- A Texas company’s safety policy allowing for immediate termination in instances involving a severe accident has played a key role in its defense against a disability discrimination lawsuit (Henry v. Spectrum LLC, formerly dba Time Warner Cable Texas LLC; et al. No. 19-10452 (5th Cir., Nov. 21, 2019)).
- Kenneth Warner worked as a maintenance technician for Time Warner for 23 years until he ran a red light, injuring several people. A committee reviewed the details and decided that the severity and avoidable nature of the accident warranted termination. Henry sued, claiming that the adverse employment action was based on his diabetes, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- A lower court said Henry’s ADA claim failed because he did not show that the employer's reason for terminating him was pretext. On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed, stating that he failed to "create a question of fact as to whether Time Warner relied reasonably and in good faith on the review committee’s conclusion." The court also noted that conduct can sometimes be a legitimate basis for termination, even when it stems from a disability.
The ADA protects qualified individuals with a disability from workplace bias. However, this case illustrates that employers remain free to take adverse employment actions as long as they're based on a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. The appeals court in this instance noted that there was no was discrimination because the plaintiff had not shown that his diabetes was a factor in his firing, regardless of whether it was a factor in the accident.
But, uneven discipline can undermine an employer's decision. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has explained the importance of even policy enforcement and discipline. If two employees commit a similar offense, an employer may not subject them to different forms of discipline on the basis of protected factors such as age or race, according to the commission. For example, another appeals court in August allowed the retaliation claims of an African American lab worker to move forward, in part because of evidence that other, similar co-workers were treated better.
HR needs to ensure policies are applied consistently, and that employees who violate the policies experience the same disciplinary actions. Otherwise, disciplinary actions may look like discrimination and retaliation, regardless of the intent. A court found retaliation, for example, when an Asian-American postal worker found asleep on the job was fired while her white co-workers who committed similar infractions were not.