Court rules employee’s termination not in retaliation for repeated complaints

In a recent case in federal court in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Carissa Nealis, a white woman and account executive for CoxCom, LLC, made a retaliation claim based on her reports of a coworker being treated unfairly.

In June 2012, Ms. Nealis complained to human resources that another employee, Mr. Palzer, a white man, had been singled out unfairly for harsh treatment. This was based on an incident during a business trip where Ms. Nealis overhead Palzer’s boss, a white woman named Stauffer, yelling at him for riding on a bus with the sales team instead of in a van with his own team. Ms. Nealis also reported to human resources that Stauffer had at one point said, “We have enough white men in the group, we need to hire diversity.” Palzer filed an EEOC charge alleging that he had been discriminated against because of his race (white) and age (over 40), based on the bus incident and the diversity comment. Ms. Nealis was listed as a witness in Palzer’s EEOC charge, and Ms. Nealis alleged that she continued to complain about Stauffer’s treatment of Palzer. Palzer was terminated for performance issues in June 2013.

In December 2013, CoxCom became aware that Ms. Nealis may have had a conflict of interest with the company. An investigation revealed that Ms. Nealis’ domestic partner ran a telecommunications company that competed with CoxCom, and that Ms. Nealis herself had been an owner of the company from August 2011 to sometime in 2012. The company determined that a conflict of interest did exist because Ms. Nealis financially benefitted from the competing company, had the ability to refer CoxCom’s customers to her partner’s company, and had access to the company’s sales strategies, as well as lists of current and potential customers. The company terminated Ms. Nealis for this conflict of interest.

Ms. Nealis sued her employer, claiming that she had actually been fired in retaliation for making complaints about the treatment of Palzer. The federal court in Tulsa ruled in favor of the company, finding that Ms. Nealis simply had no evidence that her complaints about the bus incident and the diversity comment were in any way connected to her later termination. There were 18 months between the incident and Ms. Nealis’ termination.

Ms. Nealis challenged the legitimacy of her termination, but the court noted that “this court is the proper forum for cases of employment discrimination and retaliation, not any complaint of unfair treatment by an employer.”

Takeaways

Even though Ms. Nealis’ claim ultimately had no merit, the case is interesting in a few regards. First, her retaliation claim was based on Ms. Nealis’ complaints about the treatment of another employee — Mr. Palzer — not herself. Employers are reminded that protected complaints may include an employee’s complaints about treatment of other employees. Protected action could also include being a witness on behalf of another employee’s charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

Second, the underlying claim – that Palzer was being treated unfairly due to his white race – is what is commonly called a “reverse discrimination” claim, because Palzer was a member of the “majority” group. It is also a “same race” discrimination case, as Palzer and his boss, Stauffer, were both white. However, as the U.S. Supreme Court has held, the law protects all individuals in the workplace from discrimination based on gender or race, no matter what the gender or race may be.

  • Nealis v. CoxCom, LLC, No. 16-CV-0078-CVE-TLW (N.D. Okla. 3/22/17)