By Kathleen J. Jennings (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Those of a us of a certain age remember comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s routine about “You Might Be A Redneck If….” Now a case out of Georgia cautions us that if an employee complains that another employee has called him a redneck/hillbilly, the employer may need to take that complaint seriously. [Bland v. Sam’s East, Inc. , M.D. Ga., No. 4:17-CV-190 (CDL), 1/9/19 ].
Joshua Bland, a white tire technician employed by Sam’s Club, sued his employer claiming, among other things, that he was terminated for complaining to his supervisor that another employee, Edgar Cornell Robinson, who is African-American, called him a “dumb redneck/hillbilly” during a very heated argument at work but was not disciplined for doing so.
When Bland and Robinson were scheduled to work together a couple of days after their argument, Bland was not happy and spoke with their supervisor. Bland argued that he felt Robinson should have been disciplined for calling him a redneck/hillbilly because Bland would have been fired immediately if he had used the “N word” during his confrontation with Robinson. (Whether those two different statements are, in fact, equivalent, is an argument for another day). The employer claimed that during this conversation, Bland acted aggressively toward his supervisor and was rude and disrespectful, and Bland was terminated the next day. Bland claims otherwise; he alleged that he was calm and respectful. This set up a dispute of material facts that caused the judge to deny summary judgment to the employer.
A jury will now decide whether Bland was terminated for his aggressive behavior toward his supervisor or because he complained about what he perceived as race-based favoritism toward Robinson.
The takeaway: When an employee makes a complaint of discrimination or harassment, he or she is protected from retaliation regardless of whether the complaint itself has any merit. So here, Bland just had to show that had a good faith, reasonable belief that he was complaining about discrimination when he complained that Robinson was not disciplined for calling him a “dumb redneck/hillbilly,” and Bland was then protected from retaliation because he made that complaint. Therefore, an employer has to be extra cautious when taking any disciplinary action that is close in time to a complaint.
Kathleen Jennings, Principal is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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