Posts tagged with "employee rights"

Firing to Prevent Pension Vesting, Without More, Does Not Violate ADEA

In this economy, companies are terminating employees in an effort to increase share value or simply improve the bottom line.  Often it is the older, more senior, and more costly employees that are the first to go.  The question sometimes arises: “Can my employer fire me to prevent my pension from vesting (thereby saving itself money) without violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act?”  The short and surprising answer is “yes,” assuming the absence of other critical allegations necessary to sustain an ADEA claim.

A Relevant Case

In a case out of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a Connecticut employee alleged in his Complaint only that “he was fired by defendants because he was nearing the age of retirement.”  The lower court dismissed this claim and the appellate court affirmed because this was the only fact alleged in the Complaint as evidence of age discrimination.  The United States Supreme Court has held that the firing of an employee to prevent his pension benefits from vesting does not, without more, violate the ADEA.

What essential allegations were missing?  In order to prevail, the plaintiff had to allege facts evincing that his employer was using pension status as a proxy for age, in order to discriminate on the basis of age.  How could he do that?  One way would be to plead and prove that his pension vested due to age and not years of service.  While age and years of service are empirically connected, the Supreme Court has said that they are “analytically distinct.”  What the Complaint lacked were additional allegations supporting a claim of age discrimination, for a successful ADEA plaintiff must prove that age actually motivated the employer’s decision.

The take-away from this case is that victims of age discrimination should consult with an experienced employment law litigator to ensure that an actionable claim is properly alleged in a Complaint.  In the case referred to above, it is impossible to say whether the plaintiff would have prevailed with a more artfully crafted Complaint.  What we do know is that his bare-bones Complaint was dismissed as insufficient without ever being heard on its merits.

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.

Did Basketball Powerhouse Force Coach to Resign Due to Her Disability?

Most people who have lived for some period of time here in Connecticut are amply familiar with the Lady Huskies and Lady Vols fierce decade-long rivalry. Before regular season matches were discontinued five years ago, these games were the highlight of the season. Thus, fans have come to form a love-hate relationship with Pat Summitt, Head Coach of the Lady Vols who has the most wins of any (both male and female) NCAA basketball coach.

It came as a shock to hear on April 18, 2012, after thirty-eight years of coaching, Summitt would be retiring from her post after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia-Alzheimer’s disease just before the start of the 2011-2012 season.[1] “I’ve loved being the head coach at Tennessee for 38 years, but I recognize that the time has come to move into the future and to step into a new role,” explained Summitt.[2]

As it turns out, the decision may not have been entirely that of Summitt.

In a recently released affidavit,[3] Summitt revealed that on March 14, 2012, she met with the University of Tennessee (UT) Athletics Director David Hart, who informed her that she would no longer be the coaching the Lady Vols. Summitt further explained:

This was very surprising to me and very hurtful as that was a decision I would have liked to have made on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my family, doctors, colleagues, and friends and not be told this by Mr. Hart. I felt this was wrong.[4]

UT spokeswoman Margie Nichols denied allegations that Summitt was forced out of her position. “It’s absolutely not true… It was Pat’s idea to become the head coach emeritus. I think she made that really clear at her press conference earlier this year.”[5] Regardless, this leaves many asking: was Summitt forced to resign because of her disability?

Discrimination in the Workplace

Under Connecticut law, employees enjoy a very comprehensive statutory scheme (found here) prohibiting discriminatory practices in the workplace. Unless the employer and its agents (such as administration or management) have a “bona fide occupational qualification or need,” it is a violation of the General Statutes:

To refuse to hire or employ or to bar or to discharge from employment any individual or to discriminate against such individual in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of the individual’s race, color, religious creed, age, sex, marital status, national origin, ancestry, present or past history of mental disability, mental retardation, learning disability or physical disability, including, but not limited to, blindness.[6]

In addition, employees enjoy federal protection of their rights through such legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act, to name just a few.

Discrimination on the basis of disability or another protected class is unfortunately a common occurrence in the workplace, but its prevalence in no way makes it lawful. If you are a teacher, coach, or any employee and you find yourself being the target of adverse employment action on any of the above bases, it is imperative that you consult an experienced and knowledgeable school or employment law practitioner.

