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Disrespect May Constitute Actionable Behavior

February 19, 2014

It appears that employers may introduce evidence of an employee’s disrespectful behavior to defeat a claim of discrimination. A circuit court decision last month indicates that courts are not going to limit their inquiry to explicit job requirements when evaluating job performance.

Zayas v. Rockford Memorial Hospital, 2014 WL No. 13–2555 (Jan. 30, 2014) was argued before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last November. Plaintiff, Margarita Zayas, was an ultra-sound technician, employed by Defendant Hospital. After eleven years of employment, Zayas was discharged for sending “insubordinate emails.” Zayas brought claims of discrimination based on age and national origin. Additionally, Zayas attempted to establish the existence of a hostile work environment. Defendant Hospital moved to dismiss her claims, and the lower court granted dismissal of all three. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court and found plaintiff’s claims to be unfounded. The Court accepted the Hospital’s argument that the employee’s “disrespectful behavior” justified her termination. Even though the Hospital could not point to an instance when plaintiff failed to perform her duties, the Seventh Circuit was satisfied that plaintiff’s insubordinate behavior was reason enough to terminate her employment.

This case could be a sign that courts are willing to grant employers more discretion in employment decisions. However, employers should remember that this deference is not unlimited, and is based on the facts in each case. Employer conduct is a critical factor influencing the outcome of many disputes. For example, it is important to note that the hospital did not discharge Zayas upon the first instance of disrespectful behavior. Multiple warnings were issued, and during the following year, plaintiff’s behavior remained uncorrected.

Communicating with employees to work through difficult situations may be the best course of action an employer can take. If the employee remains unwilling to address the concerns, termination based on “disrespectful behavior” is sometimes an option. Employers should remember that this is not a license to discharge employees for amorphous reasons; rather it provides assurance that some qualities necessary to perform a job, like professionalism, may be implicitly included in employers’ workplace expectations.

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