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It’s Always a Good Time to Review Your Handbook – So Says the Court!

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Attorney Harrison Oldham

 

 

 

A recent decision out of the Northern District of Alabama should serve as a stark reminder that employers should be prepared to enforce any existing policy in an employee handbook, as written.

 

The case is Wilson v. Mercedes-Benz U.S. Int’l.  There, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (“MBUSI” or “Defendant”) hired the Plaintiff, Ms. Wilson, to work at an MBUSI facility in the Assembly Department.  Like many companies, MBUSI maintains an employee handbook applicable to all employees, which includes attendance and anti-harassment policies.

 

MBUSI’s attendance and harassment policies follow a progressive discipline framework, which includes an occurrence-based attendance policy, whereby an employee who accumulates three occurrences of attendance policy violations within a 180-day period will receive a “Level I CPR.” From there, additional violations will increase up to a “Level III CPR,” which have more severe consequences, including ultimately termination of employment.

 

During her employment, Wilson received several violations under Mercedes’ disciplinary policies, including when on August 6, 2019, Wilson and another team member each received Level III CPRs due to a verbal altercation.  As a result, on December 2, 2019, Wilson switched to a different line in the Paint Department, where her Team Leader was Fred Rogers (“Rogers”), and her Group Leader was Lajuan Jones (“Jones”).

 

14 days after moving to the Paint Department, on December 16, 2019, Wilson submitted a complaint with a written statement to Jones, alleging sexual harassment by Rogers.  Jones sent the complaint to the HR Department, and HR investigated.  Following the investigation, MBUSI terminated Rogers’s employment.

 

Shortly after complaining about sexual harassment, the Plaintiff missed work on two separate occasions.  Each absence was unforeseen.  The first time, her car was repossessed.  The second time, a police officer stopped her for driving with a suspended license and without insurance.

 

In each instance, Wilson submitted vacation requests to Jones (Wilson’s Group Leader).  In each instance, Jones denied Wilson’s vacation requests.  However, Jones had an explanation – the vacation allotment for Wilson’s team was one team member, and one of Wilson’s team members was already on vacation each day. However, subject to approval, employees may also utilize Emergency Vacation (“EV”) – despite this, Jones also denied both requests for EV. Consequently, Wilson’s absences were unexcused.  Thereafter, MBUSI suspended Wilson pending her termination and ultimately terminated her employment on March 10, 2020.

 

In response, the Plaintiff claimed retaliation.  After all, it was 39 days after Wilson’s sexual harassment complaint that Jones denied her first request for EV.  Then, Wilson was terminated shortly after her second request was denied.  Wilson believed the events were connected and filed suit.

 

It’s important to make something clear. Here, Wilson argued that all the adverse employment actions – i.e., the two denials of EV and her termination – were retaliatory, not the underlying policies.  Said another way, Wilson argues that it’s the manner in which the policies were applied that is retaliation.

 

In its defense, MBUSI argued that employees could only use EV for documented sickness and that Group Leaders, such as Jones, do not have the discretion to grant EV for other reasons. Conversely, Wilson asserted that the decision on whether to approve EV lies within the purview of the Group Leader, that there is no comprehensive list of acceptable reasons for EV, and that EV has been approved for reasons other than documented sickness.  Wilson also pointed to MBUSI’s EV policy, which provides a non-exhaustive list of permissible reasons to use EV that includes traffic, weather, and visiting the on-site medical clinic and ends with “etc.”

 

Based on the disputed facts concerning the use of EV, and viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that defendant’s reasons for denying the Plaintiff’s EV (unfairly limiting it to documented sickness) and terminating Wilson, were pretextual.  Wilson has thus presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment.

 

So, what does this all mean?  Hopefully, it serves as a reminder that arguing “Oh, that’s not really how we do it,” is not a great defense.  If an employer has policies and a handbook, they must be prepared to enforce them, as written.

 


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About Harrison Oldham

Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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