- A furniture manufacturer's reasons for firing an African-American employee weren't pretext for race discrimination, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Gooden v. Knoll, Inc. No. 19-1652 (6th Cir. March 12, 2020)).
- During the employee's tenure at Knoll Inc., he received warnings for "several relatively minor infractions," according to court documents, but eventually began to suspect that these and other issues were based on his race. After an altercation with his immediate supervisor and another manager, the company gave him a last-chance agreement, saying he had "acted in a disorderly and disrespectful manner and that he had to improve his behavior immediately." After another alleged misstep, it fired him. The employee sued, claiming, among other things, discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- A trial court ruled in favor of the employer and the 6th Circuit affirmed, finding that the plaintiff failed to show the employer's reasons for firing him were pretext for racial bias. The appeals court specifically noted that he missed a mandatory meeting the day after he signed the agreement stating that any additional policy violations would result in his termination; the firing wasn't "fishy and suspicious" enough to call missing a mandatory meeting into doubt.
Employers generally are free to make personnel decisions as long as the moves are motivated by legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, courts say. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has explained that if two employees commit a similar offense, the employees can't be disciplined differently on the basis of a protected characteristic such as race, age, sex or national origin.
Employers should also be aware that when they enact employment policies and practices that appear to be neutral but have a disproportionately negative impact on job applicants or employees with characteristics that are protected by law, federal and state employment laws may be violated unless the polices or practices are job-related and necessary to the operation of the business.
HR should make sure that disciplinary actions are applied consistently, experts say. When disciplinary action closely follows protected activity — such as filing a complaint with the EEOC — employers will need to take special care to record the facts justifying the discipline, sources previously told HR Dive. Without those details, workers may be able to establish a prima facie of retaliation case based on timing alone.