Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

Case Study: Fired Employee with Bad Attitude Fails on Religious Discrimination Claim

A car salesman who was terminated following customer complaints of a bad attitude cannot get to a jury on his religious discrimination claim according to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to all Oklahoma employers). The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment (dismissal without a trial) in favor of the employer in the recent opinion.

History of Bad Attitude

Steven Pegler worked as a car salesman for Doug Smith Autoplex for approximately a year. During his tenure, he received discipline (“counseling statements”) for being offensive to customers, failing to meet sales objectives, and exhibiting a poor attitude toward customers.

Pegler also received three customer complaints. The final complaint came after he raised his voice at a married couple taking a test drive, saying “If you aren’t going to lease from me, then you are wasting my time!” After the husband told him to calm down, he allegedly replied, “No, I’m Jewish.”

After his employment was terminated, Pegler sued, alleging his employer discriminated against him because he wasn’t a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, unlike most of his coworkers. He claimed a non-Jewish coworker had two outbursts but wasn’t terminated. He also claimed his performance wasn’t as bad as claimed. Finally, he argued the potential car buyers who made the final complaint after the test drive may have been colluding with Doug Smith Autoplex to create a pretext (excuse) to fire him.

10th Circuit Rules for Employer

Neither the trial court nor the appellate court agreed with Pegler’s theory, finding he failed to present any evidence his employer discriminated against him because of his religion.

The 10th Circuit noted, first, that the comparison to a non-Jewish coworker failed to show discrimination because the record showed the employee in question didn’t have negative interactions with customers like Pegler did. The court noted this distinction—a general poor attitude with coworkers versus a poor attitude toward customers—“is a seemingly critical distinction in the car business.”

Second, the court rejected Pegler’s own evaluation of his attitude and performance, noting an employee’s own assessment of his performance isn’t sufficient to withstand summary judgment and get to a jury. Moreover, the court noted the employer had consistently documented his bad attitude and negative interactions with customers.

Finally, the court didn’t accept Pegler’s conspiracy theory that the customer and employer had colluded on the final complaint against him, noting he had no evidence to support this theory and relied on “mere conjecture.” Pegler v. Doug Smith Autoplex.

Best Practices for Employers

You should feel relieved that not every discrimination claim will make it to a jury. In this case, the employer’s practice of keeping clear documentation of performance and attitude issues set it up for success on summary judgment. Remember that documentation of disciplinary and coaching issues may provide evidence in a later lawsuit. On the other hand, the dealership’s mostly homogenous workforce in this case illustrates the importance of diversity and inclusion to avoid discrimination lawsuits.

Elizabeth Bowersox is an attorney in the Oklahoma City office of McAfee & Taft. She can be reached at elizabeth.bowersox@mcafeetaft.com.