Thursday, July 8, 2010

11th Circuit Gives Important Lesson on Timing of Terminating an Employee

You know an opinion is going to be a good one when it starts out with:
Some people are impossible to please. No one can meet their standards and no matter how hard anyone tries, they find fault, criticize, and are unhappy with the result. They demand continuous perfection, which is more than any human being can deliver. The evidence in this Title VII case indicates that Heidi Verdezoto is one of those people.
The facts of this case are also very interesting and dramatic and somewhat of a lesson for employers who delay terminating employees while they search for a replacement. In a nutshell, a superior, Heidi Verdezoto, with the employer, a family-owned and operated enterprise, was infamous for terminating people in the "controller" position for never meeting her expectations. The plaintiff was no exception except for that fact she found out before she was terminated that her termination was imminent and then things got complicated for the employer because the plaintiff then began making accusations of discrimination based upon her Cuban origins.

The plaintiff filed a complaint with the EEOC but then received her right-to-sue letter and then sued the defendant alleging discrimination and retaliation. The defendant then moved for summary judgment contending that the plaintiff failed to set forth a prima facie case and did not rebut the legitimate non-discriminatory reason for her termination. With respect to retaliation, the defendant said that the plaintiff was going to be terminated anyway and that only the timing was poor, at best. The district court granted summary judgment on both claims.

Ultimately the two sides quibbled over whether the plaintiff actually performed her job duties successfully and satisfactory or whether the reasons proffered by the defendant for her termination were merely pretextual. The 11th Circuit upheld the district court's grant of summary judgment on the discrimination claim and notes that Heidi was simply impossible to please and that is just fine under Title VII so long as she's impossible to please for non-discriminatory reasons:

The record establishes beyond any genuine dispute that Alvarez, like her two non-Cuban predecessors, simply failed to satisfy Heidi Verdezoto. That may not be a good reason for firing Alvarez (or her two predecessors), it may not be a reason that flatters Heidi, and it may not be a reason that Royal Atlantic wants to put in its promotional brochures, but it is a non-discriminatory reason. So far as job discrimination law is concerned, Heidi was within her rights to insist on a controllerwho could whip the company’s books into shape overnight while accommodating her own prickly personality and performing every task perfectly, even if there was little or no chance she would ever find such a miracle worker. She was free to set unreasonable or even impossible standards, as long as she did not apply them in a discriminatory manner.
The 11th Circuit quotes a "Vince Lombardi rule" with respect to this case:

This is a classic example of the Vince Lombardi rule: someone who treats
everyone badly is not guilty of discriminating against anyone. See Baldwin v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Ala., 480 F.3d 1287, 1301 n.1 (11th Cir. 2007)

With respect to the retaliation claim, this is where temporal proximity comes into play. The letter the plaintiff sent to the defendant complaining of discrimination after she found out she was in danger of termination qualifies as statutorily protected conduct. The fact that the employer was going to fire the plaintiff anyway did not matter in this case because it was the letter that prompted the employer to terminate her the day after they received it and this was enough to establish the adverse action element of her retaliation claim. The employer presented three reasons why it had to terminate her after receiving the letter with the most convincing reason being that it feared the plaintiff would use her important position to sabotage the company. The 11th Circuit was uncertain whether this reason is believeable and sent it back to district court for a jury to decide.

The case is Alvarez v. Royal Atlantic Developers, No. 08-15358 (11th Cir. July 2, 2010)

No comments:

Post a Comment