Eddie Oquendo v. Margaritaville of CT, LLC
-- June 24, 2011
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
Facts and Procedural History
This action arises from the alleged wrongful termination of the plaintiff, Eddie Oquendo, by the defendant, Margaritaville of CT, LLC. The plaintiff's four-count complaint, filed on December 21, 2010, alleges violation of § 31–290a, common-law wrongful discharge, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The defendant filed a motion to strike and memorandum in support on January 28, 2011. The plaintiff filed his objection and memorandum in opposition on April 14, 2011. In his memorandum, the plaintiff does not contest the defendant's motion as to counts two, three and four, but reserves the right to replead those counts. Therefore, the court will only address the defendant's motion as to count one, alleging violation of § 31–290a.
“The purpose of a motion to strike is to contest ․ the legal sufficiency of the allegations of any complaint ․ to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Fort Trumbull Conservancy, LLC v. Alves, 262 Conn. 480, 498, 815 A.2d 1188 (2003). “If any facts provable under the express and implied allegations in the plaintiff's complaint support a cause of action ․ the complaint is not vulnerable to a motion to strike.” Bouchard v. People's Bank, 219 Conn. 465, 471, 594 A.2d 1 (1991). The defendant argues that count one should be stricken because the plaintiff fails to make out a prima facie claim of retaliatory discharge.
In count one, the plaintiff alleges: “On or about September 2008, plaintiff was hired by the defendant to work as a chef ․ The plaintiff performed all of his duties in a satisfactory and capable manner throughout the term of his employment with the defendant ․ On or about January 21, 2010, plaintiff sustained an injury to his face, which arose out of and in the course of his employment with defendant, and he made claim for Workers' Compensation benefits in accordance with the Workers' Compensation Act ․ As a result of said work related injury, plaintiff required medical treatment for his condition and otherwise exercise his rights under the Workers' Compensation Act ․ Subsequent to his return to work, defendant commenced a pattern of activity directed at the plaintiff, including, but not limited to, targeting him, demeaning him and otherwise treating him in harsh fashion and treating him differently than workers who had not exercised their rights under the Workers' Compensation Act ․ On or about June 23, 2010, the plaintiff was terminated from work ․ The stated reason for plaintiff's termination was use of obscene words to a co-worker ․ The stated reason for termination, however, was pretextual as plaintiff was terminated for reasons associated with his work-related injury ․ The plaintiff's termination was in violation of Connecticut General Statutes § 31–290a ․”
General Statutes § 31–290a(a) provides, in relevant part: “No employer who is subject to the provisions of this chapter shall discharge, or cause to be discharged, or in any manner discriminate against any employee because the employee has filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits or otherwise exercised his rights afforded to him pursuant to the provisions of this chapter.”
“To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under § 31–290a, the plaintiff must show that she was exercising a right afforded her under the [Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31–275 et seq.] and that the defendant discriminated against her for exercising that right ․ [T]he plaintiff must show a causal connection between exercising her rights under the act and the alleged discrimination she suffered. Implicit in this requirement is a showing that the defendant knew or was otherwise aware that the plaintiff had exercised her rights under the act ․ [T]o establish [a] prima facie case of discrimination, the plaintiff must first present sufficient evidence ․ that is, evidence sufficient to permit a rational trier of fact to find  that she engaged in protected [activity] ․  that the employer was aware of this activity,  that the employer took adverse action against the plaintiff, and  that a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action, i.e., that a retaliatory motive played a part in the adverse employment action.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Martin v. Westport, 108 Conn.App. 710, 717–18, 950 A.2d 19 (2008).
Specifically, the defendant contends that the plaintiff “does not offer any factual allegation in support of the fourth element, i.e., some basis for an inference of a causal relationship.” The defendant argues that the plaintiff's termination occurred six months after he filed a workers' compensation claim, and that the plaintiff acknowledged that he was terminated for his use of obscene words to a co-worker. Moreover, the defendant argues that although the plaintiff alleges that the stated reason for his termination was pretextual, “he offers no factual basis for this conclusory statement.”
The Appellate Court has stated that “[a] causal connection may be established either indirectly by showing that the protected activity was followed closely by discriminatory treatment, or through other evidence such as disparate treatment of fellow employees who engaged in similar conduct, or directly through evidence of retaliatory animus directed against a plaintiff by a defendant.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Martin v. Westport, supra, 108 Conn.App. 719. Furthermore, “the inquiry into whether temporal proximity establishes causation is factual in nature. There is no ‘bright line’ to define the outer limits beyond which a temporal relationship is too attenuated to establish a causal relationship between [protected activity] and an allegedly retaliatory action.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ayantola v. Board of Trustees of Technical Colleges, 116 Conn.App. 531, 539, 976 A.2d 784 (2009).
By example, in Simoes v. Olin Corp., Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV 06 6000206 (June 4, 2010, Cremins, J.) (50 Conn. L. Rptr. 26), the court denied the defendant employer's motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiff's § 31–290a claim. In that case, the court was presented with uncontested evidence which demonstrated that approximately eight months after the plaintiff filed his workers' compensation claim, his employment was terminated by the defendant. See id. In reaching its decision, the court noted: “Unlike other areas of law, where a defendant files a motion for summary judgment challenging the merits of an employment discrimination claim, the plaintiff has the initial burden of persuasion, albeit an attenuated one ․ [T]he burden of persuasion that an employment discrimination plaintiff must meet in order to defeat summary judgment at the prima facie stage is de minimis.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., 27.
As a result, it concluded that “[w]hether an eight month lapse of time between the adverse action taken by the defendant, i.e. the plaintiff's termination, and the filing of the plaintiff's workers' compensation claim establishes the causal connection necessary to establish the plaintiff's prima facie case is an issue of material fact to be decided by the fact finder.” Id., 28. See also Ruiz v. Dunbar Armored, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield, Docket No. CV 03 0404213 (July 19, 2005, Hiller, J.) (39 Conn. L. Rptr. 710, 712–13) (denying summary judgment finding that, given the three-month gap between plaintiff's injury and his discharge, “[t]here could have been a ‘retaliatory animus' that was attributed to his filing his workers' compensation claim”).
In the present case, the plaintiff alleges that there is a causal connection between his January 21, 2010 injury and subsequent Workers' Compensation claim, and “a pattern of activity ․ including, but not limited to, targeting him, demeaning him and otherwise treating him in harsh fashion and treating him differently than workers who had not exercised their rights under the Workers' Compensation Act” after he returned to work. Furthermore, the plaintiff alleges that he was terminated on June 23, 2010, approximately six months after his injury and that “[t]he stated reason for termination ․ was pretextual as plaintiff was terminated for reasons associated with his work-related injury.” The court is satisfied that the plaintiff's express and implied allegations support a cause of action pursuant to § 31–290a. As a result, count one is not vulnerable to the defendant's motion to strike.
For all of the foregoing reasons, the defendant's motion to strike count one is hereby denied. By agreement of the plaintiff, the defendant's motion to strike counts two, three and four is hereby granted.
Martin, Robert A., J.