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Yes, You Can Be Fired For Serious Safety Violations

by | Mar 26, 2024 | Age Discrimination, Employment Discrimination, Employment Law, Federal Law Update, Race Discrimination, Wrongful Termination |

Today, our employment discrimination lawyers delve further into the concept of pretext – which is the employee’s burden to show that the employer’s stated reason for termination is false or did not really motivate the employer’s decision. We do so by looking at the recent case of Whitehorn v. Maverick Tube Corp., No. 23-2333, 2024 WL 489365, (8th Cir. Feb. 8, 2024).

In this case, Stevie Whitehorn, who was employed by Maverick Tube Corporation at their Blytheville, Arkansas facility, was involved in a serious safety. Five pipes, each weighing over a ton, fell from his truck while in transit. Obviously, falling one-ton pipes pose a serious risk of harm to both people and property. Maverick Tube’s policies clearly outlined Whitehorn’s responsibility to securely fasten the pipes to his truck prior to driving. Upon investigation, it became evident that Whitehorn had neglected to adhere to these safety protocols and caused the accident. Consequently, Maverick Tube decided to fire Whitehorn.

In response, Whitehorn filed a wrongful termination lawsuit alleging race/color discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”).

There was no dispute that dropping several tons of pipe would ordinarily be a justifiable reason for firing an employee. But Whitehorn argued that this reason was pretextual for two reasons: (1) Maverick Tube’s stated reason was false; and (2) similarly situated employees received more favorable treatment for similar conduct.

Will I have a strong case for wrongful termination if I can prove that I did not commit the offense I was accused of?

Whitehorn argued that it was not his failure to tie down the pipes that caused the fall but was rather a combination of ice, chemicals, and/or bad roadways at the Maverick Tube facility. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that this argument misses the point of proving pretext: “If an employer, in explaining a termination, says it believed that the employee violated company rules, then proof that the employee never violated company rules does not show that the employer’s explanation was false. That proof shows only that the employer’s belief was mistaken. To prove that the employer’s explanation was false, the employee must show the employer did not truly believe that the employee violated company rules.” Id. at *2 (internal citations omitted). This is consistent with the concept of employment-at-will, which allows an employer to fire an employee for no reason, a bad reason, or even an incorrect reason as long as the reason does not violate the law. Essentially, this would have required Whitehorn to prove that his employer knew that he did not fail to tie down the pipes but made up that lie to fire him. But Whitehorn never argued that Maverick Tube did not actually believe that he had failed to secure the pipes to his truck.

Best Wrongful Termination Lawyer Blogs on Point:

Can inconsistent treatment or unequal application of the rules can establish pretext?

Yes. Inconsistent treatment or unequal application of rules can establish pretext in a wrongful termination case by demonstrating that the employer’s stated reason for termination is not the true motive behind the decision. If an employer enforces a rule or policy selectively, applying it to some employees but not others in similar situations, it suggests that the stated reason for termination is not the real basis for the action. This inconsistency can indicate discriminatory or retaliatory motives behind the termination, rather than a genuine concern for adherence to company policies. By highlighting such inconsistencies, employees can argue that the stated reason for termination is merely a pretext for unlawful discrimination or retaliation.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Whitehorn failed here as well. As to his race claim, the Eighth Circuit held: “Whitehorn’s two comparators with the same position and supervisor are both the same race as Whitehorn. Because they are part of the same protected group as Whitehorn, neither can serve as comparators for his race-discrimination claim.” Id. at *2. Stated more simply, even if two Black employees were disciplined differently for the same offense, the differential treatment cannot be based on race. Thus, such proof cannot be used to establish race discrimination.

As for the age discrimination case, the Eighth Circuit held that while “the other comparator is sufficiently younger, he did not have a comparable safety incident on his record and therefore did not engage in the same conduct as Whitehorn. Thus, he cannot serve as a comparator for Whitehorn’s age-discrimination claim.” Id. Basically, courts will not compare the discipline handed out when the violations are not the same. Since the younger employee did not drop three one-ton pipes, whatever discipline he got for a lesser or different violation is irrelevant.

And with that, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Whitehorn’s race and age discrimination based wrongful termination claims.

Best Race Discrimination Attorney Blogs on Point:

I was fired today because I’m Black. What should I do?

Fired employees should consult attorneys who specialize in employment laws because these lawyers have the focused knowledge needed to navigate the complexities of workplace disputes effectively. This specialized knowledge enables them to provide tailored advice and representation to clients facing employment-related challenges. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, stands out as a top choice for fired employees seeking legal assistance. Spitz offers a free initial consultation, allowing individuals to discuss their case with an attorney without any financial obligation. This initial meeting provides an opportunity for the attorney to assess the details of the situation and advise the client on their legal options. Furthermore, Spitz operates under a no fee guarantee, meaning that clients only pay legal fees if their case is successful. This arrangement helps alleviate financial concerns for individuals who may be hesitant to pursue legal action due to cost considerations. Additionally, Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, is one of the largest firms in the country dedicated exclusively to representing employees’ rights. This specialization allows their attorneys to develop deep expertise in employment law and stay abreast of the latest developments in the field. With a team of knowledgeable attorneys and ample resources at their disposal, the firm is well-equipped to provide comprehensive support to clients throughout the legal process.


The information provided on this race and age discrimination blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice about employment law or a substitute for professional legal counsel. The wrongful termination and employment discrimination content of this blog may not reflect the most current legal developments, and laws vary by jurisdiction. Reading or relying on the information presented on this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and the author or Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm.  Any action taken by employees based on the information provided on this blog is strictly at their own risk. We disclaim any liability for any loss or damage, including without limitation, indirect or consequential loss or damage, arising from the use of or reliance on the information presented on this blog. Employees are encouraged to consult with a qualified attorney licensed to practice law in their jurisdiction for advice specific to their legal situation.

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