Should you have any questions regarding employment discrimination or other education law or employment law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

 


[1] “Pat Summitt’s Early-Onset Dementia: Lady Vols Coach Resigns Less Than A Year After Diagnosis.” Published April 18, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/18/pat-summitt-dementia-early-onset-alzheimers-memory_n_1435380.html

[2] Id.

[3] “Affidavit of Coach Pat Head Summitt.” Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/452632-pat-summitts-affidavit.html

[4] Id.

[5] “Pat Summitt Affidavit: Ex-Tennessee Coach Initially Felt Forced Out Of Job Over Early-Onset Dementia,” by Steve Megargee. Published October 3, 2012. Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/04/pat-summitt-affidavit-tennessee-coach-job_n_1937730.html

[6] Connecticut General Statutes § 46a-60(a). Accessed October 5, 2012: http://www.cga.ct.gov/current/pub/chap814c.htm#Sec46a-60.htm

Hurdles Employees Must Jump in Filing a Claim for Unlawful Discrimination

Here in Connecticut and across the nation, employees from all walks of life routinely face unlawful discriminatory practices and treatment in the workplace. Depending on the nature of the claim, he or she may file civil lawsuits under Title VII (which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin) or the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA).

However, employees need to keep in mind that before they seek recourse with the courts, they must first exhaust all of their administrative remedies. “The exhaustion requirement exists to afford the administrative agency the opportunity to investigate, mediate, and take remedial action.”[1] Failure to do so will result in dismissal of the case (see, for example, this previously-discussed case).

CFEPA Title VII

Furthermore, employees must pay attention to statutory time restrictions for filing administrative charges under Title VII and CFEPA:

To sustain a claim for unlawful discrimination under Title VII in a deferral state such as Connecticut, a plaintiff must file administrative charges with the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunities Commission] within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory acts.[2] … CFEPA requires that a complainant file the administrative charge with the CCHRO [Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities] within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.[3]

Courts are particularly cognizant of these requirements and endorse “strict adherence… [as] the best guarantee of the evenhanded administration of the law.”[4] As a result, the time bar will begin running for each individual adverse employment action against the employee on the date it occurred. Failure to timely file a claim may prevent it from being reviewed by the EEOC or CCHRO.

However, employees often endure discriminatory practices over a prolonged period of time, so even if alleged conduct falls outside of the charging period, it may be reviewable. An important exception to strict adherence is the continuing violation exception, which involves incidents occurring both within and outside the time bar. A continuing violation occurs “where there is proof of specific ongoing discriminatory policies or practices, or where specific and related instances of discrimination are permitted by the employer to continue unremedied for so long as to amount to a discriminatory policy or practice.”[5]

As an employee, it is imperative that you understand Connecticut’s statutory scheme surrounding hiring, evaluation, and termination processes, as well as the requirements for filing a lawsuit under State and federal anti-discrimination law. The attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport.

If you have any questions regarding any employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

 


[1] Stewart v. United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, 762 F.2d 193, 198 (2d. Cir. 1985).

[2] Flaherty v. Metromail Corp., 235 F.3d 133, 136 n.1 (2d Cir. 2000).

[3] Connecticut General Statutes § 46a-82e.

[4] Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 826 (1980).

[5] Cornwell v. Robinson, 23 F.3d 694, 704 (2d Cir. 1994).

Deliberate Indifference Required for School to be Liable under Title IX for Student-Student Harassment

In a New York District decision, a student’s cause of action under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act against the Monroe-Woodbury School District was denied because it did not show deliberate indifference in response to the student’s claim of student-to-student sexual harassment.[1]

Parents on behalf of their fifteen-year-old daughter brought suit against Monroe–Woodbury Central School District pursuant to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that she was deprived of an educational environment free from sexual harassment as required by federal law.

Case Background

Beginning in January 2010, when she was in the eighth grade, the student was subjected to teasing, taunting, and physical bullying by other students, which she reported to her guidance counselor.  She was sexually assaulted by a male classmate who requested a handjob and subsequently ran her hands over the genital area of his pants and attempted to shove her hands down his pants.[2] As a result of the incident, the student alleges that she was subjected to more taunting and name-calling by other students and in response began to engage in self- injurious behavior by cutting herself.

