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Mich.: Employee Fired for Explosive Temper, Not Age Bias
 

By Diane Cadrain  7/10/2014
 

An employee with an explosive temper was fired because his abusive behavior violated a workplace violence policy, not because of age bias, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided.

Keith Miles had worked for Bay City as an Information Systems Administrator for 10 years when he had a run-in with a temporary employee, Randy Beutel. Beutel, Miles believed, had gone over Miles’s head to complaint to Miles’s boss that a facility that Miles was working on, called the “bank,” would not open on schedule. When Miles learned that Beutel had voiced his concerns, he called Beutel into a closed-door meeting. According to Beutel,  Miles shouted at him, "don't go above my f---ing head like that," and reminded Beutel that he was a temporary employee and that Miles would fire him if he did not sit quietly and do only what others told him to do. Miles did admit that he had had a conversation with Beutel, but denied that he raised his voice, used profanity, or told Beutel to sit quietly or be fired.

Miles’s job, however, was subject to the city’s workplace-violence policy, which defined workplace violence as any act that is physically or verbally assaultive or abusive, including "verbal harassment" that "would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, harassed, or molested."  There was a no-tolerance policy toward this behavior.

When Beutel reported the incident to HR, the office began an investigation and interviewed the employees that Miles supervised. They said that Miles frequently yelled at them, used profanity, angered easily and could be verbally abusive. In the end, Miles was deemed to have violated the workplace violence policy and was presented with notice of a 10-day suspension and a last-chance agreement. He refused to sign the agreement and submitted his letter of resignation that day.

He sued the city for age discrimination under state law, and the city asked the trial court to throw out the claim. The trial court declined to do so, stating that Miles had brought out enough evidence for a good initial case of age discrimination, and had also been able to show that the city’s reasons for its actions were really pretextual.  The city appealed.

When the case reached the Michigan Court of Appeals, that court noted that Miles had been obligated to prove, among other things, that he had been adversely treated for reasons related to his age.

The city had argued that the 10-day suspension and last-chance agreement were not adverse employment actions, and that Miles was not constructively discharged because he resigned voluntarily. The appellate court noted that the last-chance agreement required Miles to waive his union grievance rights, which would cause a material loss of benefits, which amounted to an adverse employment action. The court also found that under the circumstances, Miles felt compelled to resign, and therefore was not constructively discharged.

This evidence, the appellate court said, created a presumption of age discrimination, and the city was obligated to rebut it. This it did by bringing out considerable evidence that the adverse employment action resulted from a good-faith belief that Miles violated the workplace-violence policy. Miles then had to show that the city’s reason was merely a pretext for discrimination. Miles had presented evidence of three other employees who had been found in violation of the workplace violence policy, arguing that while he received a ten-day suspension, other employees were offered merely warnings or three- and five-day suspensions for similar misconduct. The court found ways to distinguish each of the other employees’ treatment, and held that Miles could not show that other employees similarly situated in relevant aspects were treated differently for the same conduct. Thus the evidence did not show that the city’s reasons were pretexts for discrimination.

The court reversed the lower court’s decision and entered summary judgment for the city.

Miles v. City of Bay City, Mich. Ct. App., No. 310972 (May 20, 2014).

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.
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