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6th Circuit: Discharge Based on Management Style Was Not Discriminatory

By Maria Greco Danaher  9/28/2007

9/28/07 2:42 PM

6th Circuit: Discharge Based on Management Style Was Not Discriminatory

By Maria Greco Danaher

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a claim of national origin discrimination by an Iraqi national fired for his allegedly demeaning management style. More than a dispute over the facts upon which that employee’s termination was based is necessary to prove pretext, according to the federal appellate court.

Sarmad Abdulnour, an Iraqi national, holds citizenship in both Iraq and Canada. He received permanent resident status in the United States in 1999, and became employed with Campbell Soup Supply Co. in April 2003 at an Ohio facility. He worked as an area supervisor, overseeing approximately 30 employees.

Within weeks after Abdulnour began to work for Campbell, his supervisor started receiving complaints from employees regarding Abdulnour’s management style, including complaints that Abdulnour “demeaned” the hourly employees, especially the women. In October 2003, after receiving continued complaints from both Abdulnour’s supervisors and subordinates, the operations manager told Abdulnour that the employment was “not working out” due to a conflict in “management style or personality.”

While Abdulnour admits that no one made disparaging remarks about his national origin at that time, he alleges that the operations manager told him that maybe the “people of Northwest Ohio have a problem with you.”

Abdulnour ultimately filed a lawsuit, alleging that he was discharged based on his national origin and in violation of Title VII and the applicable Ohio law. Campbell conceded that Abdulnour established a prima-facie case —he was a member of a protected class, was terminated, was generally qualified for the position and was replaced by someone outside of the protected class. But Campbell alleged that it fired him for a legitimate business reason, based on complaints about his poor performance and personality conflicts.

Abdulnour conceded that if true, poor performance was a “legitimate business reason” for his termination. Because both parties carried their initial burdens, the case turned on whether Abdulnour could show that the reason set forth by Campbell for his termination was simply a pretext for discrimination.

To establish pretext, Abdulnour had to show that Campbell’s stated reason had no basis in fact, did not actually motivate the termination or was insufficient to warrant that termination. Both the lower court and the 6th Circuit found that apart from his own testimony, Abdulnour failed to provide evidence that he was fired for a reason other than poor job performance.

While Abdulnour also pointed out that employees discussed the ongoing war in Iraq during lunch breaks, the court specifically stated that such a fact alone did not make it more likely that Campbell fired Abdulnour because of his Iraqi nationality. Summary judgment therefore was granted in favor of Campbell.

Abdulnour v. Campbell Soup Supply Co. LLC , 6th Cir., No. 06-4590 (Sept. 19, 2007).

Professional Pointer: In this case, the employer was successful because there was a myriad of statements regarding Abdulnour’s performance problems and his personality conflicts with other employees. Abdulnour was unable to show that those statements against him were false, inaccurate or not made. However, it is important to note the court’s admonition that “we are skeptical of undocumented accounts of employee conduct that may have been created post-termination.” In this case, the fact that the court found “ample evidence” of Abdulnour’s poor performance overrode the fact that there was a dearth of written documentation regarding that performance. But not every situation includes sufficient testimonial evidence. Employers should ensure complete and accurate documentation of performance problems to support their reasons for adverse employment actions to preclude a finding of pretext and to avoid an ultimate finding of liability under Title VII.

Maria Greco Danaher is an attorney with the firm of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Pittsburgh.

Related Resource:

Termination Toolkit

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

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