By Harold S. Berman J.D.
The Catholic manager was fired for belittling and inappropriate behavior, including telling a Jewish coworker that “your people killed Jesus.”
A Catholic marketing manager fired by Tiffany and Company for consistently abrasive behavior toward coworkers could not claim religious discrimination and retaliation under Title VII or the New York City Human Rights Law, a federal district court in New York ruled. The court granted Tiffany’s summary judgment motion, finding that the employee was disciplined and fired for ongoing inappropriate behavior, and that her religiously-motivated comment was offensive and not deserving of Title VII protection. Her retaliation claim also failed, as she could not show that any of Tiffany’s actions were motivated by her complaints or EEOC charge (Rightnour v. Tiffany and Co., February 11, 2019, Koeltl, J.).
Abrasive manager. The employee worked as a marketing director for Tiffany and Company. Shortly after she started, her supervisor and HR began receiving complaints about her abrasive style and lack of professionalism. Her coworkers found her to be dismissive in meetings, and complained she would belittle them. The employee also was late turning in assignments. Her first performance review in the spring of 2014, although positive, noted concerns such as her unsustainable approach to managing multiple projects.
Comments. That summer, one of the employee’s subordinates complained about the employee’s disparaging comments concerning Hispanic workers and Asians, and that the employee told a Jewish subordinate that Good Friday is when “your people killed Jesus.” She also complained that the employee micromanaged her direct reports, making it difficult for them to finish projects on time.
Warning. HR investigated, and consequently issued a warning to the employee, which stated she was at risk of termination because of her conduct and performance. The warning specifically referenced the employee’s remarks about Hispanics, and that the Jews killed Jesus, and recommended the employee attend a management development program.
Attorney letter. Three months later, in December 2014, the employee’s attorney sent Tiffany a letter, asserting that the warning discriminated against the employee based on her religion. The attorney contended that Tiffany issued the warning because the employee expressed her belief that the Jews killed Jesus. Meanwhile, HR and the employee’s supervisor continued to receive complaints from coworkers about the employee’s inappropriate comments and behavior. She also attempted to transfer to another department without telling her supervisor, even though she knew her warning status prohibited her from transferring.
The employee’s March 2015 review noted her difficulty working with others, and the continued negative feedback coworkers gave concerning her communication, personality, and management issues. In April, when a coworker was promoted and became the employee’s supervisor, the employee complained to the supervisor and other coworkers that she was more deserving of the position, even though she was ineligible because of her warning status. The employee’s new supervisor continued to receive complaints from coworkers about her behavior, and the employee continued to demonstrate performance issues such as not meeting deadlines.
Development plan. In June, Tiffany placed her on a development plan. The plan indicated that the employee had not attended the previously recommended management development program, and specified ways the employee needed to improve her communication, professionalism, and time management. The employee told her supervisor she did not agree with the plan. The supervisor continued to receive negative feedback from coworkers. Although the employee attended the management training program in July, the program’s leader reported that the employee acted dismissive and uninterested, which negatively affected the experience of other attendees.
Termination. After concluding that the employee showed no interest or willingness to improve, senior management terminated her. Tiffany did not replace her but did hire an individual, also Catholic, to fulfill some of her responsibilities. The employee sued, alleging religious discrimination and retaliation under Title VII and the NYCHRL.
Discrimination. The court granted summary judgment on the employee’s religious discrimination claim, because she could not show that discrimination played any part in the adverse employment actions taken against her. HR’s investigation was led by a coworker who herself was Catholic, and there was no evidence anyone at Tiffany ever said anything potentially discriminatory concerning the employee’s religion.
Nor could the employee show she was treated differently from other employees because she was Catholic. She offered no evidence of similarly situated employees with similar communication challenges who were not disciplined. The individual who performed some of the employee’s tasks after her termination also was Catholic.
In contrast, Tiffany brought substantial evidence that it disciplined and terminated the employee for nondiscriminatory reasons, including her ongoing communication and partnering deficiencies, inappropriate comments and behavior, and micromanagement. The employee presented no evidence that Tiffany’s reliance on numerous coworker complaints was pretextual. The court also rejected her contention that Tiffany’s decisions to place her on a development plan and terminate her were faulty, and so must have been pretextual. Rather, Tiffany’s actions were based on the continued negative feedback it received and the employee’s failure to improve or be open to feedback. That the employee merely disagreed with Tiffany’s assessment did not show pretext.
Nor, as the employee insisted, did Tiffany’s decision to discipline her in part for her comment about Jews and Jesus’ death constitute discrimination. Tiffany cited the comment to the employee, not because it concerned religion, but because it was offensive and inappropriate.
Retaliation. The court also dismissed the employee’s retaliation claims, rejecting her contention that Tiffany placed her on a development plan and terminated her in retaliation for her attorney’s letter alleging religious discrimination and her subsequent EEOC charge. The employee did not show any causal connection between the adverse employment actions and her protected activities. Tiffany issued its warning to her three months before the attorney’s letter, and seven months before her EEOC charge. Almost all of Tiffany’s subsequent alleged retaliatory actions were progressive discipline that resulted from the warning and the employee’s subsequent failure to change her behavior.
Additionally, the termination occurred eight months after the attorney’s letter, four months after her first EEOC charge, and two months after her amended charge, and so there was insufficient temporal proximity to infer causation. Nor did the employee show direct evidence of retaliation, instead merely questioning Tiffany’s perception of her performance.
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