Employment Law Daily Repeated invitations to Bible study before firing support Buddhist’s bias claim
Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Repeated invitations to Bible study before firing support Buddhist’s bias claim

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

Whether a supervisor’s repeated (and repeatedly declined) invitations to study the Bible with a Buddhist employee were a factor in the decision to terminate the employee and replace her with a significantly more experienced Christian was a jury question, a federal district court in Indiana determined. However, finding no evidence to support national origin or race discrimination, retaliation, or a hostile work environment, the court granted the employer summary judgment on those claims (Martin v. Stoops Buick, Inc., May 24, 2016, Young, R.). Reading the Bible. Hired on a part-time basis shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen and obtaining an accounting degree, the Chinese-American Buddhist employee began working as a payroll clerk for an auto dealership even though she had no dealership accounting experience. Her supervisor provided her with about five hours of training each week to start. During her first few months at work, her supervisor offered to read the Bible with her after overhearing the employee mention that her daughter wanted to be baptized but the employee did not understand what that meant. The employee declined. The following month, her supervisor asked her about her interest in attending church or reading the Bible five more times. A month later, her supervisor asked her if she were interested in moving to a full-time payroll accounting position that was to become available; she also asked to read the Bible with the employee, who agreed “to please her.” Dodging the meetings. Weekly meetings to read the Bible continued for two months, but because the employee did not want to tell her supervisor she did not want to continue, she enrolled her daughter in swimming and karate classes and then told her supervisor she no longer had time to read with her. According to the employee, her supervisor was very upset, offered to change the night they met, but the employee said she’d rather spend time with her family. Shortly thereafter, the employee’s daughter broke her leg, but several months later, after overhearing that her daughter’s leg had healed, the supervisor called the employee into her office to ask if the Bible studies could resume. She declined. Losing the full-time position. Two days later, the employee was offered the full-time accounting position. Meanwhile, however, her supervisor received the resume of an assistant office manager who had been in charge of payroll for a 600-employee dealership, had 19 years of relevant experience, and who came highly recommended by two dealership managers who previously had worked with her. Stalling the employee’s full-time start date, the supervisor continued discussions with the other applicant. On a Friday, the supervisor asked the employee again if she was sure she could not read the Bible with her, and the employee refused; on Monday, she was fired because “she was not a good fit,” made mistakes, and required too much training. Instead, the applicant, an American-born Caucasian Christian, was hired to replace her. No race, national origin bias issue. Although the employee alleged race, national origin, and religious discrimination and retaliation, in the court’s opinion, the case (and the employer’s motion for summary judgment) turned on the supervisor’s “quest” to conduct a Bible study with the employee. Otherwise, the employee’s sole evidence of race and national origin discrimination was that she was replaced by a Caucasian American, which was not enough to raise a material fact issue regarding race and national origin discrimination. Summary judgment was granted against those claims. Religious bias claim survives. Denying summary judgment on the religious discrimination claim, the court suggested that a reasonable juror could find the employee’s termination was motivated by her refusal to continue reading the Bible with her supervisor. She had received a very favorable review after completing her 90-day probation; how many mistakes she made was disputed; and she felt “she must participate in Bible study to ‘please’ her supervisor, who was upset after the Bible study ended and attempted to resume it several times after the employee indicated she was not interested. In fact, the last time her supervisor asked to renew the Bible study was one working day before she was terminated because she was not a “good fit” for the position. Because the supervisor had just offered the employee a full-time position and a raise, a reasonable juror could disbelieve the rationale for her firing—that her replacement was more qualified and required no training—especially where her replacement was a Christian and the Buddhist employee had just refused to continue Bible study with the supervisor. On the other hand … But, stressed the court, a reasonable juror also could find that the supervisor offered to teach the employee about Christianity solely because the employee was talking about her daughter’s baptism and the Bible study participation was wholly unrelated to her job. Her supervisor gave the employee a favorable 90-day review and a raise after she first rejected the Bible study and offered a full-time job two days after she declined Bible study again. Accordingly, a reasonable juror could find the dealership terminated the employee because a far more qualified applicant (regardless of her religion) who did not require extensive training provided an unsolicited resume. Hostile work environment. Rejecting the employee’s hostile environment claims, the court noted the lack of any evidence that anyone made any derogatory or offensive comments about the employee’s race, national origin, or religion or did anything to unreasonably interfere with her work environment. But her supervisor did ask the employee to either read the Bible with her or attend church approximately 12 times within a seven-month period. However, these requests were not accompanied with any threats or derogatory comments or promise or benefits. Her Buddhist beliefs were neither disagreed with nor condemned. Her supervisor never expressed any anger, nor did she tell the employee she should go to church or become a Christian. And the employee never complained to anyone at the dealership nor told the supervisor that her invitations were unwelcome. The court thus granted summary judgment to the employer on the claims for racial, national origin, and religious harassment. Retaliation, emotional distress. Granting summary judgment against the employee’s retaliation claims, the court pointed out the employee admitted she never complained to anyone at the company, and thus she engaged in no protected activity. Finally, the fact that the employee quit her other part-time job in reliance on a full-time position at the dealer was not, as a matter of law, “extreme and outrageous” conduct to support an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

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