A federal appeals court reinstated a retaliation lawsuit filed by a fired University of Michigan custodial supervisor, pointing to the short time period between her support for a disabled former worker and her termination.
Karen Zarza, who is now deceased, worked for the university from 2003 to 2017 and for much of her tenure supervised between 15 and 20 janitors and custodians, according to Friday’s ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Joshua Zarza, substituted party on behalf of Karen Zarza, deceased, v. Board of Regents of the University of Michigan.
One of the custodians under her supervision suffered a series of work-related injuries that he said left him disabled and was fired by the university, the ruling said.
The former employee filed two lawsuits against the university, and Ms. Zarza said she planned to testify on his behalf at a meeting with supervisors in May 2017.
Ms. Zarza was put on administrative leave in September 2017 and later terminated.
She filed suit in U.S. District Court in Port Huron, Michigan, on charges including retaliation. The district court granted the university summary judgment, which was overturned by a three-judge appeals court panel.
“A jury could find that the University’s proffered reason” for her termination, which was alleged unprofessional conduct, “served as a pretext for retaliation,” the ruling said.
“Other realities undermine the University’s claimed rationale,” it said, including that she had worked for the university for 14 years without documented discipline and had been recommended for a promotion a year before her termination.
“Recall the timing. Four months separated Zarza’s initial complaint” from a supervisor’s decision to suspend her, the panel said, in reversing the lower court and holding a jury should hear the case.
Plaintiff attorney Michael N. Hanna, with Morgan & Morgan P.A. in Southfield, Michigan, said in a statement, “We are pleased that the Sixth Circuit reversed summary judgment and look forward to a jury deciding this matter on the merits.”
The university’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.