A retail employer did not violate federal civil rights laws or the Massachusetts state anti-discrimination law when it fired an employee because she made harassing, disparaging, and inappropriate accusations against her coworkers. According to the First Circuit Court of Appeals the discharged employee, who accused her coworkers of sleeping with her boyfriend—an employee of the same retail employer—failed to present evidence that her termination was motivated by race discrimination. She also failed to show, the court found, that the company’s later failure to rehire her was connected to her earlier discrimination complaint. Pina v. The Children’s Place, No. 13-1609, First Circuit Court of Appeals (January 27, 2014).
Jamilya Pina, who is African-American, worked as a per diem sales associate at The Children’s Place beginning in June 2006. In mid-2007, the company offered Pina an assistant store manager position at another store. A white male district manager interviewed and hired Pina for the position, and the store’s African-American female manager supervised Pina.
While she worked as a manager, Pina was dating Michael Williams, a The Children’s Place employee who worked at another store and who was also African-American. Pina suspected that Williams was being unfaithful, and she accused several The Children’s Place employees of sleeping with him. Pina then made a telephone complaint to the company, alleging that two of the employees who she suspected of sleeping with Williams had falsified his time cards. Pina believed that her report would entitle her to a loss prevention monetary reward. The company investigated the report but found no evidence of time card falsification.
Two days after her time card falsification allegation, Pina accused her store manager of having an affair with Williams. Pina later ran into her manager’s partner at a donut shop, where she told him (within earshot of her manager’s young daughter) that her manager was sleeping with Williams. Pina’s manager reported these statements to the district manager, who immediately questioned Pina about the incident. Pina admitted to making the public accusation, but defended her actions by claiming that her behavior was outside of her working hours and not of concern to the company. The district manager suspended Pina pending further investigation; that investigation revealed that Pina had left harassing and threatening messages (which were also related to her suspicions regarding Williams) on another employee’s voice mail. The Children’s Place determined that Pina had engaged in harassing, disorderly, and inappropriate conduct and terminated her employment.
Pina then filed a charge of discrimination, which was dismissed. Three months later, Pina applied for another assistant store manager position at another The Children’s Place store, which did not have any openings at that time. A position later opened at that store, but The Children’s Place selected an internal candidate who had previous experience as an assistant store manager. Pina ultimately brought a federal court claim alleging, among other things, race discrimination and retaliation. The federal district court dismissed Pina’s claims on summary judgment and Pina appealed that decision.
Pina’s race discrimination claim was based on a novel theory accusing her former employer of discriminatory feelings regarding interracial relationships. Specifically, she claimed that The Children’s Place fired her for reporting misconduct—the falsification of Williams’ time cards—that, if investigated, would have revealed an interracial relationship between store employees, which, according to Pina, The Children’s Place did not want to acknowledge. The First Circuit rejected her argument because she was unable to show that The Children’s Place knew of any romantic relationships among its employees. Further, the First Circuit found that The Children’s Place had investigated Pina’s purported loss prevention claim and that there was no evidence that the company’s investigation was influenced by its view of interracial relationships.
The First Circuit also rejected Pina’s claim that The Children’s Place retaliated against her by not hiring her for the assistant store manager position for which she applied after being fired. According to the First Circuit, there were no vacancies when she applied, The Children’s Place did not consider any external candidates when a position did open up, and Pina failed to establish that she was qualified for the position, because she was not available the necessary hours. In addition, the court found that there was no evidence of a causal connection between the store’s failure to hire Pina and her initial discrimination complaint.
The court held that an employer is permitted to discharge and not rehire an employee who engages in harassing and potentially threatening conduct towards other employees. In addition, under circumstances such as those in this case, an employer is not required to investigate and respond to complaints in the precise manner desired by the complaining employee.