Idaho: Discharged Employee Failed to Show Bias

By By SHRM Online staff Jan 23, 2015
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A trial court granted an employer summary judgment because a former employee was unable to show that she was discharged because of race, sex or age discrimination.

Oralia Garcia, a 56-year-old Hispanic woman, was terminated by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare after 32 years of employment. Her duties included oversight of the department's contractual relationships with financial institutions involved in administering such transfers. Prior to March 2012, the department never gave her a formal write-up for poor performance or subjected her to any disciplinary action.

Before her discharge, Garcia obtained outside employment as a real estate agent. Because the department had a policy requiring employees to seek its approval before beginning outside employment, she applied for approval and the department granted it. The department sent Garcia an information packet containing its policies on outside employment, but the parties dispute whether she was specifically instructed not to perform real estate work during work hours or that she was prohibited from sending personal emails from her work account.

On March 8, 2012, Garcia met with her supervisor, Michael Pearson, and a human resources specialist, Maria Gamet. Pearson and Gamet told her not to discuss the meeting with anyone else. Parties dispute the purpose of the March 8 meeting. Gamet and Pearson state they met with Garcia to discuss a contract with JP Morgan. However, Garcia said Pearson and Gamet told her that Paul Spannknebel, the administrator of the division of operational services had met with Deputy Director Paul Taylor and expressed his concerns about the way she was handling the contract. Garcia claimed Spannknebel had made several inappropriate sexual advances toward her, which she rejected. She alleges these encounters with Spannknebel are connected to her discharge.

Following the meeting, Taylor requested a review of Garcia’s email and internet use. The emails revealed that Garcia had been conducting real estate business from her work account during work hours and that she divulged details regarding the March 8 meeting to department employee Tonia Walgamott.

On March 15, 2012, Gamet and Pearson met with Garcia to discuss her use of her department email account to perform work as a real estate agent and her emails to Walgamott regarding the March 8 meeting. On April 12, 2012, Taylor served Garcia with a notice of contemplated disciplinary action, and on April 25, 2012, she was dismissed. The department replaced Garcia with Alice Porter, a white female in her early thirties. Garcia sued, alleging that Spannknebel blamed Garcia for problems with the JP Morgan contract because she rebuffed his sexual advances, and that the department terminated her because of her sex, race, and age. The department moved for summary judgment.

To prove sex and racial discrimination, Garcia had to establish a prima facie case by showing that 1) she belongs to a protected class of persons; 2) she satisfactorily performed her job; 3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and 4) her employer treated her differently than similarly situated employees not of the same protected class. The court found that Garcia easily satisfies the first and third elements of her prima facie case. As a Hispanic woman, she was a member of a protected class, and her termination qualified as an adverse employment action. She also raised a genuine factual dispute regarding the second element, that she was performing her job satisfactorily at the time of her discharge. However, Garcia could not prove sexual discrimination because she was unable to identify any similarly situated male department employees who received more favorable treatment than her.

In contrast, because the department filled her vacated position with a woman who was white, Garcia was able to make a prima facia case for her racial discrimination claim. Nonetheless, the court concluded that even if Garcia met her prima facie showing for a race discrimination claim, a reasonable juror could not ultimately conclude she was fired because of her race. The department offered several legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for firing her, including that her emails revealed that she divulged confidential information to a fellow employee; disparaged coworkers; and conducted outside employment on the department's time. Even if Garcia was able to show the real estate emails were a flimsy reason her discharge, she failed to show the other reasons stated by her employer, including her breach of confidentiality, were groundless or otherwise unworthy of credence. In failing to show those other reasons lacked credence, Garcia failed to offer specific and substantial circumstantial evidence that department's proffered reasons are pretext for discrimination.

The trial court found that Garcia’s claim of age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act is barred by the Eleventh Amendment, which bars any suit against a state or state agency absent a valid waiver or abrogation of its sovereign immunity. It also determined that a reasonable juror could not conclude the department breached its contractual duty of good faith to Garcia. The court, therefore, granted the department’s motion for summary judgment.

Garcia v. Idaho, Dept. of Health and Welfare, D. Idaho, No. 1:13-284 WBS (Nov. 7, 2014)
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