When she began attending Monroe–Woodbury High School in September, another student and friend of the first continued to harass her and in November sexually assaulted her by pinning her against a locker and pushing his hands down her pants and blouse, touching her genital area and breast.[3]  The student began missing school frequently to avoid continued harassment.  At some point she confided in her guidance counselor that her absenteeism and self-injurious behavior was the result of the persistent teasing and the two incidents of sexual assault by her classmates.[4]

The School District recommended that she attend the GO Program, an out-of-district academic program, to which her parents agreed. After her first day there, CF reported to her parents that she was uncomfortable with this placement because the students there were “in many cases, not attending their regular high schools due to serious disciplinary records and incidents.”[5] When her parents again met with the principal, they requested that their daughter be transferred to another public school to continue her high school education.  The principal refused saying there were no other options besides the GO program.[6]

The Allegations

The parent brought suit alleging the school failed to: (1) initiate an investigation upon the parents’ verbal complaint; (2) conduct a prompt, equitable, and thorough investigation of the charges; (3) ensure that immediate corrective action be taken, including subjecting the offending individuals to appropriate disciplinary measures; and (4) inform CF of her right to pursue legal remedies.

Title IX

Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)[7]. Title IX contains an implied private right of action for plaintiffs who bring suit against educational institutions that receive federal funding, and liability may be imposed upon a school district if it is found to be in violation of this law.

Title IX funding recipients may be held liable for student-on-student harassment if the plaintiff can establish damages only where the school district: (1) was deliberately indifferent; (2) to sexual harassment; (3) of which it had actual knowledge; (4) that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived the victim of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.[8] 

A showing of deliberate indifference requires that the school had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment and either responded in a “clearly unreasonable manner in light of the known circumstances,”[9] or responded with remedial action only after a “lengthy and unjustified delay.”[10]

The Court’s Decision

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s assertions that the GO Program was an “inappropriate” placement for her because it did not provide her with a “regular high school environment.” Saying even if it was inappropriate, “Title IX simply does not require recipient school districts to provide students with a ‘regular high school environment.’ Title IX does not prescribe any particular educational experience at all.

Rather, Title IX merely prohibits schools from excluding anyone, on the basis of sex, from participating in an educational program that receives federal assistance; or denying the benefits of such programs on the basis of sex; or subjecting anyone in such programs to discrimination on the basis of sex.”[11]  Finding that the school did not cause the discrimination and the School District took some remedial action (not clearly unreasonable under the circumstances) in response to the student’s complaints, the Court dismissed the action.

Bullying and harassment in school should never be tolerated.  The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable education law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about bullying, student harassment, school liability or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist., 12 CIV. 2200 ER, 2013 WL 177911 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 16, 2013)

[2] Compl.¶¶ 10-11

[3] Compl.¶¶ 12-13

[4] Id.

[5] Compl.¶¶ 14

[6] Id.

[7] Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)

[8] Williams v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Georgia, 477 F.3d 1282, 1293 (11th Cir.2007)

[10] Hayut v. State Univ. of N.Y., 352 F.3d 733, 751 (2d Cir.2003)

[11] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist.

Employee Handbook Alert: Seemingly Neutral Work Rule May Violate NLRA

The National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) gives private-sector employees the unqualified right to engage in “protected concerted activity” which includes discussing among themselves such things as wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.  An employer cannot promulgate a work rule that tends reasonably to chill employees’ exercise of that statutory right.

Karl Knauz Motors, Inc. owned and operated a BMW dealership.  Its employee handbook contained the following (apparently common sense) rule:

(b) Courtesy: Courtesy is the responsibility of every employee.  Everyone is expected to be courteous, polite, and friendly to our customers, vendors and suppliers, as well as to their fellow employees.  No one should be disrespectful or use profanity or any other language which injures the image or reputation of the Dealership.

The Board’s Decision

In a September 28, 2012 decision, the National Labor Relations Board for two reasons found the rule unlawful “because employees would reasonably construe its broad prohibition against ‘disrespectful’ conduct and ‘language which injures the image or the reputation of the Dealership’” as including employees’ protected statements objecting to and seeking improvement of terms and conditions of employment.

First, there was nothing in the rule that would reasonably suggest to employees that such protected communications were beyond the rule’s broad reach.  Second, an employee would reasonably assume that the employer would “regard statements of protest or criticism as ‘disrespectful’ or ‘injur[ious] [to] the image or reputation of the Dealership.’”

