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Wilson v. Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corp.

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 30, 2017

NEDRA WILSON, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Nedra Wilson worked for defendant Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation (NAHAC) as its controller. After she was fired, she filed this lawsuit against NAHAC, alleging race discrimination and retaliation. NAHAC moves for summary judgment, arguing there is no evidentiary basis to support a race discrimination claim because Wilson is only speculating that race played a role in her termination. As to the retaliation claim, NAHAC contends it had a legitimate reason for firing Wilson and there is no evidence of pretext.

         Wilson responds that she was fired for sharing her bank token[1] but Caucasian employees did the same thing and were not fired. She also argues that there is evidence of retaliation because she was fired shortly after Kolleen Kelley took over as chair of the board for NAHAC; Kelley had a retaliatory motive related to a separate lawsuit alleging race discrimination; Kelley denied her involvement in the firing decision but NAHAC's executive director, Amber Lopez Lasater, says Kelley made the termination decision; and Lopez Lasater did not believe Wilson should have been terminated.

         The parties are familiar with the facts of this case and I will not repeat them in detail here. I deny NAHAC's motion.

         I. ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, discovery responses, and affidavits demonstrate “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). A fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to set forth specific facts demonstrating there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Fairbank v. Wunderman Cato Johnson, 212 F.3d 528, 531 (9th Cir. 2000). I view the evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. James River Ins. Co. v. Hebert Schenk, P.C., 523 F.3d 915, 920 (9th Cir. 2008).

         A. Race Discrimination

         Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the individual's race. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). To establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment based on race, “a plaintiff must offer evidence that give[s] rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.” Reynaga v. Roseburg Forest Prod., 847 F.3d 678, 690-91 (9th Cir. 2017) (quotation omitted). “One way to establish an inference of discrimination” is by establishing a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Id. Under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff makes out a prima facie case by showing: (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) that she was qualified for her position and performing her job satisfactorily; (3) that she was subjected to an adverse employment action; and (4) that “similarly situated individuals outside [her] protected class were treated more favorably, or other circumstances surrounding the adverse employment action give rise to an inference of discrimination.” Hawn v. Exec. Jet Mgmt., Inc., 615 F.3d 1151, 1156 (9th Cir. 2010) (quotation omitted).

         If the plaintiff makes out a prima facie case, “the burden shifts to the defendant to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action.” Reynaga, 847 F.3d at 690-91. “If the defendant meets this burden, then the plaintiff must . . . raise a triable issue of material fact as to whether the defendant's proffered reasons . . . are mere pretext for unlawful discrimination.” Id. (quotation omitted, second alteration in original).

         As an alternative to the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting analysis, a plaintiff facing a summary judgment motion “may simply produce direct or circumstantial evidence demonstrating that a discriminatory reason ‘more likely than not motivated' the employer.” Id. (quotation omitted). Regardless of the method chosen, “very little evidence” is required for a plaintiff “to survive summary judgment in a discrimination case, because the ultimate question is one that can only be resolved through a searching inquiry-one that is most appropriately conducted by the factfinder, upon a full record.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         Wilson has presented evidence of a prima facie case. She is a member of a protected class because she is African-American. She has presented evidence that she was qualified for the position and performed her job satisfactorily. She was hired through a competitive hiring process and there is no evidence of any disciplinary action or comments about poor performance prior to the events immediately preceding her termination. ECF Nos. 78-2 at 13-15; 78-21 at 29-30 (former chair of the board testifying he heard no complaints about Wilson's performance and he believed she was making progress in addressing problems in the organization). She suffered an adverse employment action when she was fired. Finally, she has presented evidence that similarly situated individuals outside her protected class were treated differently. Specifically, two Caucasian employees apparently shared their bank tokens and were not terminated for this conduct. ECF No. 78-3 at 23-25; 78-24 at 4-5. Additionally, Lopez Lasater, who was the executive director/chief executive officer and Wilson's immediate supervisor, did not think Wilson should have been fired. ECF No. 78-2 at 6.

         NAHAC offers a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Wilson's termination. According to NAHAC, Wilson released a wire transfer without authorization and shared her bank token with other employees in violation of NAHAC policies.

         Wilson has met her burden of raising a genuine dispute that these given reasons are pretextual. As set forth above, similarly situated Caucasian employees were not fired for sharing their bank tokens. Beck v. United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 99, 506 F.3d 874, 883 (9th Cir. 2007) (stating that “a showing of disparate treatment raises an inference of discrimination ‘because experience has proved that in the absence of any other explanation it is more likely than not that those actions were bottomed on impermissible considerations.'”) (quoting Furnco Constr. Corp. v. Waters, 438 U.S. 567, 579-80 (1978)). Additionally, Wilson has presented evidence that she was disciplined for authorizing a wire transfer even though Lopez Lasater was aware of and did not object to Wilson's actions at the time, and Lopez ...

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