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Timing Alone Insufficient Where Multi-Year Gap Between Protected Activity and Adverse Action in Employment Discrimination Case
In Fuhr v. Hazel Park Sch. Dist., No. 2:08-cv-11652 (6th Cir. Mar. 19, 2013), the Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Hazel Park School District, finding no causal connection between a coach's prior lawsuit and her subsequent removal from a coaching position. Fuhr served as the high school girls' varsity basketball head coach at Hazel Park High. In 1999, Fuhr sued the school district, alleging gender discrimination based on the school district's failure to hire her as the high school boys' varsity basketball head coach. At the time, the boys' and girls' teams played during different seasons. Fuhr ultimately prevailed and in 2004 became the boys' basketball coach. Anticipating a federal district court order requiring the basketball seasons be played at the same time, the school district removed Fuhr as the girls' head coach in 2006 because it would be too difficult to coach two teams in the same season.
Fuhr sued, claiming that her removal as the girls' coach and other harassing acts were retaliation for prevailing in her previous lawsuit. Fuhr claimed her principal told her that "this is a good old boys network....They are doing this to you to get back at you for winning the lawsuit." The Sixth Circuit determined that the principal's statement was too ambiguous to provide direct evidence of unlawful retaliation. The court next found that Fuhr failed to demonstrate a causal connection between her prior lawsuit and removal as the girls' coach. While a close temporal proximity between events can constitute evidence of a causal connection, here, the "multi-year gap prove[d] fatal" to establishing causality. The court also added that even if Fuhr could prove causation, the school district was able to offer legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for any alleged harassing actions. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the school district on Fuhr's retaliation claim based on the lack of any temporal proximity.