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Racial Not Enough to Save Wrongful Termination Claim

| Jun 28, 2021 | Firm News |

Sometimes, a situation that seems straightforward as a matter of right and wrong may not be quite so simple when the framework of the law is imposed on it. Such is the case in the recently decided Vesey v. Envoy Air, Inc., No. 20-1606, 2021 WL 2176792 (7th Cir. 2021), where not even documented racism was enough to save the claim of an employee.

As recounted by the court, Ciara Vesey worked for Envoy Air (doing business under the name American Eagle Airlines) for four years, during which she received several disciplinary actions. At the same time, however, she claims that she was also the target of racist remarks and actions by another employee. Envoy investigated these complaints and found them credible enough that they fired the alleged harasser. Vesey claims that following this complaint, she was targeted by a lead agent and a manager, both of whom had defended the other employee and who sough to retaliate against Vesey for reporting his behavior. This culminated when, according to Vesey, the manager pressured another employee to file an anonymous complaint against Vesey for abusing her airline travel benefits. Vesey made further complaints to Envoy that the employees were retaliating against her.

To make a long story short, the company investigators found that Vesey had actually been abusing her travel benefits, and a committee at Envoy terminated Vesey’s employment. She brought suit alleging that Envoy had retaliated against her for her complaints about racial harassment and that they had allowed a hostile work environment as a result of the conduct of the other employees.

The United States District Court for Central Illinois, as upheld by the Seventh Circuit Appellate Court, found that Vesey could not sustain her claims that the company itself had violated the law. There was no alleged retaliatory motivation on the part of the individuals who investigated the benefit abuse, or in the ones who actually made the decision to fire Vesey. The information that they depended on in making their decisions was Vesey’s travel history and activity. That is, while the motivation of the employees making the original complaint may have been improper, but Envoy did have an actual independent reason for terminating her—her own activities in regard to her travel benefits. The court’s conclusion might have been different if Envoy’s investigation itself had used testimony from the lead agent or manager, but they didn’t have anything to do with the actual evidence underlying the decision to terminate her.

The Court spends comparatively little time addressing the hostile work environment theory. It notes that the company acted promptly to investigate and address the actions of the racist employee after her complaint, which was what they were obligated to do under the law. Regarding the lead agent and the manager, the court noted that they didn’t directly do much in retaliation, and that being  standoffish, unfriendly, and unapproachable is not sufficient to establish an actionable hostile work environment. I’d speculate that the court might have been more charitable about this theory if they had not so thoroughly shut down the wrongful termination claim.

This case really highlights that, while not requiring “clean hands” on the part of workers who are discriminated against, it is a complicated and delicate matter to overcome independent grounds for terminating employment. Even legitimate victims of harassment and discrimination, as Vesey very likely was, can torpedo their discrimination cases by engaging in fireable conduct separate from that harassment.

Attorney Travis Dunn