Fifth Circuit Permits Retaliatory Discipline Claim to Proceed Despite Upholding Dismissal of Wrongful Termination Claim

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes it an unlawful employment practice for any employer to engage in employment discrimination against any individual based on that person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 1981 gives all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States the equal benefits and protections of the laws of the United States.

The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided Gregory Willis v. Cleco Corporation, 749 F.3d 314 (5th Cir. 2014), a case involving claims of racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Gregory Willis, a minority, was a senior human resources representative at Cleco, who reported a racially hostile conversation between two employees. Two weeks after this report, Willis emailed a group of employees concerning a drug overdose by a co-worker's son. Cleco disciplined Willis for this communication and, several months later, placed Willis on a job improvement plan purportedly related to his job performance. Thereafter, Willis told another Cleco employee that she should spend more time with minorities in order to embrace her cultural heritage. Cleco ultimately terminated Willis' employment.

The district court granted summary judgment dismissing all claims asserted by Willis against Cleco. On appeal, Willis asserted that disputed factual issues existed as to whether (1) Cleco's purported reason for terminating him was pretextual and (2) Cleco had a motive for retaliation. Based on Willis’s failure to properly brief the issue, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision dismissing Willis' wrongful termination claim, but reversed the district court's decision dismissing Willis' retaliation claim. The Fifth Circuit pointed to evidence indicating that Willis’s supervisor told a co-worker that he was looking for a reason to fire Willis. The Fifth Circuit noted that if the jury believed that this statement was made, the statement could support a retaliation motive.

The circumstances of this case act as a reminder that it is always important to be sensitive to the implications of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 when making termination decisions involving employees who have previously been involved in racially charged situations in the workplace. This is true despite the fact that the employee may have performed poorly on the job or provided a reason for termination unrelated to his or her protected status as a minority.

Please contact us for more information about the laws related to racial discrimination in the workplace or if you need any assistance in insuring your compliance with laws related to discrimination.

             Author: Jennifer A. Hataway              Practice Area: Labor & Employment Law              Date: August 11, 2014

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