Kansas City Team Secures Appellate Win in Gender Discrimination Suit

Kansas City, Mo. (February 21, 2020) - Kansas City and Wichita Managing Partner Alan L. Rupe and Kansas City Associate Bretton W. Kreifel recently secured an appellate victory on behalf of their client, Conklin Cars Salina, LLC (Conklin), when the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (10th Circuit) affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Conklin in a gender discrimination suit.

In the underlying action, the plaintiff worked as a sales manager in Conklin's Salina, Kansas branch. She alleged that Conklin discriminated against her on the basis of gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and Kansas state law by terminating her for unprofessional behavior. The plaintiff contended that her male co-workers, whom she alleged also engaged in unprofessional behavior and whose performance was worse than hers, were permitted to remain in their positions. In addition, the plaintiff claimed that Conklin retaliated against her in violation of Kansas public policy by terminating her after she allegedly warned her supervisor that Conklin was not compensating employees in accordance with Kansas law. She advanced a public policy argument under the Kansas Wage Payment Act (KWPA) and as a whistleblower.

The United States District Court for the District of Kansas granted summary judgment in favor of Conklin on the plaintiff's Title VII and retaliatory discharge claims, determining that she failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to (1) whether Conklin's stated reasons for terminating her were pretextual or (2) whether she properly invoked public policy protections against a retaliatory discharge claim. The plaintiff appealed the lower court's judgment, and Conklin retained Messrs. Rupe and Kreifel to represent the company in the appeal.

In briefing and at a lively oral argument before the 10th Circuit, the plaintiff argued that the lower court erred in granting summary judgment on her discrimination claim because she had established that a similarly-situated male manager, who remained employed, had received written warnings after fellow employees complained that he sexually harassed them. She further contended that a text message established that this manager convinced the general manager to terminate her.

The 10th Circuit reasoned that the plaintiff provided no evidence that similarly-situated male co-workers committed conduct that was akin to hers without incurring discipline. The Court further concluded that the text message at issue was a classic example of hearsay evidence, which the lower court correctly excluded. On the plaintiff's retaliatory discharge claim, the Court determined that she had failed to show that she lodged any complaint that was protected under Kansas law. Accordingly, the 10th Circuit affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Conklin on the plaintiff's Title VII and retaliatory discharge claims.

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