Kansas Clerk Claims Firing Was for Skipping Church

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By Hassan Kanu

Aug. 31 — A Kansas secretary of state clerk who alleged that she was fired because she didn’t go to church can take her religious bias claims to trial, a federal judge ruled ( Canfield v. Rucker , 2016 BL 282969, D. Kan., No. 15-4918, 8/30/16 ).

Courtney Canfield was hired by Kansas’ assistant secretary of state, Eric Rucker, as an accounts clerk. Rucker is a friend of Canfield’s grandmother, according to the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas’ opinion. She was fired after complaints about her behavior and many instances of alleged misconduct.

The complaints included repeated absences with improper notice, being loud and using her mobile phone at work, and being repeatedly visited by her boyfriend at work, Judge Sam Crow wrote. Canfield disobeyed direct orders not to repeat the behavior, the state alleged.

Three of her superiors ultimately met and agreed to fire Canfield. Afterward, Rucker told Canfield’s grandmother that one of the reasons she was fired was “for not going to church,” Crow wrote.

‘Devotional' Meetings Held in Office

At the time, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach “occasionally held religious devotional gatherings in his office,” and employees “were verbally invited.” Canfield was invited between five and 10 times but never attended. She sued the office of the Secretary of State under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The court decided that Rucker’s statement to Canfield’s grandmother is direct evidence of discrimination and denied the state’s summary judgment motion. The state argued that Rucker “merely implemented or rubber-stamped” another official’s ultimate decision to fire Canfield and therefore that any bias on his part is irrelevant, but the court disagreed.

The decision illustrates that the question of which superior bears responsibility for an adverse employment action is not one that should be decided by the judge via summary judgment but a question of fact for the jury to decide.

Additionally, the decision also indicates that a statement that can essentially prove discriminatory intent generally won’t qualify as a “stray remark.” Courts routinely consider a one-off, biased statement, such as a supervisor’s one-time use of a sexist slur, to be a “stray remark”— in other words, a flippant, random comment made in jest or without serious intent. Conversely, comments that essentially prove the fact of bias without inference or presumption—like a statement that someone was fired because of religion—cannot be considered a “stray remark.”

Hamilton Laughlin Barker Johnson & Jones in Topeka, Kan., represented Canfield. Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith LLP in Topeka represented the state.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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