Why it matters

Employers are not required to provide workers with an articulated basis for dismissal at the time of their termination, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held, nor is the employer bound by the reasons that may have been provided. Rock-Tenn Converting Co. fired Aaron Rooney after his primary client complained of quality control and shipping problems. He was told the reason for his termination was “difficulties with interacting with coworkers and failure to support” the client, but he filed suit under Title VII, claiming that he was really fired for not being female or Jewish, like his supervisor. A district court granted summary judgment for the employer, and the federal appellate panel affirmed. The Eighth Circuit disagreed with Rooney that employers have a legal obligation to articulate nondiscriminatory reasons for an adverse employment action when that action is taken; instead, that burden is triggered under Title VII during litigation when an employee meets his or her burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. Rock-Tenn’s later expansion upon the reasons for the plaintiff’s termination was perfectly legal, the court said.

Detailed discussion

Aaron Rooney was hired in March 2010 as an account executive in Rock-Tenn Converting Co.’s Bentonville, AR, office. Rooney was responsible for developing and selling in-store displays, with the Alcon account as one of his primary responsibilities.

In September 2013, Rooney got a new supervisor. Like his former supervisor, she was dissatisfied with Rooney’s communication skills. She was also concerned when Alcon began complaining about problems with quality control and shipping, and she directed Rooney to focus on Alcon. However, the problems with the Alcon account continued, and Rock-Tenn decided to fire Rooney.

Rooney was told he was fired because of “difficulties with interacting with coworkers and failure to support Alcon.” But he filed suit with a different explanation: that he was discriminated against for not being Jewish and for being a man. He claimed his former supervisor was “building a Jewish empire” that included his most recent supervisor and that he was replaced on the Alcon account by a Jewish employee. He also alleged his new supervisor made several remarks about how she “couldn’t wait until there’s more ladies in the office” and that he was replaced on other accounts by women.

A district court judge granted Rock-Tenn’s motion for summary judgment, and Rooney appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Before the federal appellate panel, Rooney argued that the district court erred by allowing the employer to expand on the grounds proffered for his discharge at the time of termination, accepting a “number of reasons” for his firing, primarily poor work performance. But the court rejected this “narrow” interpretation of the McDonnell Douglas framework.

“While it is true that the district court mentioned some of Rooney’s performance issues on accounts other than Alcon, the employer’s burden under the McDonnell Douglas framework to articulate non-discriminatory reasons for an adverse employment action does not arise when the adverse employment action is taken—rather, it is triggered during litigation, when an employee meets his burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination,” the court said.

“Title VII does not impose a legal obligation to provide an employee an articulated basis for dismissal at the time of firing, and an employer is certainly not bound as a matter of law to whatever reasons might have been provided. Instead, it is well-established that an employer may elaborate on its explanation for an employment decision.”

Evidence of a “substantial” shift in an employer’s explanation for a decision may be evidence of pretext, but an elaboration is not, the panel added.

Rock-Tenn simply provided additional examples of Rooney’s poor performance with clients other than Alcon. This supplemental explanation was not evidence of a substantial shift, the court said, and “there is no contradiction between the explanation given to Rooney at the time of his termination and the non-discriminatory reasons for termination that Rock-Tenn articulated during this litigation.”

Further, Rooney failed to offer sufficient evidence that Rock-Tenn’s proffered reasons for firing him were pretexts for discrimination. The employer provided multiple examples of Rooney’s failures with regard to the Alcon account, and “[n]othing in Rooney’s argument rebuts, or even mitigates, Rock-Tenn’s evidence of repeated errors and omissions on the Alcon account, and there is nothing in Rooney’s argument to suggest that Rooney was not responsible for the mismanagement.”

The panel was also unclear on how Rooney was affected by any alleged discrimination on the basis of either religion or gender, with the record lacking any evidence that gender bias was connected to his termination or that Jewish employees were treated more favorably.

“In sum, the district court did not err in concluding that Rock-Tenn articulated legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing Rooney, and that he was unable to show the reasons proffered by Rock-Tenn were pretexts for discrimination,” the Eighth Circuit concluded, affirming summary judgment for the employer.

To read the opinion in Rooney v. Rock-Tenn Converting Co., click here.