You be the judge: Boss fired worker who took photos to back up complaint

by on April 25, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe

Here’s a scenario based on a real-life employment law case. How do you think the court ruled?

“What on earth are you doing, Coleman?” supervisor Vince Schmidt asked Terrell Coleman, one of his employees, who was using a digital camera to snap pictures of the production line.

“I’m gathering evidence for my discrimination complaint,” Terrell replied. “The photos will show how the Hispanic guys get help in doing two-man operations, while black employees like me don’t.”

“Well, stop it,” Vince said. “I don’t want people taking photos in here. How do I know you won’t give them to a competitor? Especially since you don’t seem very happy around here.”

Getting yelled at
“I’d be happier if I were treated fairly,” Terrell insisted. “I don’t have any help here at the back end of the line, so I get bogged down. Then the Hispanic guys yell at me and call me names. They help each other, but refuse to help me.”

“No photos,” Vince repeated. “If you have a complaint, put it in writing. Now get back to work.”

The following day, Terrell came up to Vince holding an envelope. “Here,” he said. “You said put it in writing.”

The supervisor took the envelope, looked at Terrell for a long moment and then said, “You’re fired. I’ve been thinking about what you did yesterday, and it was inexcusable.”

A few weeks later, Terrell sued for retaliation, claiming Vince fired him because he complained of a racially discriminatory situation.

Did the company manage to get Terrell’s lawsuit dismissed?

Management Lesson
No. The court said Terrell’s case was strong enough to be tried in front of a jury. That was bad news for Vince and the company, because juries are notoriously pro-employee.

The company tried to argue that Vince fired Terrell because he violated a company policy barring unauthorized photography inside the manufacturing facility.

But the court said there was no clear evidence the company actually had such a policy. In fact, the court said, “the no-photography policy may have been cooked up after the fact.”

“If the reason (Terrell) snapped the photos was to bolster his claim of discrimination, then forbidding picture-taking looks a lot like an attempt to block the gathering of evidence during an investigation,” the court added.

If a no-photos policy wasn’t the real reason for Terrell’s termination, that left retaliation by the supervisor for Terrell’s discrimination complaint as the most likely motive. And retaliation, of course, is illegal.

Cite: Loudermilk v. Best Pallet Co., No. 10-1846, 7th Cir., 2/18/11.

photo credit: UggBoy?UggGirl [ PHOTO // WORLD // SENSE ]

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