Last month, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (which hears appeals of cases decided in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) affirmed that an employee's allegations of discrimination under Title VII can be overcome by a showing that the employer had a legitimate reason for the termination – insubordination. The case, Everroad v. Scott Truck Systems, Inc. (2010) 604 F.3d 471, serves as a reminder that evidence of an employee's uncooperative, insubordinate behavior can defeat a claim of wrongful termination or discrimination entirely. The legal principle applied in the Everroad case is the same principal used by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears discrimination cases brought under federal law in California. (See Payne v. Norwest Corp. (1999) 185 F.3d 1068)).
While employed by Scott Truck Systems, Everroad complained first about a male co-worker's belligerent behavior, and then about a female co-worker's personal telephone calls. Scott Truck Systems moved Everroad from a dispatcher position in which she had to interact with the offending male employee, to an administrator job sharing an office with a female co-worker. When Everroad complained about her female office mate, Scott Truck Systems held a meeting with both women to try and create a plan for the two to work together without further problems. During the tense, long meeting, Everroad's behavior was considered by her employer to be insubordinate. The next morning, Everroad greeted one of the owners in an exaggerated manner, and ignored the other owner's morning greeting completely.
Based on her behavior at the meeting and the next morning, Scott Truck Systems decided to terminate Everroad for insubordination immediately. Everroad asked why she was being terminated and was told that it was because she only winked at the owner that morning instead of saying hello. As she gathered her belongings, she told the owners they were nuts, crazy, insane and sick, and used foul language while departing. After her termination, Everroad alleged she had been discriminated against based on her gender and age.
The trial court dismissed the case, granting Scott Systems summary judgment. In order to proceed to trial on a discrimination claim, a plaintiff must allege a prima facie case of discrimination in the complaint. Then, the employer can challenge the complaint by showing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. In order to defeat Scott Systems’ motion for summary judgment motion Everroad was required to provide additional evidence indicating the employer's excuse was just a pretext for actual discrimination. Everroad was not able to provide evidence establishing her prima facie case of discrimination or evidence that Scott Truck Systems' stated reason for her termination was not, in fact, the real reason. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment.
The Everroad case, and other cases like it, are important examples of terminations handled properly. When an employer is faced with an uncooperative, insubordinate employee – who may also be more likely than other former employees to file a lawsuit – it is crucial that the behavior is documented and imparted to the employee. Often, employers will try to soften the blow or avoid conflict and decline to tell the employee why they are being let go. But when the reason is insubordination, the best practice is usually to tell the employee that the behavior was noted and is unacceptable, and if this leads to termination, to explain the reason for the termination to the employee.
Erin L. McDermit, Employment Group