In a recent case, Haynes v. Waste Connections Inc., the Fourth Circuit affirmed denial of summary judgment against employer on claims of race discrimination and retaliation. While this case was decided on a particular set of facts, the ruling may offer guidance for other employers and employees.
James Fountain, a white man, hired Jimmy Haynes, a black man, to work for Waste Connections, Inc. (“WCI”) in 2006, with Fountain as his supervisor. During his employment, Haynes drove a truck to pick up trash from WCI’s customers. In October 2015, Haynes arrived to work early and was informed that his regular truck needed repairs, but there was a replacement truck. Instead, Haynes left work and sent a text to Fountain informing him he was sick and unable to work. Haynes called Fountain the next day to say he would return to work the following day. However, two days later Haynes was terminated for job abandonment.
WCI later asserted that prior to this incident Haynes committed three infractions: driving away without removing a fuel pump from a truck; undershooting a driveway, causing his truck to become stuck; and driving while on his cell phone. Despite these infractions Fountain told him in September 2015 that “everything looks good” and there was “nothing to worry about.” Haynes filed suit against WCI, claiming WCI unlawfully terminated him because of his race and retaliated against him in violation of Title VII and § 1981.
To establish a discriminatory termination claim, a plaintiff must make a prima facie showing that: (1) he was a member of a protected class; (2) he was satisfactorily performing his job at the time of the termination; (3) he was terminated from his employment; and (4) the prohibited conduct in which he engaged was comparable in seriousness to misconduct of other employees outside the protected class who received less severe discipline. If an employee establishes this, the burden shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer meets this burden, the employee must then demonstrate that the defendant’s proffered reason is pretextual.
Haynes established that Joe Hicks, a white employee also supervised by Fountain, had several workplace infractions, including twice using a cellphone while driving, driving while distracted, and responding to a traffic situation late, as well as yelling at Fountain before quitting. Hicks was permitted to return to his job, while Haynes, who had fewer infractions and did not yell at his supervisor, was terminated.
Additionally, Haynes produced evidence that WCI’s reason for his termination changed over time. When Haynes’s employment was terminated, he was told it was due to “job abandonment,” but WCI’s policy defines job abandonment as “three days, no call and no show,” which is inconsistent with Haynes’s behavior. WCI asserted, for the first time during the appeal, an entirely different reason for the termination than was offered initially: poor attitude. The court noted that while an employer can expand on its original reason for a termination, such evidence of substantial changes to the proffered reason for termination permits an inference of pretext.
The Fourth Circuit concluded that since Haynes presented sufficient evidence to establish a case of racial discrimination, summary judgment in favor of WCI was not warranted.
Absolute hard and fast rules can’t be taken from this case, since each case will be decided based on the specific circumstances surrounding the issue, but the case does offer helpful guidance for factually similar scenarios.
Based on the court’s ruling, an employer’s change in reasoning for an employee’s termination may result in the inference that the reasons offered by the employer are merely pretext for actual racial discrimination. Employers must have a distinct basis for firing employees and evidence of this basis should be clearly detailed in the employee’s file. While the court points out that employers are permitted to “expand on its original reason for a termination,” substantial changes to the given reasons for termination allow for an inference of pretext.
Additionally, disciplining employees differently for similar infractions, particularly when an employee who is a member of a protected class receives harsher punishment than an employee that is not a member of the same protected class, may be viewed as evidence of racial discrimination. Best practice for employers includes having a clear policy on disciplinary measures and, most importantly, following that policy uniformly for all employees.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-556-0411. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.