Employment discrimination laws protect employees from discrimination. They do not protect against “ordinary workplace experiences” that offend one’s sensibilities or result in hurt feelings. A Connecticut woman found that out the hard way when a Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment against her. There was no dispute as to any material fact and the employer was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Thus, there was no need for a trial on the merits.
The employee in question was fired from her “at will” position as Public Relations Coordinator for a large corporation because of her volatile workplace behavior spanning three years. She claimed that she was fired because of her age, and that she had suffered intentional infliction of emotional distress as a result.
Establishing a “But For” Cause
Under the applicable law, the employee must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination. If she does, the burden then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Assuming such a reason, the employee may then prevail if she can show that the employer’s action was in fact the result of discrimination, i.e., that the stated reason is “pretextual.”
The employee must further prove that age was a “but for” cause for the challenged action and not merely a contributing or motivating factor. In this case, the employee was unable to show that her age was the sole, i.e., “but for” cause of her termination.
In fairness to the employer, the employee’s insubordination was evident from the record. On one occasion, the employee asked her manger if she had “stopped taking her medication.” Nor did some favorable evaluations raise a genuine issue of material fact as to pretext. The court concluded that isolated positive feedback was entirely consistent with the explanation for her termination: sporadic inappropriate behavior over the course of several years. A reasonable jury would have no reason to doubt the employer’s explanation for the employee’s discharge.
The employee also complained about the “tone” that was used with her and that she was “distraught” about negative comments she received. This formed the basis for her claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court had no trouble dismissing this claim, as well. “These ordinary workplace experiences clearly do not rise to the level of being ‘so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.’”
It was in this context that the court made the observation that employers are not liable for doing stupid or even wicked things in the absence of a sufficient connection between the employee’s age and termination of her employment.
The employment law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related disputes and assist clients from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in resolving such issues. Please contact our Westport office at 203-221-3100.