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Court Upholds Discharge Based on Disruptive Behavior Outside Workplace

By Kelly S. Riggs  2/21/2014
 

An employee’s disruptive behavior outside work was a lawful reason for her termination, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. The plaintiff, Jamilya Pina, a black woman, was fired after an investigation revealed that she had accused multiple employees of having sexual relations with her boyfriend and had made harassing telephone calls to one of those employees. Some of the employees expressed concerns for their safety. The 1st Circuit ruled that the trial court properly granted summary judgment on Pina’s claims of race discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. Section 1981.

Pina worked at The Children’s Place (TCP) for approximately one year. During that time she was involved in a romantic relationship with Michael Williams, a black male employee who worked at another TCP store. Pina began to suspect that Williams was having sexual relations with other female employees, and that two of those employees—one of whom was white —were falsifying his timecards. Pina reported suspected timecard fraud, but did not report her suspicions about the sexual relationships with Williams. TCP investigated, but found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Pina also believed her own manager, Ingrid Trench, a black woman, was having an affair with Williams. Outside of work, Pina told Trench’s partner that Trench was having sexual relations with Williams. The partner disclosed Pina’s accusation to Trench, and an investigation by TCP ensued.

The investigation revealed Pina’s out-of-work activities, which violated company policies requiring employees to treat each other with respect and dignity and prohibiting disruptive and disorderly behavior. Accordingly, TCP terminated Pina’s employment.

Pina filed an administrative charge of employment discrimination, which was dismissed. 

Three years later, Pina applied at another TCP store but there were no openings and she was not hired. Pina filed another administrative charge and lawsuit asserting employment discrimination claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, Title VII, and state laws (most of which were dismissed early in the proceedings).

Pina alleged not that she suffered race bias but that she was terminated because she reported misconduct by other employees that, if investigated, would reveal an interracial relationship between employees.

The District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted summary judgment in TCP’s favor, dismissing Pina’s remaining claims of discrimination and retaliation under Section 1981, concluding that Pina presented no evidence of discrimination, retaliation or pretext.

On appeal, the 1st Circuit affirmed summary judgment in TCP’s favor. The appellate court questioned whether Pina’s “unusual theory” of race discrimination based on allegations of timecard falsification that would allegedly reveal an interracial relationship between other employees (namely, Williams and a white woman) could even support a race-discrimination claim, but did not ultimately decide that issue because it found Pina presented no evidence to support her claim. The appellate court admonished Pina’s reliance on no more than speculation, unsupported conjecture and a “national history of racism” toward interracial couples as wholly insufficient.

Instead, the appellate court held that the evidence confirmed that Pina engaged in disruptive behavior, and it reasoned that the court is not a “super personnel department” and—absent evidence of discriminatory motive—there was no basis to reject TCP’s explanation that Pina’s behavior violated policies prohibiting disruptive and disorderly behavior. That, the 1st Circuit held, constituted a legitimate and nondiscriminatory reason for termination. 

The 1st Circuit also affirmed summary judgment as to Pina’s retaliation claim, finding that she presented no evidence that there was a job opening or that the decision-maker knew about her earlier administrative charge.

Pina v. The Children's Place, 1st Cir., No. 13-1609 (Jan. 27, 2014).

Professional Pointer:  Employers are well-served by adopting and consistently enforcing policies providing that, in addition to traditional workplace misconduct, conduct outside of work creating a disruptive working environment or safety concern may be grounds for discipline, including termination. Employers should also take care to investigate all reports of employee misconduct to avoid allegations of failure to investigate.

Kelly S. Riggs is an attorney at the Portland, Ore., office of Ogletree Deakins, an international labor and employment law firm representing management. 

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