Why it matters

A manager’s refusal to adopt an improvement plan—not his race—was the reason for his termination, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit affirmed in an unpublished opinion. Following complaints from his subordinates that his management style created a stressful work environment, John Hightower was presented with a “Performance Improvement Plan” that stated that he had “displayed a pattern of unacceptable behaviors.” Hightower refused to sign the plan. Even after the employer retitled the document a “Development Plan” and revised the language, he still refused to sign and was subsequently reassigned. He then sued for racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII. The federal appellate panel affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer. If Hightower had signed the document, he would have retained his position, the court said, and he failed to provide any evidence to rebut this nondiscriminatory reason for his transfer. Even assuming the subordinates complained due to some racial or retaliatory animus, there was no basis for imputing the bias to the employer, the panel added.

Detailed discussion

During a November 2012 meeting, two subordinates of John Hightower became upset and behaved inappropriately, yelling and cursing at him. Soon after, while Hightower was out of the office on previously scheduled medical leave, his supervisors spoke with the subordinates about the incident. Several workers who reported to Hightower complained that his management style created a stressful workplace environment.

As a result, Hightower’s supervisors asked him to apologize to his team. Initially, he agreed. But while still on leave, he changed his mind and declined to apologize, telling his supervisors that he felt he had done nothing wrong.

Upon his return to work, Hightower’s supervisors presented him with a “Performance Improvement Plan,” which stated that he had “displayed a pattern of unacceptable behaviors” and needed to improve his interpersonal skills as well as his relationship with his subordinates.

Hightower expressed concern about signing the document. His superiors retitled the document “Development Plan” and changed the “pattern of unacceptable behaviors” language to state that his management style “needed improvement.” Despite these tweaks, Hightower refused to agree to the terms of the plan or sign it, even when he was informed that he would not be able to return to his position if he did not do so. When Hightower continued to refuse to sign, the employer reassigned him to a similar position with the same salary and benefits but without supervisory authority.

Hightower then filed suit under Title VII with claims of race discrimination and retaliation. A district court judge granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, and Hightower appealed.

As an initial matter, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit questioned whether the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action because he was reassigned to a position with the same salary and benefits as his former position. But the court still affirmed summary judgment, assuming—without deciding—that the plaintiff had made out a prima facie case of discrimination and retaliation.

Hightower had the burden to demonstrate that the employer’s proffered nondiscriminatory reason for his reassignment—his refusal to sign the Development Plan—was a pretext and that the true reason was discriminatory or retaliatory, the court said, but he failed to meet this burden.

“He acknowledges that he was reassigned not because he was performing inadequately, or even because his subordinates did not like his management style, but because he refused to sign the Development Plan,” the panel wrote. “[The plaintiff] would have retained his position had he signed this document to the satisfaction of [the employer’s] management. Further, even assuming that [the employer’s] subordinates complained about his management style due to some racial or retaliatory animus, there is no basis for imputing any such bias to [the employer].”

To read the opinion in Hightower v. Savannah River Remediation LLC, click here.