Act leave. Several weeks later, the IT department announced its reorganization, which again resulted in Malin being passed over for a promotion.
Among other claims, Malin claimed that when Hospira executed its 2006 reorganization, it retaliated against her for the 2003 harassment complaint. The court concluded that the intervening three-year gap between the harassment complaint and the decision not to promote Malin was insufficient to defeat her retaliation claim:
[A] long time interval between protected activity and adverse employment action may weaken but does not conclusively bar an inference of retaliation…. Rather, if the time interval standing alone is long enough to weaken an inference of retaliation, the plaintiff is entitled to rely on other circumstantial evidence to support her claim….
The evidence in this case permits an inference that Carlin had a long memory and repeatedly retaliated against Malin between 2003 and 2006. Malin was denied promotions numerous times between 2003 and 2006. During that time, Carlin was the final decision-maker on all promotions in the IT department, both at Abbott and after the spin-off at Hospira. Malin’s immediate supervisors repeatedly told her that she would be an excellent fit for newly-available positions at higher salary grades and that they would recommend that she be promoted into them. Nevertheless, Malin did not receive any promotions at Hospira between 2003 and 2006…. These incidents are circumstantial evidence that Carlin remembered Malin’s complaint about Shah and acted to prevent her from being promoted at Hospira long after the complaint was made.
This case serves as a solid reminder that an employer cannot hold a grudge against an employee who engaged in protected activity, with the hope that the passage of time will permit later retaliation. If an employee can connect the dots between the protected activity and the adverse action, the employer faces risk, no matter how much time has passed.