We often tell clients that not all lawsuits are filed because an employee has evidence of discrimination or believes she was discriminated against. Rather, sometimes they’re filed because the employee thinks she was treated unfairly. That concept is illustrated in a recent case out of Durham.
Iretha Lawrence, an African American female, worked for North Carolina Neuropsychiatry (NCN) as a billing specialist. Shortly after she began work, she had a series of disputes with several coworkers. Additionally, she ran afoul of NCN’s absenteeism and tardiness policy, which requires an employee to notify her supervisor of an absence, late arrival, or early departure no later than one hour before the start of her shift unless she has previous written approval. Failure to do so can result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.
On February 9, 2009, Lawrence left work 30 minutes early without informing her supervisor. A month later, she left work an hour early without telling her supervisor that she was leaving for the day. The supervisor decided that based on these two attendance violations, Lawrence should be terminated.
After Lawrence was terminated, NCN decided to promote from within to fill her position. Portia Bisiar, a white female who was also friends with the supervisor, was given the job. Lawrence sued NCN, claiming her employment was terminated based on her race.
During the pretrial exchange of evidence, Lawrence’s deposition was taken. She was asked a number of questions about why she believed her employment was terminated:
Q: Do you really believe you were terminated because of your race?
A: Really, I don’t, but it is what it is.
Q: And you believe that you were terminated because [your supervisor] wanted to put her friend in [your] job?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: And that was the only reason [the supervisor] terminated you?
In addition to testifying that she believed the sole motivation for her termination was so the supervisor could give the position to a friend, Lawrence acknowledged that no one at work had ever said anything she considered racist or related to her race. Based on that testimony, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina was quick to dismiss the case in favor of NCN.
The court noted that even if Lawrence’s allegation about the supervisor’s desire to hire a friend was accurate, it didn’t amount to unlawful discrimination. As a number of cases have established, giving preferential treatment to friends or social acquaintances does not violate federal law. Additionally, Lawrence expressly admitted that she didn’t believe she was fired because of her race. Therefore, her race discrimination claim automatically failed.
What This Means for You
It is clear that the employee in this case believed she was treated unfairly. However, she was unable to point to any evidence that her termination was based on her race. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop her from filing a lawsuit and forcing the company to defend itself in court. You will never be able to prevent all lawsuits, but by treating employees as fairly as possible, even the ones against whom you take adverse action, you can hopefully avoid many potential cases.
Richard L. Rainey is an attorney with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, P.L.L.C., and has practiced labor and employment law in the firm’s Charlotte, North Carolina, office since 1987. In addition to his extensive experience successfully litigating employment disputes on behalf of employers in the courtroom and before administrative agencies, he is the editor of North Carolina Employment Law Letter.