Indiana Agency Dodges Ex-Foreman’s Disability Bias Claims

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By Patrick Dorrian

A former night foreman with the Indiana Department of Transportation failed to show he was discharged because of his PTSD, not because he allegedly mistreated subordinates, a federal appeals court ruled ( Monroe v. Ind. Dep’t of Transp. , 2017 BL 327431, 7th Cir., No. 16-1959, 9/18/17 ).

The case illustrates how hard it can be to show that an employer’s stated reason for a job action was really a cover for bias. The decision also reinforces that the “comparators” an employee points to--nonprotected workers who were treated less severely--must be truly similarly situated to prove that the difference in treatment was due to discrimination.

Jeff Monroe didn’t establish that INDOT’s justification for firing him after 21 years of service—that he created a hostile environment for the employees who worked under him—was a pretext for disability discrimination, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said Sept. 18.

Positive performance reviews Monroe received for the three years leading up to his January 2013 termination, including an “exceeds expectations” rating less than a month before, didn’t show that INDOT’s justification for Monroe’s discharge was a lie or a sham, the court said. The workers who complained about Monroe came forward after those reviews, the court said.

Error in Position Statement Insufficient

Monroe’s other efforts to show pretext similarly failed, Judge Ann C. Williams said.

A misstatement by INDOT in the position statement it filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the percentage of Monroe’s subordinates who complained about his behavior following a Jan. 24, 2013, meeting wasn’t significant enough to raise a triable question on the issue of pretext, Williams said. INDOT filed the statement in response to Monroe’s bias complaint.

Whether Monroe’s supervisor Terry George reported up the chain of command that Monroe might have post-traumatic stress disorder likewise was insignificant, the judge added, because Monroe had personally told George’s superiors about his suspected PTSD.

That George’s supervisors discussed Monroe’s potential PTSD during the meeting at which they decided to fire him also didn’t show pretext, the court held. The supervisors raised the issue only to discuss whether Monroe actually had PTSD, because the first time Monroe mentioned that he had received a “preliminary diagnosis” was when George informed him that subordinates had complained, the court said.

Moreover, it doesn’t violate federal disability discrimination law to discharge a worker based on inappropriate conduct that was spurred by a disability, Williams added.

Eric J. Hartz, who represented Monroe, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 18 that he had just read the opinion and didn’t have any comment. Hartz is with John H. Haskin & Associates LLC in Indianapolis.

INDOT’s lawyer didn’t respond Sept. 18 to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

Comparative Evidence Also Lacking

Monroe also didn’t identify a similarly situated, nondisabled foreman who was treated better than he was despite engaging in similar misconduct, the court ruled.

Of the three other foremen Monroe pointed to, the alleged misconduct of the one whose situation was most similar to Monroe’s was still “quite distinguishable,” the court said.

That foreman was demoted after two incidents that occurred a year apart. The hostile work environment purportedly created by Monroe, on the other hand, allegedly existed “over a lengthy period of time” and included mistreating a worker with a hearing disability, the court said.

Monroe offered “very little evidence” regarding the misdeeds of another potential comparator and the two didn’t have the same supervisors, Williams said. Moreover, the situations involving that foreman and the third potential comparator Monroe pointed to both mostly occurred before Indiana changed its state law to provide that INDOT no longer needed just cause to fire nonmerit workers like foremen, she said.

There was evidence that after the law changed, INDOT took a harder line against workplace hostility and the mistreatment of subordinates, the court found. The agency’s changed stance was illustrated by Monroe’s third proposed comparator, who was only placed on a performance improvement plan and demoted for incidents that occurred before the change, but who was fired following an incident that took place after the change, the court said.

Judges Frank H. Easterbrook and Gary S. Feinerman joined the opinion.

Bradley L. Wilson of John H. Haskin & Associates LLC also represented Monroe. Aaron T. Craft of the state attorney general’s office in Indianapolis represented INDOT.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

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