The Fifth Circuit recently issued a helpful ruling to plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases in Heinsohn v. Carabin & Shaw, P.C., 832 F.3d 224 (5th Cir. 2016), reminding courts that questions of authenticity and credibility must be reserved for a jury to resolve.
Ms. Heinsohn, the plaintiff, worked as a legal assistant in the law firm Carabin & Shaw, P.C. (C&S). Two weeks after Ms. Heinsohn left the office on maternity leave, C&S terminated her employment. Ms. Heinsohn filed a lawsuit alleging she was wrongfully terminated because of her pregnancy, in violation of state and federal law.
In response, C&S asserted several reasons for terminating Ms. Heinsohn, including missing deadlines, failing to complete tasks, and failing to disclose unmet deadlines. The lower court judge granted summary judgment for C&S, finding no issue of fact for trial and dismissing Ms. Heinsohn’s claims.
The Fifth Circuit overturned the grant of summary judgment and remanded Ms. Heinsohn’s case to the lower court to proceed to trial. In a strongly worded reminder, the appeals court highlighted that judges must resist the temptation to weigh the credibility of evidence when presented with a pretrial motion for summary judgment.
This was a factually complex case with a lot of detail and small, though crucial, factual differences between the parties’ versions of the events. In addition, Ms. Heinsohn contested the authenticity and the meaning of some of the evidence presented by the employer. The appeals court’s opinion spent twelve pages solely in analyzing the record evidence and reviewing both sides of the story in detail. As the Fifth Circuit noted, Ms. Heinsohn’s testimony could not be discounted any more than that of her former employer’s witnesses. Also, the court stressed, the authenticity of the contents of documents in evidence was a legitimate question for the jury to resolve in this case.