After Outburst, He Won’t See Employer in Court
There is a new way for a worker to lose a lawsuit in federal court.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, IL, ruled recently that a worker could be fired for misbehaving during a mediation session called to resolve his complaint of sex discrimination.
Michael Benes had charged his Wisconsin employer, A.B. Data, Ltd. with sexdiscrimination after working for the company for four months.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arranged for mediation in which, after an initial joint session, the parties separated into different rooms and a go-between relayed offers.
Upon receiving a settlement proposal that he thought too low, court papers say Benes “stormed” into the room used by A.B. Data Ltd. representatives, and said loudly: “You can take your proposal and shove it up your ass and fire me and I’ll see you in court.”
The company accepted Benes’ counterproposal but then fired him.
Benes filed suit under the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000e–3(a), which bans retaliation because a person “has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” [Emphasis supplied].
A magistrate judge upheld Benes’ dismissal, finding that Benes was fired for misconduct during the mediation, not for making or supporting a charge of discrimination.
The appeals court agreed and upheld Benes termination.
In the past, Benes’ misbehavior might have resulted in a sanction by the court or his employer.
Ignores the Employer’s Behavior
An opinion written by Chief Judge Frank A. Easterbrook states – without explanation – that Benes “abandoned” his claim of sex discrimination upon filing the retaliation complaint. This is somewhat baffling in that the original complaint of sex discrimination obviously was the underlying basis for the retaliation complaint. Benes would never have been engaged in mediation if he had not filed the discrimination complaint. And Benes would not have been fired if he had not engaged in mediation.
The appellate panel proceeded to completely ignore A.B. Data’s behavior and to focus only upon Benes’ conduct.
Judge Easterbrook said Benes’ actions constituted a “serious breach” of the mediation protocol, adding, “If A.B. Data would have fired a person who barged into his superior’s office in violation of instructions, and said what Benes did, then it was entitled to fire someone who did the same thing during a mediation.”
The appellate panel said that Title VII does not establish a “privilege to misbehave” in mediation.
Chief Judge Easterbrook writes that the prospect of being fired for an egregious violation of a mediator’s protocols would not discourage a reasonable worker from making a charge of discrimination or from participating in the EEOC’s investigation.
Impact of Harassment
The details of the alleged discrimination suffered by Benes were not included in the appellate decision, nor are the details of the offer submitted by A.B. Data to resolve Benes’ complaint.
Those of us who work in the area of workplace bullying and abuse are familiar with the well-documented mental and physical stress suffered by targets over time, which occasionally results in erratic or self-defeating behavior. For these and other reasons, mediation is not ideal in these cases.
Benes clearly did himself no favors with his hotheaded behavior. Still, this decision appears to be yet another indicator of the lack of sympathy for the problem of workplace abuse in the federal courts, where, coincidentally, judges have lifetime tenure.
Research shows that employment discrimination cases are dismissed at a far higher rate than other types of cases in federal courts before they ever reach a jury.
Workers beware – any breach of civility on your part at any point in the proceedings can have severe consequences.