I am typically suspicious of lawsuits in which a plaintiff employee alleges every possible form of discrimination against his or her employer. It seems unlikely that an employer is motivated by many different forms of bias when deciding on a disciplinary action or termination—race and gender and age and pregnancy can’t all be the basis for the decision, can they?
And yet, when an employer and its supervisors screws up a case so badly with multiple derogatory statements over a lengthy period of time, and when they then fire the employee shortly after she complains about the harassing conduct, the case is likely to get heard on the merits and will cost the company a lot of money to defend.
Such a case, Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC, No. 15-1055 (4th Cir. July 6, 2016), recently came before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant, and now the employer must gear up for a trial.
The Facts: In Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC, Monica Guessous, a female Muslim-American bookkeeping assistant of Moroccan descent, sued her employer, a property management firm, after she was discharged. Her complaint contained multiple claims, including discrimination based on religion, national origin, and pregnancy, hostile work environment, and retaliation.
Shortly after she was hired by Fairview, Ms. Guessous began reporting to a new supervisor, Greg Washenko. She alleged that Mr. Washenko began making offensive remarks when they were first introduced, when he said he had previously worked with a “bunch of Middle Easterners and they are a bunch of crooks who will stop at nothing to screw you.”
As their work relationship continued, Mr. Washenko allegedly discussed Moroccans, Muslims, and Middle Easterners repeatedly in disparaging and offensive ways, and asked Ms. Guessous questions about Middle Easterners, about suicide bombers and other terrorist acts, and about Islam. When Ms. Guessous told Mr. Washenko that Muslims were not terrorists, Mr. Washenko responded, “Yeah, sure. Like my buddy says . . . not all Muslims are terrorists, but most are.”
The Fourth Circuit opinion goes on for pages about Mr. Washenko’s comments. According to the Fourth Circuit, Washenko consistently conflated Ms. Guessous’s identity as a Moroccan Muslim with other Middle Eastern identities, so that the court had difficulty determining whether his remarks related to race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion.
When Ms. Guessous became pregnant, Mr. Washenko didn’t want to grant her a three-month maternity leave, and she had to tell him she was legally entitled to a 12-week leave. When she returned from maternity leave, her work duties had been assigned to other staff. Two months later, she asked Mr. Washenko for her old duties back and complained about his past behavior. Just 75 minutes after this meeting, the company president asked Fairview affiliates if they had openings for Ms. Guessous, because Fairview did not have enough work for her.
Then Ms. Guessous was terminated in March 2013. She was told the company did not have work for her. Her responsibilities were transferred to an outside accountant and to Mr. Washenko.
The Moral: This case demonstrates several problems for employers.
First, of course, is the alleged behavior by Mr. Washenko. In summary judgment rulings, the facts must be considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff—in this case, Ms. Guessous. It is possible that a judge or jury after a trial will find that Fairview did not discriminate against Ms. Guessous. But with the allegations described in the Fourth Circuit opinion, Fairview is facing an uphill battle on liability.
Second, the Fourth Circuit indicated that the fact that Fairview didn’t have work for Ms. Guessous was not sufficient rationale to defeat her claims of discrimination. The Fourth Circuit said that the lower court had granted summary judgment for Fairview solely because the company did not replace her after she was fired.
“The court offered no elaboration in its opinion, but its logic appears to have been that, because the work was absorbed by Fairview’s other employees, Guessous cannot show that there was enough work to justify keeping her on staff and she therefore cannot prevail. If that is, indeed, the court’s reasoning it is a fallacy: because Fairview has shown it could operate without Guessous does not mean that it would have done so absent the protected activity.”
Thus, once an employer or its supervisors have engaged in discriminatory or harassing behavior, a restructuring of duties to get rid of an employee is also discriminatory. It seems unlikely that an employer can show any evidence to defend itself in such a situation.
In this case, the facts were particularly egregious. As the Fourth Circuit said,
“A reasonable jury could easily conclude, however, that the termination decision was made only seventy-five minutes after Guessous’ complained to Washenko about past comments and treatment, and that it was therefore motivated by the complaint itself.”
Thus, the Fourth Circuit said that a reasonable jury could find that Fairview’s argument that it lacked work for Ms. Guessous was a pretext for discrimination.
The morals to this case, then, are that (1) employers, including all supervisors, should refrain from disparaging comments about employees’ national origin, religion, and other protected categories; (2) employers should provide employees with all mandated leaves and other benefits without question; and (3) employers should not respond to employee complaints by immediately doing away with the employee’s job.
More broadly, the moral of this case is that employers need to be sure that discussions in the workplace about political and newsworthy events remain civil and that no racial, ethnic, or other protected group is mentioned in disparaging ways. A good moral for us all to take to heart in the middle of this political season.
When have you encountered managers who behaved inappropriately?