Former Female Senior Director of HR for Cincinnati Electronics Wins Reversal of Summary Judgment Decision and New Trial

“A great win for courageous women in the workplace” – Kati Neff, Lead Counsel

Alison McKinnon was the Senior Director of HR for Cincinnati Electronics, a division of L-3 Communications, now L3Harris, located in Mason, Ohio. Following Ms. McKinnon’s February 2016 termination, she filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, retaliation for complaining of gender discrimination, and retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  We will detail Ms. McKinnon’s FLSA retaliation claim in a separate blog as it is helpful for HR employees who want to know what their rights are when management disagrees with their assessment under the FLSA.  In this blog, we will focus on Ms. McKinnon’s gender retaliation claim.

In late May 2015, Ms. McKinnon approached the Vice President of HR about what she believed was gender-based harassment by one of her colleagues.  Ms. McKinnon also discussed her concerns with her immediate boss, Russ Walker.

Approximately six weeks later, Mr. Walker told Ms. McKinnon that she should start looking for a new job because upper management wanted to get rid of her.  Ms. McKinnon explained to Mr. Walker that she believed she was being targeted because of her gender.  Two days after this conversation, on July 12, 2015, Ms. McKinnon memorialized her late May complaint the VP of HR in an email.

L-3 did not terminate Ms. McKinnon until February 2016.  However, as part of its defense to Ms. McKinnon’s lawsuit, L-3 claimed it made the decision to terminate Ms. McKinnon in July 2015 – before her formal complaint of gender bias.

The District Court dismissed Ms. McKinnon’s FLSA retaliation and gender retaliation claims, believing that L-3 presented sufficient evidence that it had already made the decision to terminate Ms. McKinnon before the District Court believed she formally complained of gender discrimination on July 10 and July 12, 2015.

Ms. McKinnon appealed the District Court’s decision to dismiss her two retaliation claims to the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

On Thursday, May 14, 2020, the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling on Ms. McKinnon’s gender retaliation claim, remanding the case back to the District Court. The Court of Appeals reasoned that a reasonable jury could conclude that Ms. McKinnon reported gender discrimination on her late May 2015 phone call with the VP of HR, which was prior to the date L-3 purportedly began contemplating her termination.  As a result, Ms. McKinnon will be able to try her gender retaliation claim to a jury at a date to be determined.

Overcoming a District Court’s grant of summary judgment in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is a challenge.  Statistics suggest that the Sixth Circuit’s overall reversal rate in civil cases is only around 12-16%.  Thus, Ms. McKinnon’s success in convincing the Sixth Circuit to reverse the District Court on her gender retaliation claim is a tremendous feat.

Ms. McKinnon is represented by Kati Neff, Erin Heidrich and Randy Freking, but so many FMR team members contributed to this huge win!

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