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S.C.: Federal Court Tosses Discrimination Claim for Lack of Evidence

By Kirk Rafdal  5/28/2014
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An employee who was unhappy with his pay and work location failed to present credible evidence that he was the victim of racial discrimination and retaliation, a federal court ruled in dismissing the case.

Keith Ferguson was hired by Waffle House Inc. in September of 2010 as a manager trainee, and within a few months was assigned to a restaurant near the Savannah, S.C., airport. Not long after, Ferguson complained to his regional manager that his commute was too long and that he felt disrespected by the employees and unit manager at that location. Ferguson alleged that his mistreatment was racially motivated, though most of his coworkers were black. The unit manager, who also was black and who initially had hired Ferguson, investigated his claims, but could not substantiate them.

In the meantime, Waffle House transferred Ferguson to a restaurant situated much closer to his home and promoted him to “unit manager.” Here Ferguson again alleged racial discrimination by his subordinates, most of whom were black — and who, according to Ferguson, resented being supervised by another black person.

In May of 2011, Ferguson submitted a letter of resignation in which he detailed a number of complaints against Waffle House. None of the complaints involved racial discrimination, however. Then a month later, Ferguson reconsidered his decision and approached his regional manager about getting rehired. Ferguson claimed that he told the regional manager he would need at least $52,000 — to which the regional manager allegedly replied, “Don't worry about salary. We'll take care of you.” Ultimately, Waffle House offered to rehire him again as a manager trainee at a salary of $35,000. Ferguson accepted this offer and was assigned to work at three area restaurants. Ferguson meanwhile expressed interest in being transferred to a Georgia location, but his regional manager advised him he could make more money at the South Carolina restaurants and promoted him to unit manager for a Waffle House in Garden City at a salary of $43,000. Ferguson, however, refused to accept the assignment, and Waffle House terminated him for insubordination.

In October of 2011, Ferguson filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in which he claimed racial discrimination and retaliation on the grounds he was denied the pay and restaurant location promised by his regional manager. After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, Ferguson brought an action in federal district court. Waffle House motioned for dismissal of all of Ferguson’s claims, and the matter was referred to U.S. magistrate judge for initial proceedings prior to trial.

The magistrate’s report to the court reviewed the facts and of the case and the relevant law, and concluded that Ferguson failed to present any credible evidence in support of his claims. As such, the magistrate recommended that Waffle House’s motion to dismiss be granted.

The federal district court, while not bound by the magistrate’s recommendations, first noted that neither Ferguson nor Waffle House disputed the judge’s findings of fact. As to his claim that he suffered disparate treatment based on his race, the court agreed with the magistrate that Ferguson’s initial assignment and subsequent transfer had nothing to do with racial animus, but rather Waffle House’s efforts to accommodate Ferguson’s desire to work closer to home. The court noted that Waffle House even offered to pay relocation expenses so that Ferguson could remain at the original location, but Ferguson declined this offer. Moreover, the court pointed to the fact that Waffle House was willing to rehire Ferguson after he voluntarily resigned, an act not generally consistent with an alleged racial bias. In agreeing with the magistrate’s report, the court held that Ferguson had not been subjected to racial discrimination or a hostile work environment.

As to Ferguson’s allegation that Waffle House retaliated against him by denying him the pay and location it allegedly had promised, the court again sided with the magistrate judge’s report. Ferguson knowingly and willingly accepted Waffle House’s offer of $35,000 and an alternative restaurant location for his rehire, and he could not later claim this was retaliation. Further, the court likewise sided with the report in ruling that Ferguson’s termination directly resulted from his insubordination and not because of any racial motivation on the part of his manager, who also is black.

The court granted Waffle House’s motion in its entirety and dismissed Ferguson’s case.

Ferguson v. Waffle House, Inc., D. S.C., No. 9:12–1740–SB (May 8, 2014).

Kirk Rafdal, J.D., is a staff writer for SHRM.

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