A federal trial court in Aberdeen, Mississippi, recently declined to dismiss an employee’s wrongful termination claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court found the employer’s distinction between the conduct of the terminated employee and similar misconduct by a younger nondisabled employee who wasn’t terminated raised a disputed fact that should be resolved by a jury. Employers should take note of this decision.
“Michael” began working for Mueller Copper Tube Company, Inc., in 1971. For the last 20 years of his employment there, he worked in the shipping department, operating a crane to load trailers and staging loads for shipping.
In 1996, Michael suffered from a heart condition that required stents to be placed in his heart. He claimed that after the procedure, he suffered from severe anxiety, including panic attacks and depression. His condition resulted in his need for leave and another surgical procedure in 2013.
On July 17, 2014, “Dwight,” a superintendent at Mueller, approached Michael and, according to Michael, intentionally provoked him and gave him orders that conflicted with his supervisor’s instructions. During the exchange, Michael picked up a 1×4-inch board, allegedly because he felt threatened by Dwight. He maintained that he didn’t raise the board in a threatening manner, although Dwight claimed that he did. Michael dropped the board without incident.
The following day, HR contacted Michael to inform him that he was being terminated for violating “Rule 26,” which prohibits employees from threatening or intimidating coworkers or supervisors. The termination decision was made by the plant manager. At the time, Michael was 62 years old. His position was filled by another man in his early-to-mid 50s.
Michael filed suit, claiming his employment was terminated because of his age and his medical condition, in violation of the ADEA and the ADA. Mueller asked the court to dismiss his claims, arguing that his threatening behavior toward Dwight was a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for his termination.
According to Mueller, any employee who threatens another employee with physical harm in violation of Rule 26, whether he strikes someone, pulls out a knife, or picks up any kind of weapon, is terminated “every time.” In support of that assertion, the company identified three examples of such incidents for the court.
However, Michael pointed to an incident involving “Eric,” a younger employee who had threatened a supervisor the week before his incident but wasn’t terminated and received only a verbal warning. Eric admittedly threw a crane conductor box on the ground in anger during a dispute with his supervisor.
Mueller claimed that he threw the box away from the supervisor and walked away. The company asserted that Eric’s situation was vastly different from Michael’s because Michael had refused a directive and then picked up 1×4-inch board and approached the supervisor.
The court found Mueller’s distinction between Eric’s and Michael’s actions was tenuous at best. The court noted that Mueller had identified Rule 26 as a basis for the verbal warning Eric received and indicated his conduct was threatening and intimidating to a supervisor. Although Michael identified other alleged disparities in Mueller’s application of Rule 26, the court refused to consider them because they were based on hearsay.
Based on the disparity between Eric’s and Michael’s treatment after they engaged in similar misconduct, the court ruled that Michael was entitled to take his claims to trial. As a result, a jury will decide whether his employment was terminated for the reasons Mueller claimed or because of his age and his alleged disability. Reich v. Mueller Copper Tube Company, Inc., 2017 WL 177632 (N.D. Miss., Jan. 17, 2017).
The importance of consistent discipline cannot be overstated. The court’s finding that Mueller may have treated similarly situated employees differently means Michael will have the opportunity to present his case to a jury, which will decide whom to believe and whether his termination was legitimate or discriminatory.
Although you aren’t required to apply one-size-fits-all discipline, this case serves as an important reminder that any distinctions you draw between employees must be clear and significant to avoid a close call that must be resolved by a jury.