A federal appeals court reversed a decision that took a South Carolina trucking company off the hook for a racial discrimination lawsuit. The driver will now get his day in court for allegedly being fired because of his race.
On April 23, an appellate panel for the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s decision that dismissed a case against Waste Connections Inc. Jimmy Haynes, a black man and former driver for WCI, claims he was unlawfully terminated because of his race.
Haynes v. Waste Connections Inc.
Haynes had worked for WCI in Duncan, S.C., for more than eight years as a front-end load driver beginning in July 2007. He was considered one of the best drivers at his location as a result of his excellent driving record, hard work and no complaints from customers, according to the lawsuit.
Despite his reputation as a valued employee, Haynes had a contentious relationship with his supervisor. Court documents accuse the supervisor of exaggerating incidences, making accusatory remarks toward Haynes, and inconsistently disciplining him compared to other white drivers.
Leading into the final months of his employment, Haynes claims that he started noticing suspicious activities taking place, including heightened accusations against him. Allegedly, his bonuses were taken away from him for reasons he had never heard before. The original complaint does not go into detail about what those reasons were. According to Haynes, this was all part of a conspiracy to get him fired.
On Oct. 7, 2015, Haynes arrived to work early at 12:55 a.m. despite filling ill. Eventually, he succumbed to his illness and clocked out early. That same day, his assigned truck was not available because of maintenance work, and no spare truck was available. At 1:20 a.m., Haynes texted his supervisor to inform him that he would not be at work because of illness. At 3 p.m., Haynes called the supervisor to inform him he felt better and would be in at the regular time the next day. Two hours later, the supervisor called back letting Haynes know not to come back to work the next day. Instead, Haynes was to go to a meeting at 10 a.m. the next day.
Haynes attended the meeting the next day on Oct. 8, where he was told he was being terminated for “job abandonment.” The following day, Haynes contacted the human resources director to dispute the termination. According to the employee handbook, job abandonment is defined as a “no call/no show” for three consecutive days. Allegedly, WCI changed that definition to “absenteeism” when submitting paperwork to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The lawsuit claims that two white male employees, who were similarly situated and shared the same supervisor, were treated more favorable as they abandoned their jobs for at least two days or more as a “no call/no show” and were not terminated. Both of those employees had accidents that caused major damages, leave without pay, absences, suspensions and write-ups. One of the employees is still employed by WCI.
Previously, Haynes had one-on-one meetings with three general managers regarding the inconsistent treatment from around 2009 to 2015. The disparate treatment was not handled in either situation.
After dealing with South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce Appeals Office and the EEOC, Haynes filed a lawsuit against WCI in June 2016, claiming wrongful termination under Title VII for both discrimination and retaliation and a third claim of general racial discrimination.
However, the supervisor’s account of events differs. According to court documents, Haynes was involved in an incident in June 2015 where he drove away from a fuel pump with the nozzle still in the tank, ripping away the hose. The supervisor also claims that Haynes was involved in another incident in August 2015 where he drove his truck off a highway and down a slope. Another incident in August 2015 caught Haynes with one hand on the steering wheel and another hand touching his cellphone. That incident was caught on the truck’s interior camera.
Haynes argued that the fuel pump incident was not his fault and the off-highway incident was the result of inclement weather. He also claims he was stopped at a red light checking the time when the camera caught him on his phone.
Regarding the early leave in October 2015, the supervisor claims that approximately a quarter of the customers on Haynes’ assigned route did not receive service that day. The mechanics working that day stated that Haynes appeared frustrated that his regular truck was being repaired and said “Forget this” and left.
District and appellate court decisions
In October 2017, a federal judge for the District of South Carolina determined that Haynes had failed to establish disparate treatment that similarly situated employees received more favorable treatment than him or his termination from employment occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Even if Haynes could establish disparate treatment, the court found that WCI established nondiscriminatory reasons for firing him. Consequently, the case was dismissed.
However, Haynes appealed that decision. On Tuesday, April 23, the appellate court determined that Haynes had indeed established disparate treatment relative to similarly situated employees.
“Considering this evidence, a reasonable fact finder could conclude that (a white co-worker) and Haynes were appropriate comparators, because they dealt with the same supervisor, were subject to the same standards, and engaged in similar conduct,” the court opined. “Indeed, it appears that (a white co-worker), who had more infractions and was less respectful to his superiors, may have engaged in more egregious conduct, yet received more favorable treatment.”
The appellate court also disagreed on whether Haynes failed to demonstrate he was performing his job satisfactorily at the time of his termination.
“Haynes submitted evidence that (the supervisor) told him in September 2015 (mere weeks before his termination) that ‘everything looks good’ and there was ‘nothing to worry about’ regarding his upcoming performance review,” the court said. “Haynes also received bonuses for the period in question. Such evidence raises the reasonable inference – which must be drawn in Haynes’s favor at this stage – that he was performing at a satisfactory level.”
Lastly, the district court erred in deciding that WCI established nondiscriminatory reasons for firing Haynes. The appellate court pointed out that the company changed its reasons for firing Haynes by redefining “job abandonment” after the fact.
The case has been remanded to the district court. No trial date has been set as of publication time.
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