• June 17, 2011

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling last week affirming Wal-Mart’s right to fire an African-American manager for a seemingly minor violation of its “Working Off The Clock” policy. The case is an important reminder of the court’s rule in evaluating employer’s decisions.

Plaintiff Chestine Clay was manager of the Vision Center at Wal-Mart’s store in Bloomington, Minnesota. Beginning in 2005, Clay complained several times about the behavior of several co-workers, which she viewed as racially discriminatory. Wal-Mart investigated but concluded that race was not a factor.

In August 2006, one the employees that Clay supervised asked Clay to call her to let her know how Clay was doing. Clay called the employee at home after-hours, and they had a 90 minute conversation that included some work-related issues. Several days later, the employee mentioned to the Bloomington store manager that she and Clay had talked after-hours about work issues. The store manager informed the employee that she should be compensated for the time she spent on the phone with Clay. Two days later, the District Manager who was Clay’s immediate supervisor told Clay that the phone call had violated Wal-Mart’s “Working Off the Clock” policy, which prohibits managers from requesting that associates work off the clock, and that because of this violation Clay was being fired.

Clay sued, but the trial court dismissed her claim on summary judgment, finding that even though the outcome seemed harsh, there was no evidence that Clay’s race had played any role in the decision.

The Court of Appeals affirmed this decision. Clay argued that Wal-Mart’s reason for terminating her was pretextual because her conversation did not violate the company’s policy. The Court noted, however, that the issue was not whether Clay had actually violated the policy, but whether Wal-Mart believed that she had done so. “If an employer takes adverse action based on a good faith belief that an employee engaged in misconduct, then the employer has acted because of perceived misconduct, not because of protected status or activity.” Because there was no evidence that Wal-Mart’s belief was not honestly held, the dismissal of Clay’s claim was appropriate

This case illustrates why proving discrimination can be so difficult at times. Courts do not want to second-guess employer’s business decisions; thus, even if the decision appears harsh or just plain stupid, a plaintiff must nonetheless be able to point to some evidence of race or other discrimination to get past summary judgment and to a jury. Put another way, just because a decision is unfair does not mean it is necessarily illegal.

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