CHAPIN v. FORT-ROHR MOTORS (September 3, 2010)

Trent Chapin is a used-car salesman. For years, he has worked on and off for Larry Kruse at several different dealerships owned by Bob Rohrman. In early 2004, Kruse hired him at Rohrman's Mid-States Motors in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Within weeks, however, Kruse was replaced by a Pakistani Muslim. The new manager fired Chapin within a month. In June, Kruse became the manager of Rohrman's newly opened Fort-Rohr dealership, also in Fort Wayne. He hired Chapin again as a used-car salesman. Chapin filed an EEOC charge in February of the following year. He alleged that Mid-States had discriminated against him on the basis of race. When Kruse found out about it, he was very upset. He met with Chapin and made it very clear to him that he needed to withdraw the EEOC charge if he wanted to keep his job. Although Chapin indicated at the meeting that he would withdraw the charge, he did not -- and he did not return to work. Kruse tried to contact Chapin on several occasions after the meeting. They finally met again in March. Kruse made it clear at that meeting that he had not intended to fire Chapin and that he still had a job. Chapin told him that he would return to work when he was finished with a painting project. The dealership followed up that meeting with several letters to Chapin stating that he was still employed and was expected to be at work. Chapin filed suit under Title VII, alleging racial discrimination against Mid-States and retaliation against Fort-Rohr. A jury found against him on his discrimination claim but found in his favor on the retaliation claim, awarding $1.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Fort-Rohr appeals.

In their opinion, Judges Flaum, Williams, and Sykes reversed and remanded. Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to take an adverse employment action against an employee for filing an unfair employment charge. The Court addressed both of Chapin's “adverse employment action” theories -- that he was actually discharged or that he was constructively discharged. On the former, the Court concluded that no rational juror could have found that Chapin was actually discharged at the first meeting with Kruse. The Court conceded that the exchange at the first meeting, in a vacuum, could support an argument for discharge, particularly if he filed suit the next day. Kruse was angry, raised his voice, and told Chapin that he would not have a job unless he withdrew the charge (which Chapin did not). However, the Court emphasized that the question must be addressed not in isolation but in the context of all subsequent interaction. All of the dealership's conduct after that short meeting is inconsistent with an actual discharge. In fact, Chapin's own testimony is that he was not fired at that meeting but that he would have been fired had he returned without withdrawing the charge. There was no actual discharge. With respect to the constructive discharge argument, the Court again concluded that no reasonable juror could find for Chapin. Two forms of constructive discharge are recognized in this Circuit and both require intolerable working conditions. In the first, an employee resigns because of discriminatory harassment -- that does not apply here. In the second, an employer acts in such a way as to communicate to a reasonable employee that he or she will be terminated. Again, Chapin may have had such a belief immediately after the first meeting but such a belief would have been corrected almost immediately in response to subsequent events and communications. Chapin simply decided not to return to work -- the Court refused to speculate on what would have happened had he decided otherwise.