FIRST CIRCUIT CONCLUDES OLDER MANAGER WAS FIRED FOR POOR SERVICE, NOT HIS AGE
May 12, 2014
On April 29, 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 58-year old manager of Walgreens was fired due to poor customer service, and not because of his age. Adamson v. Walgreen Co., No. 13-1511, 4/29/14.
Adamson was fired after a customer complained that she did not receive adequate service when she attempted to purchase some items. This complaint came about four months after Adamson was disciplined for failing to help a different customer return a product. In his lawsuit against his former employer, he alleged that the company's stated justification for terminating him – bad customer service - was pretextual. The First Circuit rejected this argument, and affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to Walgreens.
The Court rejected Adamson's claim that the company didn't follow its own discipline policies when firing him. Although he claimed that his prior reprimand letter stated only that he would be fired if he engaged in the very same misconduct again (failing to help a customer with a return), the Court concluded that the company followed its policy and was clear that inadequate customer service could result in termination. The Court also rejected Adamson's claim that he was treated differently than younger employees who had engaged in misconduct. On this point, the Court noted that all the alleged comparator employees were first time offenders who all received a letter of discipline (as Adamson had received following the earlier incident). Adamson was therefore in a class by himself – a repeat offender – and the Court stressed that this was an important distinction. Finally, the Court rejected Adamson's argument that pretext could be shown because he was not given a chance to explain himself before being informed that he was fired. The Court reasoned: "While it may be good practice to allow employees to justify their conduct before discipline is imposed, nothing in Walgreen's polices required [the company] to do so when issuing his termination notice."
This decision casts some light on a number of potential landmines on which an employer can step when making discipline decisions. Where the affected employee is a member of a protected class, it is critically important to have documentation to support your decision. This case could very well have come down differently if Walgreens had not drafted the initial reprimand letter and been clear that future issues with customer service would result in Adamson's termination. It is also important to consider how similarly situated employees have been treated for similar misconduct in the past. Finally, do not lose sight of the fact that a human rights commission investigator, an arbitrator, a judge, or a jury will be assessing whether the discipline decision "seems fair." Walgreens moved on its employment decision quickly and did not afford Adamson a chance to fully explain his side of the story. This approach handed Adamson the argument that the decision making process used was not fair, which played in to his argument that Walgreens really just wanted to get rid of him because he was 58 years old. Although Walgreen's won this case, employers should ensure that the process utilized in making employment decisions will be viewed as fair to an outside observer.