Sixth Circuit Ruling Raises Warning to Tennessee Employers When it Comes to Handing out Disparate Discipline

As an employer, investigating employee misconduct and assessing proper punishment to each employee involved in breaking the rules is often complicated. It is very important to complete this task carefully and meticulously, though, especially if one the employees involved is a member of a protected class. In the case of one bank, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that its decision to punish an African-American employee involved in a workplace fight more harshly than the white employee involved in the same fight may constitute racial discrimination. The unfavorable ruling for this employer highlights the potential pitfalls that can await employers that issue different punishments to employees involved in similar misdeeds, especially when the employees are of different races, genders, religions, and so on.

The case began with a verbal disagreement between Curtis Wheat and Brad Hatfield, two male co-workers at Fifth Third Bank. The disagreement escalated into an argument and eventually a physical fight. After the event, the bank sent Michelle Healy, an employee relations consultant, to interview both of the men. An angry Wheat told Healy that he would “take care of [the problem with Hatfield] myself” and “Monday is going to be a big day,” but he refused to elaborate further.

The bank decided to terminate Wheat but initially took no disciplinary action against Hatfield, although it eventually disciplined Hatfield many weeks later. This disparity led Wheat to sue the bank for violating Title VII. Wheat, who was African-American, claimed that racial discrimination was the real reason for the difference in punishments between him and Hatfield, who was white.

The bank moved for summary judgment, arguing that the two men were not similarly situated employees because, while both men participated in the fight, their roles and actions placed them in different positions. Wheat alone was the aggressor, and he was also the only one who made threats of future violence. On this basis, the trial court granted summary judgment to the bank.

The Sixth Circuit ruled differently. The appeals court decided that Wheat had brought forth more than enough evidence to raise a legitimate factual dispute about which man was the true aggressor in the fight. Additionally, the court concluded that Wheat’s veiled comments about the following Monday were also not enough to warrant a summary judgment, since they were ambiguous, and Wheat had evidence that he never said those things at all. In short, the appeals court determined that many of the issues central to the case, including who was the aggressor in the fight, whether Wheat made threats against Hatfield in Healy’s presence, and whether Healy was a credible witness, were items best resolved by a jury and not on summary judgment.

Fifth Third’s defeat in the appeals court serves as a clear warning for Tennessee employers. When you have two employees who are involved in misconduct that is identical or even highly similar in nature, and you make the decision to mete out two distinctly different punishments, you should be careful to have a clear justification for doing so and detailed documentation to back it up, especially if the more harshly disciplined employee is a member of a protected class and the other employee is not.

Whether you are an employee or an employer, dealing with workplace discipline can be a complicated issue. If you’re dealing with issues of workplace discipline and race, talk to the experienced Tennessee race discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have a long track record assisting both employees and employers with these types of situations.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

11th Circuit: Attacking Employer’s Business Judgment Not Enough to Show Pretext in Discrimination Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 25, 2015

Alleged Recruiting Violations Doom Georgia High School Football Coach’s Racial Discrimination Suit, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Nov. 11, 2015

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