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Pharmacy Manager Terminated for Poor Customer Service, Not Age

By SHRM Online staff  5/27/2014
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The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of an assistant manager’s age discrimination lawsuit against Walgreens, holding that his termination for two instances of customer service violations within a four-month period was not a pretext for age discrimination. 

In September 2007, Robert Adamson, then 55 years old, began his employment at Walgreens as an assistant manager. His job responsibilities included “protection of store assets” and providing “proper service to all customers.”

In October 2010, Adamson voluntarily transferred to a store in Ware, Mass. On Oct. 21, 2010, within weeks of the transfer, a customer entered the Ware store attempting to make a return. Adamson was in the back assisting with a delivery. The cashier paged Adamson to help with the return. Rather than do so, Adamson instructed the cashier that he would take the return later. By the time Adamson arrived to process the return, the customer had left the store.

The cashier reported the incident to Stephen Benoit, the 50-year-old store manager. After discussing the incident with a Walgreens loss prevention supervisor, Benoit issued Adamson a “final written warning,” listing as the basis for discipline: “poor customer service/refused customer return.”

On Feb. 5, 2011, less than four months later, Adamson was involved in another customer service incident. In that instance, Adamson opened the store alone, due to an employee’s tardy arrival. Rather than remain up front, Adamson retreated to the back office to locate the employee telephone list. He could not locate the list and, with the door closed, made a few calls to other colleagues in an attempt to obtain the absent employee’s telephone number. While he was doing that, a customer entered the store and attempted to make a purchase. After failing to locate an employee, the customer left the store. The customer later called the Walgreens hotline to complain about the incident. The video of the incident indicated that Adamson was absent from the front of the store for 12 minutes.

On Feb. 10, 2011, Walgreens terminated Adamson’s employment, for “poor customer service.” Specifically, the termination notice indicated that Adamson should have managed the store from the front entrance until support arrived. Each of the termination decision-makers was in the protected age group. Adamson was replaced by an existing employee, then 50.

In an attempt to show the termination decision was a pretext for age discrimination, Adamson argued: 1) the reason proffered for his termination was false; 2) Walgreens violated company policies to facilitate his termination; 3) younger peers were treated better than he was in terms of scheduling and responsibilities; and 4) younger peers were disciplined less harshly for more severe behavior.

As to the first issue, while the store manager testified at his deposition that the customer was in the store for 15 minutes as opposed to the two minutes she was actually there, the court found this discrepancy, based on events 2 years old, did not raise an issue of pretext. Further, there was no evidence that the length of Adamson’s absence from the register, as opposed to the fact that he was not present to assist the customer, factored into the decision to terminate him.

Second, Adamson argued that the first disciplinary issue was limited to failing to take a customer return, and therefore, he did not have clear warning that a different customer service issue could result in his termination. The court rejected this argument by pointing out that the written warning broadly identified poor customer service, as “not being helpful to any customer, no matter what the issue.”

Adamson also attempted to point to younger managerial employees who were given written warnings, while he was terminated. However, those younger employees received the same discipline he did for a first infraction, a final written warning. They remained employed because they did not engage in a second offense.

Finally, Adamson argued that Walgreens did not provide him with an opportunity to justify his conduct before discipline was imposed. While the court indicated that it is good practice to afford employees an opportunity to defend themselves before the imposition of discipline, nothing required Walgreens to do so.

Adamson v. Walgreens Co., 1st Cir., No. 13-1511 (April 29, 2014).

Professional Pointer: Employers need to ensure discipline is communicated clearly and in writing, and administered uniformly with regard to similarly situated employees engaging in substantially similar conduct.


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