The Board took particular offense to the second section of the rule as specifically proscribing certain types of conduct and statements.  The Board construed these as workplace “lines” that a Karl Knauz Motors’ employee may not safely cross.  In the Board’s estimation, the second section of the rule prohibits not merely a manner of speaking, but rather the actual content of employee speech—content that would damage the employer’s reputation.

Consequently, a reasonable employee would conclude that protected communications about the employer’s allegedly unlawful terms and conditions of employment would expose the employee to employer sanctions for violation of its handbook rule.  Stated differently, the Board felt that compliance with the first section of the rule offered no assurance against sanctions under the second section of the rule.

Final Takeaway

Historically, NLRB decisions have ebbed and flowed depending upon the current occupant of the White House, who appoints the Board’s members.  Lately, the pendulum has continued to swing in the direction of further limiting employer rights to regulate threatening or offensive employee speech, leading one commentator to question whether at-will employment will be relegated to an historical artifact.

The takeaway from the Board’s decision vector is for employers to examine employee handbooks to compare and contrast their language with that found by the NLRB to be unlawful.  The cost of an amendment pales in comparison with the cost of an NLRB investigation and proceeding.  Remember that the NLRA protects  all private sector employees, irrespective of whether or not they belong to a union.

The employment and labor law attorneys in the Westport, Connecticut office of Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in the counseling, negotiation and litigation of all sorts of employment-related issues and assist employers from Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Norwalk, Westport and Fairfield in ensuring compliance with the applicable law. 203-221-3100.

To Be Qualified for a Position, an Employee Must Also Be Eligible

Most employees are familiar with the proposition that for them to prevail in a discrimination case they must prove several things, including that they were “qualified” for the position sought (and denied).  Most people equate being “qualified” with “possessing the qualifications to perform the job” and this is correct.  But there is more.  In addition to being technically competent, the employee must also be eligible to apply for the position.

Case Background

In a decision, a Physician’s Assistant (“PA”) voluntarily chose to transfer from a hospital’s Department of Surgery to its Department of Medicine in order to avoid impending “on-call” obligations.  When a Lead PA position was posted in the Department of Surgery it was hospital policy to offer it first to PA’s within the Department (of which there was one) and absent interest, to open the position to other Departments.  When the Lead PA position was offered to and accepted by the lone PA in the Department of Surgery the former Department PA sued on a variety of grounds, including race and gender discrimination.

The Court’s Decision

After a jury initially found for the disappointed PA, a reviewing court found that the jury’s determination that he was qualified for the position found no support in the record.  The court framed the relevant inquiry as “whether he would have been eligible to apply as a non-departmental candidate when there was an internal candidate willing to take the . . . position.”  The court answered this question in the negative and judgment was entered in favor of the defendant hospital.

Parenthetically, the court also found that the plaintiff PA did not suffer any adverse employment action and that the circumstances of the case did not give rise to an inference of gender discrimination.  Noteworthy, too, was the court’s observation that “unfairness is not the equivalent of gender discrimination.”  The court’s sole concern is “whether unlawful discriminatory animus motivates a challenged employment decision.”  Thus, a successful plaintiff must produce evidence from which such motivation can reasonably be inferred.

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.

Investigatory Meeting Even With Possible Consequences Not an Adverse Employment Action

Employees sometimes find themselves summoned to an internal investigation and informed that they could be terminated depending upon the results of the investigation.  As long as the employer is merely (and reasonably) enforcing its preexisting disciplinary policies, such circumstances (however unsettling) do not support even a prima facie case of employment discrimination.

In order to establish a prima facie case and put an employer to its proof that there was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its challenged action, an employee must demonstrate that he suffered an “adverse employment action.”  This means “a materially significant disadvantage with respect to the terms of [a plaintiff’s] employment.”  While each situation must be assessed under the totality of the particular circumstances, there must be “a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”

Merely being called into an investigatory meeting and informed of its potential consequences does not constitute an adverse employment action, particularly where no discipline or other negative consequence follows.  In the absence of an adverse employment action, an employee’s case will likely be dismissed via summary judgment without the need for a trial on the merits.

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 offices at 203-221-3100.

