Is A “Fishy” Reason For Firing An Employee Evidence Of A Retaliatory Termination?
For more than twenty years, our wrongful termination lawyers in Citrus County have represented wrongful termination victims. Through their decades of experience handling wrongful termination cases, our wrongful termination attorney in Inverness, Florida knows that employees are often fired for absurd, bad, trivial, and nonsensical reasons. In other words, the reasons proffered by an employer are “fishy.” In this article, our wrongful termination lawyers in Citrus County explain how the decision in Loudermilk v. Best Pallet Company, LLC, 636 F.3d 312 (7th Cir. 2011) demonstrates that when an employer proffers an absurd, bad, trivial, or nonsensical reason for an employee’s termination, the “fishy” reason is evidence of a retaliatory discharge.
Evidence Of Retaliatory Termination
For decades, many courts have broadly construed the employment-at-will doctrine in order to shield employers from liability for discriminatory and retaliatory employment decisions. Under the employment-at-will doctrine, as explained by the U.S.. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Abel v. Dubberly, 210 F.3d 1334 (11th Cir. 2000), “an employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, a reason based on erroneous facts, or for no reason at all, as long as its action is not for a discriminatory reason.” To these courts, an absurd, bad, trivial, or nonsensical reason for firing an employee is not evidence of an employer’s discriminatory or retaliation intent.
Other courts, however, refused to allow the employment-at-will doctrine to immunize employers from liability for discriminatory and retaliatory employment decisions. As observed by the court in Stratton v. Dept. of the Aging, 132 F.3d 869 (2d Cir. 1997), “actions taken by an employer that disadvantage an employee for no logical reason constitute strong evidence of an intention to discriminate [or retaliate].” To these courts, an absurd, bad, trivial, or nonsensical reason for firing an employee is evidence of an employer’s discriminatory or retaliatory intent.
Unlike the decision by the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Abel, the decision by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Stratton recognizes that when an employer fires an employee for an absurd, bad, trivial, or nonsensical reason, the “fishy” reason is being often proffered by the employer to mask or disguise a discriminatory or retaliatory motive. In other words, in the language of the Stratton court, a reason that is absurd, bad, trivial, or nonsensical is “strong evidence of an intent to discriminate [or retaliate].” Thus, when an employer proffers a “fishy” reason for an employee’s termination, the ”fishy” reason is evidence that the reason was in reality a pretext for discrimination or retaliation.
Retaliatory Termination Lawsuit
In Loudermilk, a man named Loudermilk brought a retaliatory termination lawsuit against his former employer, Best Pallet Company, LLC (Best Pallet), pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Under Title VII, employees are protected from retaliation when they complain about perceived racial discrimination in the workplace. Loudermilk, who is African-American, claims that he was fired for complaining about Best Pallet allegedly favoring Hispanic over African-American employees.
While working at Best Pallet, Loudermilk’s primary job duty was to disassemble pallets and stack the wood for reuse. Multiple employees worked simultaneously on a “tear-down machine.” Workers at one end broke pallets into pieces, which were passed to others for stacking. Loudermilk maintains that each said of the machine in the stacking area should have had at least two workers, but that Best Pallet assigned its staff so that two or more Hispanic workers were on one side, while Loudermilk worked alone on the other. Loudermilk could not keep up and was criticized for allowing boards to fall, and when he complained about the lack of help, the Hispanic workers hurled racial epithets. Loudermilk in turn complained about the racial epithets. Management, however, did nothing, Loudermilk says.
In April 2006, Loudermilk lodged several complaints with management. He began to talk about filing a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). On April 25, 2006, Loudermilk took some pictures of the work area, apparently to show the EOC (and, if necessary, a court) how the tear-down machine was set up and why it needed two stackers on each side. A supervisor, Lyons, told Loudermilk to stop taking pictures. When Loudermilk reiterated his concerns about being treated differently from Hispanic employees, Lyons told him: “Put it in writing.” Loudermilk did just that and handed Lyons a note the next day. Lyons fired him on the spot. Best Pallet claimed that it fired Loudermilk not because of the note’s content, but because he had taken pictures of the worksite in violation of company policy.
“Fishy” Reason Is Evidence Of Retaliation
The trial court dismissed Loudermilk’s retaliatory termination claim. According to the trial court, Loudermilk’s only evidence of unlawful retaliation was timing: he handed Lyons a note and was fired. Lyons had not read the note, so he did not know that it contained a complaint of racial discrimination. The trial court concluded that suspicious timing was insufficient to establish a causal link between Loudermilk’s complaints of racial discrimination and Loudermilk’s termination. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Loudermilk’s retaliatory termination claim.
Unlike the reversed trial court, the Seventh Circuit focused on the “fishy” reason for Loudermilk’s termination. The appellate court found that Best Pallet’s “fired for photography” contention was “problematic not only because the no-photography policy may have been cooked up after the fact, but also because it comes close to conceding retaliation.” “If the reason that Loudermilk snapped the photos,” the court of appeals observed, “was to bolster his claim of discrimination, then forbidding picture-taking looks a lot like an attempt to block the gathering of evidence during an investigation.” In other words, that a “policy” may “have been devised to curtail an investigation is not the sort of neutral rule that would adequately explain a discharge.” Although Title VII “does not require employers to have ‘just cause’ for sacking a worker,” the Seventh Circuit explained, “but an employer who advances a fishing reason takes the risk that disbelief of the reason will support an inference that it is a pretext for discrimination [or retaliation].” Thus, echoing the reasoning of the Second Circuit in Stratton, the Loudermilk court determined that when an employer gives a “fishy” reason for firing an employee, a reasonable jury could find that the “fishy” reason was proffered as a pretext to mask or disguise a discriminatory or retaliatory reason.
Citrus County Wrongful Termination Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida, and representing workers throughout Florida, our wrongful termination attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have fought for the rights of wrongful termination victims for more than two decades. If you have been wrongfully fired or have questions about your rights as a wrongful termination victim, please contact our office for a free consultation with our wrongful termination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes wrongful termination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.