Racially Neutral Firing Tainted by Racial Animus in "Firecracker" of a Case
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Kentucky) recently decided a case that reexamined the elements of a successful claim for wrongful termination based on race discrimination. In the case, the court held that the employee provided sufficient evidence supporting the district court’s finding that the employer’s stated reason for the termination wasn’t the actual reason.
On November 25, 2003, Ronald Madden, an African American, began working as a crew worker for the Chattanooga City Wide Service Department. On March 20, 2006, he was reassigned to a crew supervised by Keith Templin.
Two days later, Madden was dispatched with his new crew to clean a ditch in a rural area of Tennessee. While Templin was surveying the site, he heard a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers. Madden admitted to Templin that he had set off some firecrackers.
Templin reported the incident to his supervisor, which prompted an immediate investigation. The department director, James Templeton, recommended that Madden be fired. Steven Leach, the administrator of public works for the city of Chattanooga, followed the recommendation and terminated him. Both Templeton and Leach said they didn’t know of any other incidents involving an employee’s use of firecrackers.
Madden, choosing to represent himself, filed suit against the department, alleging three violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
(1) race discrimination in connection with his termination;
(2) racial harassment creating a hostile work environment; and
(3) retaliation for his participation in an investigation.
The department asked the district court to dismiss Madden’s claims without a trial. The court dismissed his hostile work environment and retaliation claims but didn’t dismiss the discrimination claim. The court found that he had established a preliminary case of discrimination and that the department had carried its burden of putting forth a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for his discharge. Nevertheless, the court found that Madden had provided sufficient evidence that the department’s nondiscriminatory reasons were merely pretextual.
At the bench trial, Madden introduced evidence of at least two specific incidents in which white employees set off firecrackers or similar devices without facing discipline. He also introduced evidence that firecracker use was common among department workers.
On December 20, 2007, following the bench trial, the district court found that the department terminated Madden because of his race in violation of Title VII. The court concluded that because firecracker use at the department was common, the senior manager should have known that firecrackers were being used. The district court awarded Madden (1) lost wages of $36,935.50 based on an annual salary of $21,106 for the 21 months he was out of work, (2) emotional distress damages of $30,300, and (3) future lost wages of $52,675. The department appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
Sixth Circuit’s decision
The Sixth Circuit considered whether the trial court erred in finding that the department intentionally discriminated against Madden. Title VII provides that an employer may not “discharge any individual, or otherwise . . . discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race.”
On appeal, the department argued that Madden couldn’t prove that he was treated differently than similarly situated unprotected employees. Also, it argued that the district court erred in finding that Madden met his burden of showing that its legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for terminating him was a pretext for discrimination. Finally, the department argued that the district court wrongly attributed lower-level supervisors’ knowledge of firecracker use by white employees to senior managers as a basis for finding that Madden’s termination was discriminatory.
The Sixth Circuit found that a reasonable fact finder could find that the department’s reason for firing Madden was insufficient. Madden offered evidence that white employees weren’t fired – or even disciplined – despite engaging in substantially identical conduct. He also offered evidence that the use of firecrackers was commonplace at the department. Since the reporting supervisor was shown to have selectively reported the use of fireworks by a black employee while not reporting white employees for similar conduct, he was found to have a discriminatory intent in his actions toward Madden. By relying on that discriminatory information flow, the ultimate decision makers “acted as the conduit of the supervisor’s prejudice — his cat’s paw.”
The Sixth Circuit concluded that given all of the evidence, the district court correctly decided that the department’s reason for Madden’s termination wasn’t the actual reason. Madden v. Chattanooga City Wide Service Department, 2008 WL 4977335 (6th Cir., 2008).
Supervisors with ultimate decision-making authority must thoroughly investigate events before taking disciplinary action, especially when they don’t have firsthand knowledge of the events. As you can see from this case, failure to thoroughly investigate such events can lead to litigation and substantial monetary damages. Given the fact-specific nature of these issues, a call to legal counsel is often warranted to avoid litigation arising out of termination decisions.
If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department.
Copyright 2009 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law. Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.