Law Doesn’t Protect Workers from ‘Unfair Employers’

As the holiday season approaches, the U.S.  Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago has released a decision that harkens back to the working conditions of Victorian England which inspired Charles Dickens.

George Widmar, 51, was a plant manager for 16 years who was fired in 2009 by Sun Chemical’s National Manufacturing Manager, Keith Roberts. Widmar was denied severance pay and publicly accused  by a Sun official of  having “screwed up” the plant.  Widmar claims he was blamed for failures that were not within his control. For example, he cited problems stemming from a flawed chemical formula and Sun’s decision to use cheap, faulty materials.  Sun Chemical argued that plant managers must accept responsibility over all aspects of a plant – even those outside the manager’s control.

Here are some of the highlights from the 7th Circuit’s decision in the case of Widmar v. Sun Chemical Corp, No. 13-2313 (November 19, 2014):

  •  “Title VII does not protect employees from poor managers or unpleasant and unfair employers.”
  • “I]t is not the court’s concern that an employer may be wrong about its employee’s performance, or be too hard on its employee.”
  • “An employer can micro-manage and require as much petty communication as it wishes.”
  • “An employer’s poor management decisions could, in fact, be a cover for discriminatory action, but poor decisions can just as easily be the result of deficient management and lackluster business acumen.”
  • “Even if Roberts blamed Widmar for problems that he knew were not Widmar’s fault, this makes Roberts a bad manager, not a perpetrator of illegal discrimination.”
  • “The problem for Widmar, however, is that even if … we were to attribute a nefarious motive to Roberts’ conduct in each incident, we have no way of knowing whether Roberts acted this way because of Widmar’s age. Each and every one of these issues could arise just as easily if Roberts simply did not like Widmar’s personality or his style or, for that matter, his cologne.”
  • “We cannot say whether it was a reasonable expectation for Sun Chemical to require Widmar to be responsible for particular functions and actions in the plant in this way. This court has repeatedly stated that it is not a super-personnel department that second-guesses employer policies that are facially legitimate.”
  • “The question is not whether Sun Chemical’s assessment of Widmar’s performance was correct, only that it was an honest belief and not a pretext for age discrimination.”
  • Widmar “was not placed on a performance improvement plan even though it was company policy to do so if the problems were remediable, but again he offers not one shred of evidence that younger similarly situated employees were given such an opportunity where he was not.”

Widmar had sued for age discrimination and defamation. His lawsuit was dismissed pursuant to Sun’s pre-trial motion for summary judgment long before it could ever reach a jury. And the 7th Circuit upheld the dismissal.