The Washington state Supreme Court today kicked a nearly four-year-old lawsuit against Microsoft back to trial, siding with a former employee who alleges she was given poor performance scores in retaliation for a prior claim she leveled against the company.
Dawn Cornwell, the former employee, worked at Microsoft for close to 16 years until 2012, according to her LinkedIn profile. But, according to court documents, she was laid off as part of a larger round of job cuts. She couldn’t be re-hired at Microsoft because of poor performance reviews that she didn’t learn about until several years later, the judges wrote in the opinion. She sued the company in 2015.
The ruling boils down to whether Cornwell had shown enough proof that her sub-standard reviews were tied to a previous claim she had made against the company, which never materialized into a lawsuit and was settled. A King County Superior Court judge dismissed Cornwell’s lawsuit in 2016, granting Microsoft summary judgment, and a state appeals court agreed. However, the Washington Supreme Court saw it differently.
“Given (the reviewers’) knowledge of the suit and the poor performance rating and termination that followed shortly thereafter, it is a reasonable inference that these actions were in retaliation for Cornwell’s previous lawsuit,” according to the Supreme Court’s decision.
The judges continued: “In addition, Cornwell had previously received positive ratings and promotions during her employment at Microsoft. In the year that she was terminated, ‘several’ other managers disagreed with (the) decision to rate Cornwell poorly and thought that she should be rated higher based on her performance.”
Microsoft issued the following statement on the ruling: “The issue before the Court was a specific legal issue and the court did not rule on whether retaliation actually took place. There was no retaliation and we are confident the trial court will agree. We do not tolerate retaliation and we make it a priority that every employee at Microsoft feels empowered to raise concerns.”
Cornwell’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cornwell’s original claim comes from concerns that her supervisor, who was involved with a colleague, was displaying romantic favoritism and her reviews might suffer. Cornwell received poor reviews from her next manager, a man, as well as a female manager several years later.
Eight of the nine state supreme court judges signed on to the opinion, but one judge disagreed. Judge Sheryl Gordon McCloud argued that the opinion assumes a poor performance rating from a male manager to a female employee equates to discrimination, an interpretation she calls “impermissibly overbroad.” McCloud also argued that Cornwell had not done enough to prove that her reviewers knew enough about her prior claim — and whether it was protected by Washington Law Against Discrimination — to retaliate.
“The majority has not identified any facts showing that the supervisors in this case knew or suspected that Cornwell previously engaged in WLAD-protected activity,” McCloud wrote.