Best Ohio Race Discrimination Lawyers and Top Age Discrimination Attorneys Answer: Does my employer have to have a reason for termination? Can I be fired because my boss doesn’t like me? What does at-will employment mean? Can I be fired for no reason? Is it wrongful termination to be fired for something that my employer lets younger White workers do?
Just what does it take to get fired? It’s a common question that employment law attorneys deal with on a regular basis. Check out this Youtube video featuring the top ten movie scenes involving termination – After watching, let me just say that it should be clear if you cuss out people at work, or pull a Ron Burgundy and tell an entire city via a new broadcast to “Go F*** yourself,” you can expect to be terminated. But from a legal standpoint, determining what type of behavior warrants termination really only matters when an employee is asserting pretext (See our blog on Employment Discrimination Question: What Is Pretext?). Because most employees in Ohio work on an at-will basis, the reason or justification for terminating an employee doesn’t need to make sense, or even be fair. An employer could tell their best employee, “Karen, I have to fire you because you are wearing a red scarf today” and that alone would not be wrongful termination. (What does at will employment mean?)
However, Karen may have a claim for wrongful termination based on age discrimination if we change those facts a little bit. Let’s say that Karen’s company recently hired a new manager, Steve. Steve is 32 years old and after he became Karen’s manager, he told Karen that she should “stop dressing like an old lady,” “younger employees are more efficient,” “older employees cost the company money because they constantly have medical problems like arthritis and osteoporosis.” After he made these comments, Steve then fired Karen for wearing a red scarf, and replaced her with a 23 year old employee. Now we have an entirely different, and probably actionable, situation.
Sometimes, the facts are not as clear cut as Karen’s hypothetical situations. For instance, what if Karen was accused of stealing? Even after her boss said all those horrible things about older employees, if Karen is fired for throwing her computer against the wall in frustration, her claim may not be actionable or it still may be. For example, if the boss had only suspended a White for throwing a computer against a wall, but immediately fired Karen, who is Black, the disparate application of discipline may be racially motivated and might give rise to a racial discrimination claim.
As a real example of what could happen when an employee and employer have a different version of events leading to termination, let’s look at the case of Shackelford v. Publix, a case decided by the United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division.
Betty Shackelford worked for Publix for over seven years as a part-time service clerk, full-time deli clerk, and full-time cashier. Betty is African-American, and at the time she was terminated, Betty was 54 years old. Publix claimed that Betty was fired for stealing two pieces of chicken from the deli counter, but Betty claims that she was fired because her manager wanted the front end employees to “mirror” the store’s consumer clientele – young white females.
Betty filed claims against Publix for age discrimination, race discrimination. In her claim, Betty alleged that she and her coworkers observed the following behavior and conduct by her manager:
- Younger white employees allowed to socialize at work, while older African-American employees are told to, “get back to work;”
- Made the comment that, “Publix needs more younger workers because they are more reliable and it makes our image look better;”
- Telling older employees that they are too slow;
- Only assigning one African-American employee to do a difficult two person task, while assigning two white employees for the same difficult job;
- Only supervising African-American employees’ smoke breaks, while white employees smoke without supervision;
- Taking food from the deli and eating it, without paying for it first;
- Terminating and replacing African-American employees with white employees;
- Failing to discipline a white deli counter employee for saying, “I can’t stand N*ggers like that;”
- Failing to discipline a white deli counter worker for taking food from the deli without paying for it;
- Terminating a white employee only after it was discovered he took food from the deli without paying for it on two different occasions; and
- In the year following Betty’s termination, her manager hired eleven cashiers, the first five were under the age of 30, and all but one were white.
Ultimately, the court held that Betty’s provided enough evidence to support her race discrimination and age discrimination claims, allowing her to proceed to a trial by jury. In deciding on whether Betty could reach a jury on her age claim, the court reasoned:
In this case, Ms. Shackelford presents two pieces of direct evidence in support of her age discrimination claims: Jared Randolph’s testimony that he heard Chris Cook, the store manager who terminated Ms. Shackelford, say that “Publix needs more younger workers because they are more reliable and it makes our image look better” and Paul Clark’s testimony regarding an exchange between team leader Chris Black and Chris Cook in which Mr. Cook agreed with Mr. Black’s suggestion that the Northport Publix needed to hire more young, white women to “mirror [its] clientele.” These remarks constitute direct evidence of age discrimination because they were made by the decision-maker (Mr. Cook); they reflect a discriminatory attitude (that older workers are not as reliable or appealing to customers as younger workers); and they tie the discriminatory attitude to the employment decision at issue (Mr. Cook terminated Ms. Shackelford when she was 54 years old). See Wright, 187 F.3d at 1294; cf. Carter v. City of Miami, 870 F.2d 578, 582 (11th Cir. 1989) (offhand comment related to a job other than plaintiff’s was not sort of blatant remark that constituted direct evidence).
Mr. Cook’s statements constitute direct evidence even though he did not specifically mention Ms. Shackelford or her termination. See Wright, 187 F.3d at 1298 n.13 (direct evidence need not specifically reference challenged employment decision). …
Because Ms. Shackelford has supported her age discrimination claim by direct evidence, Publix “must prove that the same employment decision would have been made absent any discriminatory intent.” Van Voorhis v. Hillsborough Cnty. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs., 512 F.3d 1296, 1300 (11th Cir. 2008). Production of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for a disputed employment action is not sufficient to meet this burden. …
Publix cannot make such a showing here. Publix’s contention that Ms. Shackelford violated the Publix Associate Handbook policies on theft and employee purchases would be sufficient to demonstrate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her termination under the McDonnell Douglas framework if her age discrimination claim rested only on circumstantial evidence, but the argument does not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that Ms. Shackelford would have been fired even absent Publix’s discriminatory intent. Ms. Shackelford has presented a question of fact about whether Publix management uniformly applied the company’s employee theft and purchase policies to Publix employees at the Northport store who ate deli food without paying for it. … This is sufficient to raise a question of fact regarding whether Ms. Shackelford would have been terminated even absent the discriminatory motive. Additionally, “a reasonable juror could accept that [Mr. Cook] made the discriminatory sounding remarks and that the remarks are sufficient evidence of a discriminatory motive which was the ‘but for’ cause of [Ms. Shackelford’s] dismissal.”
The Court handled Betty’s race claims in similar fashion, allowing her to proceed to trial for a jury to determine the outcome. Betty was able to provide enough evidence that the two pieces of chicken she was fired over could have been an honest mistake, and that an underlying animus toward older African-American employees could have prompted the decision to terminate. Even though most employees know that you can’t steal chicken from your employer and expect not be fired, remember that if you can show that the true reason for termination was based on your membership in a protected class, you may still have a claim. Additionally, even though Betty lived in Alabama, employees in Ohio have similar protection from age discrimination and race discrimination based on federal and state law. As we have blogged about before, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio Revised Code § 4112.02(A) are in place to protect employees in Ohio from being treated differently based on. Ohio laws make it an unlawful discriminatory practice for any employer to “discharge without just cause, to refuse to hire, or otherwise to discriminate against that person with respect to hire, tenure, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, or any matter directly or indirectly related to employment” based on race or age.
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