Wednesday, August 16, 2017

White Hotel Worker Fired After Discussing "Black Lives Matter" Has Race Discrimination Claims Dismissed

With all of the more extreme events taking place in politics lately, you can expect a rise in employment law claims when people are fired for bringing these topics into the workplace.  A recent case out of a federal district court in South Carolina highlights how employees in the private sector are not as protected as they may think, or like, when it comes to voicing their political views in the workplace.

The plaintiff, Kimberly Collins, was fired after a conversation she had with three superiors, who were African-American, at the hotel they all worked at.  During this conversation, Collins expressed her opinions on a Black Lives Matter protest that had just taken place in the hotel, the recent shooting of an African-American in nearby North Charleston, the prior year's police shooting of another African-American in Missouri and its aftermath, diversity training that Charleston Place employees had attended several months earlier, and the state of race relations during the Obama presidency.  Though the court opinion does not state exactly what Collins said, they did say that her comments "were not well-received."

The person who made the decision to fire Collins, was a Caucasian whom Collins worked directly.  Though this supervisor was out of town when Collins made her comments, the three African-American supervisors told him the substance of her remarks and also described Collins as acting belligerently, yelling at them and wagging her finger in one person's face.  Based on the information he received, the Caucasian supervisor decided to fire Collins because she was hostile and disrespectful to superiors.  Thus, Collins then filed claims against Charleston Place alleging race discrimination in violation of Title VII and Section 1981 and state law violations due to firing her because of her political opinions and because she expressed those opinions in the workplace.

A Magistrate judge issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") and recommended that the district court dismiss Collins' two federal claim and not exercise jurisdiction over the state law claim.  The district court agreed.

Title VII Claim

Ultimately, Collins failed on her Title VII race discrimination claim because she was not able to show that "other employees who are not members of the protected class were retained under apparently similar circumstances."  For one, the person who fired her is Caucasian and, for another, she was replaced with another Caucasian.  Furthermore, the Court held that even had Collins met her burden under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting scheme, she would not be able to show pretext.

This case doesn't suggest or show that any and all similar political speech in the workplace that leads to termination would fail in court, but these facts were simply not good for this plaintiff who appears to have voiced her political opinions in a very disrespectful manner to individuals of the opposite race who happened to be her superiors.  What this case does show is that engaging in political discussion or speech in the workplace is not an absolutely-protected activity that can never lead to termination.

State Law Claim

Since the Court dismissed the two federal law claims, it was inevitable that they would dismiss the state law claims as well, despite objection from the Defendant.  The Defendant wanted the state law claim to remain in federal court, among other reasons, because it would lead to further costs and delay.  However, the Court decided that because this is a state law issue, it would not let this remaining claim be litigated in federal court and that state court is the proper venue.

Perhaps another important question and issue surrounds the people who have been getting fired from their jobs after being outed as attendees of the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The short answer to whether people can be fired from their private sector job for participation in such a rally is: yes.

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