Case: Johnson v. Interstate Mgmt Co., No 14-7164, (D.C. Cir. March 3, 2017)
Issues: Retaliation under Title VII and Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act
Holding: The employee-plaintiff did not survive summary judgment because he failed to offer sufficient evidence to convince a reasonable jury that his former employer’s asserted reason for terminating him was a mere pretext for retaliation.
Employment Counsel: Documentation, Documentation, Documentation! Employers must have evidence (and documents) to support legitimate non-discriminatory grounds for employment decisions.
From 1996 to 2011, plaintiff Robert Johnson served as a cook at the Hamilton Crowne Plaza Hotel which was managed by the defendant, Interstate Management Company (“Interstate”). Interstate argued it fired Johnson due to a series of at least thirteen work place violations, including one suspension. His infractions included unsanitary cooking and cleaning practices, disregard of safety protocols, violation of anti-harassment policies, and incorrect filling out of his timesheets. The last straw occurred in 2011, when Johnson cooked a piece of breaded chicken without removing a piece of plastic under the breaded layer.
Johnson offered a very different explanation for his termination. He argued that Interstate fired him in retaliation for his complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the hotel’s alleged unsafe working conditions and to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) about the hotel’s alleged employment discrimination. Although the EEOC complaint was unsuccessful, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint resulted in a $34,200 fine.
The DC Appeals Court confirmed the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of Interstate because Johnson did not present sufficient evidence to convince a reasonable jury that Interstate fired Johnson, not for his numerous workplace violations, but out of retaliation for his complaints.
Johnson claimed Interstate was liable to him for retaliation under both Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (for his complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and under Title VII (for his complaint to the EEOC). As to the first claim, the court pointed out that Section 11(c) specifically instructs employees who believe they are the victims of retaliation to complain to the Secretary of Labor, who after an investigation, may then sue the employer in federal court on the employee’s behalf. Since neither the statute’s text nor its legislative history provide for a private right of action, the court declined to create one for Johnson.
When analyzing Johnson’s second claim, the court explained that if, in response to a Title VII claim, an employer offers a “legitimate, non-retaliatory” explanation for terminating an employee, the burden shifts to the employee to show that the employer’s asserted explanation is a mere pretext for its real, retaliatory motivation for firing the employee. Interstate provided a non-retaliatory reason for firing Johnson. Specifically, Interstate showed that Johnson repeatedly violated workplace regulations. To substantiate this explanation, Interstate offered a “plethora of evidence” in the form of a “large volume of infraction reports.” Therefore, the relevant question to Johnson’s Title VII claim became whether he produced “sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that [Interstate’s] asserted non-retaliatory reason” for firing Johnson was not the actual reason. Johnson offered little evidence to refute Interstate’s business records other than to point out that he never signed his citations and to deny that he violated workplace policy. Unimpressed with Johnson’s lack of evidence, the court determined that a reasonable jury would conclude that Interstate’s asserted explanation for terminating Johnson was reasonable and legitimate.
For additional information about this case or other employment law matters, please contact Merritt Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703)556-6505. Mr. Green leads General Counsel, P.C.’s Employment Law Practice and has been representing employers (and occasionally employees) for over 18 years.