The Tennessee Supreme Court recently issued two decisions that likely will make it more difficult for Tennessee employers to obtain summary judgment (and, thus, avoid going to trial) on state-law retaliatory discharge claims. In Kinsler v. Berkline (September 2010) and Gossett v. Tractor Supply Co. (September 2010), the TNSC held that the McDonnell Douglas framework is inapplicable at the summary judgment stage because it is incompatible with Tennessee's summary judgment jurisprudence.
Summary judgment operates to dispose of cases only when there is no genuine issue of material fact. Thus, in order to win summary judgment, the TNSC found that the employer must establish that a case presents no genuine issue of material fact 1) by pointing to evidence that affirmatively negates (disapproves) a material factual allegation made by the employee; or 2) by showing that the employee cannot prove an essential element of the claim at trial. Gossett also suggests a third means by which summary judgment may be obtained – when the employer presents undisputed evidence that its legitimate reason was the exclusive motivation for discharging the employee.
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