This fancy sounding legal maxim simply refers to the logical fallacy of believing that temporal succession implies a causal relation. That is, the close or suspicious timing of two events does not necessarily lead to the logical conclusion that one event caused the other.
This maxim is not merely a lifeless old saying – it was used recently by a U.S. Court of Appeals* to reiterate the law that the “temporal sequence” of an employee’s firing — in this case just as he
handed his boss a note opposing a discriminatory action — did not as a matter of law show causation for a viable retaliation claim.
Sound harsh? It really isn’t. In this case, where direct evidence of retaliation was absent, the Court concluded that it was up to the jury to determine whether, indeed, the “temporal sequence” showed causation. The Court stated that the timing of the firing “could support an adverse inference by a reasonable trier of fact.” While suspicious timing may be merely suspicious, and no more, the Court said that “[o]ccasionally, however, an adverse action [the firing] comes so close on the heels of a protected act that an inference of causation is sensible.” It all depends on the context.
While the Court did state that Title VII does not require an employer to have a “just cause” for a firing, nonetheless “an employer who advances a fishy reason takes the risk that disbelief of the reason will support an inference that it is a pretext for discrimination.”
Concluding, the Court noted that even though temporal succession does not imply a causal relation — Post Hoc Ergo Propter! — it is also false to say that timing never supports an inference of causation. “The closer two events are, the more likely that the first caused the second. … A jury, not a judge, should decide whether the inference is appropriate.”
Moral: You better not have a fishy reason to fire someone just as he complains of discrimination.