On Tuesday, February 17, 2015, the Second Circuit upheld Judge Margo K. Brodie’s grant of summary judgment to Owens and Minor Distribution, Inc. (O&M) in a race and national origin discrimination and retaliation case. The Second Circuit agreed with the Eastern District of New York’s decision that O&M, a distributor of medical and surgical supplies, presented a legitimate non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reason for terminating Mr. Joseph. In its well-reasoned decision, the district court provided a helpful reminder in guiding employers through the employment cycle of an employee with performance difficulties.
In his complaint, Hancy P. Joseph alleged that O&M engaged in race and national origin discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law. Mr. Joseph was employed as a senior project analyst for O&M beginning in 2008 and was born in Haiti. He identified himself as African-American. In November 2009, he was promoted to senior analyst, which required him to regularly interact with customers on projects. Although Mr. Joseph was meeting or exceeding objectives in certain areas of his performance, he had been removed from placements at two or more hospitals due to an interpersonal dispute and at a client’s request.
On August 30, 2010, Mr. Joseph was asked to leave a client meeting after questioning the client’s service requests and a dispute arose between Mr. Joseph and O&M’s onsite manager in the presence of the client. When asked to leave the meeting by the onsite manager, Mr. Joseph refused. The incident left such a negative impact on the client that the client asked whether it would still need to work with Mr. Joseph for the remainder of the project. Mr. Joseph then filed a complaint alleging that the manager asked him to leave the client site due to his race. O&M conducted an internal investigation into the incident, which found no racial motivation behind the manager’s actions, and O&M allowed Mr. Joseph to remain on the project, although he was admonished for his unprofessional behavior in the meeting. This pattern of disagreement with this client continued less than a month later. As a result of the client’s dissatisfaction, O&M removed Mr. Joseph from the project and subsequently terminated him from the company due to his history of negative interactions with clients. Mr. Joseph tried to bolster his claims by alleging his termination was retaliatory due to his prior complaints of racial discrimination, but the court found that he could not show any connection between his alleged race discrimination complaints and termination.
O&M’s proactive methods in addressing Mr. Joseph’s conduct during his employment were instrumental in defeating Mr. Joseph’s claims. O&M was able to demonstrate that it repeatedly warned Mr. Joseph about his unprofessional behavior and recommended additional training and opportunities to him. Mr. Joseph did not avail himself of these opportunities and his client interaction skills did not improve. Likewise, the employer’s internal investigation showed that O&M seriously addressed Mr. Joseph’s allegations.
Another factor that substantiated the finding that O&M’s decision was not pretextual was that an outside client not affiliated with O&M complained about Mr. Joseph’s conduct.
When dealing with employees with performance difficulties, it is prudent for employers to utilize progressive discipline and carefully document the entire process. Employers must separate an employee’s claims of discrimination from performance issues and continue to hold employees accountable.
For more information about the impact of this decision or about implementing proactive measures at your company, please contact: