SPECIAL ALERT—FOCUS ON INDIANA: Indiana Supreme Court Clarifies Standard For Summary Judgment

August 12, 2016 / News

Facts

In Gaff v. Indiana-Purdue University of Fort Wayne, 2016 Ind. LEXIS 287 (April 22, 2016), the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of Purdue on a cause of action for alleged retaliatory termination from employment due to discrimination brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so, the Court clarified the standard for granting summary judgment on federal statutory claims brought in Indiana state court. Gaff claimed that Purdue terminated him on account of his sexual orientation and in retaliation for making a complaint against a co-worker who claimed that Gaff behaved inappropriately toward him. The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that Purdue was entitled to summary judgment. Recovery under a Title VII retaliation claim requires that a plaintiff prove (1) he engaged in a statutorily protected activity; (2) he suffered a material adverse action; and (3) a causal link between the two. The Court found that the only arguably “protected activity” was Gaff’s complaint to his supervisor that his co-worker called him derogatory names related to his weight and sexual orientation but those complaints did not demonstrate that discrimination occurred because of sex, race, national origin, or some other protected class under the statute.

Analysis

While the Supreme Court approved dismissal of the Title VII claim, it disagreed with the summary judgment standard employed by the Court of Appeals. It instructed that, even though Indiana Trial Rule 56 is “nearly identical” to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, Indiana summary judgment procedure is different from federal practice which permits the moving party to “merely show that the party carrying the burden of proof lacks evidence on a necessary element” of his cause of action. Indiana imposes “a more onerous burden” by requiring the party moving for summary judgment to “affirmatively negate an opponent’s claim.” Under Indiana’s methodology, the moving party must demonstrate the “absence of any genuine issue of fact as to a determinative issue, at which point the burden shifts to the non-movant to come forward with contrary evidence showing an issue for the trier of fact.” The Court went on to clarify that, where a federal statutory claim is brought in Indiana State court, the Indiana methodology, rather than the federal, must be used to determine if summary judgment is appropriate.

Learning Point: Even where a plaintiff relies on a federal statute as the basis of recovery, summary judgment will not be granted in Indiana unless the defendant can affirmatively show that there is a complete absence of any genuine issue of fact material to the cause of action asserted. As in Gaff, Indiana courts will focus exclusively on the parties’ Agreed Statement of Material Facts and the parties’ Designation of Evidence to determine whether a genuine issue of material fact exists. A party considering bringing a summary judgment motion must be mindful of the “onerous burden” it will face in Indiana and must be sure that no material fact disclosed in its Designation of Evidence is subject to challenge. For more Indiana practice information, please contact Kim (kkearney@clausen.com).

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