Employment Law Daily Outburst at disciplinary meeting led to discharge, not marital status discrimination
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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Outburst at disciplinary meeting led to discharge, not marital status discrimination

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

While the employee’s outburst may have been triggered by her need to care for her husband after telling him she’d been demoted, she was fired for her insubordinate remark, not marital status discrimination.

An employee who was terminated after making disparaging remarks about the company’s motto as she was departing a disciplinary meeting could not revive her claims that the company violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) by engaging in marital status discrimination and/or retaliation. At the meeting, the employee accused the CEO of using her husband’s bipolar disorder against her and issuing a written warning because of his situation. However, it was undisputed that the CEO had received reports from staff that she had caused a scene in the office, made disparaging remarks about the company, and used profanity that could be overheard by coworkers and customers, the Eighth Circuit found, affirming dismissal of her claims on summary judgment (Harrell v. Handi Medical Supply, Inc., April 9, 2019, Colloton, S.).

Upset over announced demotion. In 2013, the employee was approved to take intermittent FMLA leave to support her husband, who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. In a meeting on August 5, 2015, management announced temporary changes to its customer service department, which required the employee to accept a demotion from her position as lead customer service representative. When she returned to her desk she sent an email to her husband stating she was “really upset.” She then called him, and he threatened to come to the office to talk to CEO about the changes.

Worried about his reaction, she requested FMLA leave for the afternoon, which the HR director approved. She then returned to her desk and reportedly threw her ID badge into her purse, said she “has had it with this place,” and cursed loudly within earshot of customers. When a coworker asked her a work-related question, she told him to talk to another manager and that “I am done. I got to go. I am done right now.” Her coworkers reported her conduct to the HR director and the chief operating officer, who reported it to the CEO.

Heated disciplinary meeting. The CEO prepared a written warning stating that the employee’s behavior would not be tolerated and that failure to observe workplace rules would result in further discipline, including termination. He gave her the warning in a meeting on August 11, during which she denied that she used profanity and explained that she had left the office frantically because she was worried about her husband. When he responded that she seemed to always have an excuse, she accused him of using her husband’s disability against her. He then asked her why she would tell her husband about the organizational changes if she knew that it would upset him.

At this point, the HR director and another manager joined the meeting. The CEO allegedly “got red-faced,” moved his chair toward the employee, and asked whether she was accusing him of using her husband’s disability against her. She said that she felt that way because he was accusing her of acting unprofessionally after going home due to FMLA leave. He then warned her never to accuse him of discriminating against her because of her husband’s condition.

Remark leads to instant firing. After more discussion, the CEO decided that if she “truly felt that way” then “she would be better off working elsewhere.” The company officials then allegedly observed that if she and her family were unhappy maybe they should “find an exit strategy.” As she was leaving, she muttered the company’s motto (”enriching lives”) in a disparaging way. Hearing the remark, the CEO called her back in and terminated her.

Unnecessary to address “adverse action.” The employee brought this action asserting claims under the FMLA and MHRA, but only the district court’s dismissal of her MHRA claims on summary judgment was at issue on appeal. In particular, she challenged the court’s determination that the only adverse action she suffered was the immediate termination following her disparaging remark, and not the company’s declaration that she would be subject to an “exit strategy.” But the Eighth Circuit found it unnecessary to decide that issue since there were alternative grounds on which to affirm the judgment.

Didn’t engage in protected conduct. As to her retaliation claim, the employee failed to show that she had a good-faith reasonable belief that the conduct she opposed was a violation of the MHRA, and thus did not engage in protected activity. She pointed to her complaint that the CEO was issuing her the written warning because of her marital status (namely, her husband’s situation). However, it was undisputed that the CEO had received reports from staff that she caused a scene in the office, made disparaging remarks about the company, and used profanity that could be overheard by coworkers and customers. While she denied cursing, the CEO undisputedly acted on reports that she had done so, and his motivation was the relevant fact.

Warning issued because of outburst. The fact that her outburst may have been triggered by her husband’s situation did not support a reasonable belief that the CEO issued the written warning because of her marital status. She admitted that if the reports to the CEO were accurate, then her conduct would be cause for discipline, and there was no dispute that the CEO acted on such reports. After he issued the warning, she did raise her husband’s situation as an excuse for her conduct. However, her marital status did not give her license to engage in unprofessional conduct that would be unacceptable from any other employee.

No discrimination based on marital status. She similarly failed to demonstrate that their decision to arrange an “exit strategy” or to ultimately fire her was in fact motivated by her marital status. While the CEO raised the “exit strategy” after she complained about the company using her husband’s situation against her, the record did not support an inference that it suddenly decided to terminate her based on her marital status. Notably, the company had consistently granted her FMLA leave to care for his needs and it was only when she offended the CEO by suggesting that he was unlawfully discriminating that the exit strategy was broached.

Though the CEO asked her why she told her husband about organizational changes during the workday when she knew he would become upset, he was critiquing her judgment and not complaining about her husband’s situation. Moreover, the company’s generic acknowledgment that both she and “her family” were unhappy with recent events was insufficient to show that it acted against her because of her husband’s disability rather than her own conduct and attitude.

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