A federal appeals court reinstated a retaliation lawsuit filed by a fired University of Michigan custodian, pointing to the short period of time between her support of a disabled former employee and her termination.
Karen Zarza, who is now deceased, worked for the university from 2003 to 2017 and during much of his 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, Substitute 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 fired by the university, the ruling said.
The former employee filed two lawsuits against the university, and Zarza said she planned to testify on his behalf at a meeting with supervisors in May 2017.
Zarza was placed on administrative leave in September 2017 and later terminated.
She filed suit in U.S. District Court in Port Huron, Michigan, alleging retaliation. The district court granted the university summary judgment, which was reversed by a three-judge appeals court panel.
“A jury could find that the university’s stated reason” for her termination, which was alleged unprofessional conduct, “functioned as a pretext for retaliation,” the ruling said.
“Other realities undermine the university’s purported justification,” it said, including that she had worked for the university for 14 years with no documented discipline and had been recommended for a promotion a year before her termination.
“Remember the timing. Four months separated Zarza’s first complaint” from a supervisor’s decision to suspend her, the panel said, in reversing the lower court and holding a jury should try the case.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael N. Hanna, with Morgan & Morgan PA in Southfield, Michigan, said in a statement: “We are pleased that the Sixth Circuit reversed the summary judgment and look forward to a jury deciding this issue on the merits.”
The university’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.