3 Fairfield Students Promise Legal Action for Discrimination

FAIRFIELD — Three minority students at Fairfield High School – arrested after a brawl in the school parking lot – plan to sue the town for discrimination, claiming they were singled out for arrest because of their race and ethnicity.

Case Details

Stephen Anderson and Michael Anderson, two Hispanic brothers who live on Essex Street, and John Trevil, an African-American living on Sunnyridge Avenue, claim in notices of intent to sue that they were arrested based on their race, ethnicity or national origin. They also claim to have been arrested without a warrant and without probable cause.

At the time of their arrests, Michael Anderson was 16. Stephen Anderson and Trevil were both juveniles and their ages were not given by police.

Each was charged with breach of peace and interfering with an officer in connection with the incident. At the time, police said all three were involved in the fight.

School officials said the Anderson brothers were each suspended from Fairfield High in the wake of the fight, along with three other students who had not been arrested. Trevil was not suspended, according to school officials.

Police on Friday declined to comment on the forthcoming litigation. Town Attorney James Baldwin said Friday that he would have no comment until he investigates the complaints.

Discrimination Claim

The students claim that unidentified fellow students yelled racial slurs at them as they were leaving the high school campus for the day.

“As a direct result of these racial slurs, an altercation between several students broke out at Fairfield High School,” each of the notices of intent to sue says.

The documents contend that, as a result of the incident, Stephen Anderson suffered an asthma attack, bruises and abrasions, and Trevil suffered a fractured wrist when he was tackled by police.

The students are all being represented by Tracy L. Norris, a lawyer with the Sherman Street firm of Maya & Associates. Neither Norris nor the students could be reached for comment.

In addition to claims of being unfairly arrested, the three students claim the Board of Education, FHS officials and police “were aware of the school’s hostile environment toward students of diverse backgrounds [and] were deliberately indifferent to this environment, thereby causing [the students] to be discriminated against.” The students say their claims are based on violations of the U.S. Constitution and Connecticut law.

Defendants named in the notices of intent to sue are the Police Department, Officer Nicholas Vanghele, Officer Brian Lersner, the Board of Education, Fairfield High School, FHS Headmaster John Dodig and Stephen Toth, the dean of students at Ludlowe House.

Vanghele, who was working a traffic detail near FHS at the time of the brawl, tackled and arrested Stephen Anderson and Trevil. Lersner, the officer assigned to FHS, tackled and arrested Michael Anderson, according to the notices.

By Andrew Brophy
Connecticut Post

Proxy/Alter Ego Liability for Sexual Harassment

Liability in Workplace Sexual Harassment

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (that includes Connecticut and New York) addressed for the first time whether the so-called Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense is available when an alleged sexual harassment attacker holds a sufficiently high position within an organization so as to be considered the organization’s proxy or alter ego.  The Second Circuit joined the other Circuits that have considered the issue in concluding that under those circumstances, the affirmative defense was unavailable to the employer.

By way of background, Faragher/Ellerth held that a company could escape vicarious liability for sexual harassment by taking certain steps directed toward reporting and eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace.  Left open was the issue of the employer’s direct liability where the actor was deemed to be the proxy/alter ego of the company.  Under that doctrine, an employer is liable in its own right for wrongful harassing conduct, as opposed to being vicariously liable for the actions of company agents.

A Company’s Proxy or Alter Ego

But who is the company’s proxy or alter ego?  Prior cases clearly place the company president and other sufficiently senior corporate officers within that category, and refer to “that class of an organization’s officials who may be treated as the organization’s proxy.”  Understandably, the courts do not want to draw a bright line around who may be considered an employer proxy, so that unusual cases can be determined on their peculiar facts without being constrained by particular titles.

All that is required is for the supervisor to occupy a sufficiently high position in the management hierarchy of the company for his actions to be imputed to the company.  When the official’s unlawful harassment is thus automatically charged to the employer, it cannot raise the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense, even if the harassment did not result in an adverse employment action.

The result is a settling of the law in the Connecticut federal court; the Faragher/Ellerth defense is unavailable when the alleged harasser is the employer’s proxy or alter ego.  Both employers and employees now know better where they stand.

The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable employment law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about Title VII and workplace discrimination or any other employment law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Employer Not Liable for Doing “Stupid” or Even “Wicked” Things

Case Background

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.

Conclusions

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.