Employer Not Liable for Retaliatory Discharge Claim For Animus of Biased Supervisor Where Employer Had Independent Reasons For Discharge

By September 29, 2021October 4th, 2021News, The Extra Mile Newsletter

In Vesey v. Envoy Air, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (which has jurisdiction over Illinois) rejected the employee’s retaliatory discharge and hostile work environment claims against her employer, Envoy Air.

Vesey, an African American woman, began working for the employer, Envoy Air, in 2012. In 2014, she received a serious reprimand that was to remain in effect for two years after driving a jet bridge into an aircraft. In 2016, Vesey and several of her co-workers began lodging workplace-related complaints against each other. Most of these complaints were unsubstantiated. However, Envoy Air found merit to an August 2016 complaint that a co-worker directed racist remarks and actions at Vesey and it fired the offending co-worker. Thereafter, Vesey claimed that her general manager and a lead agent undertook a campaign of retaliation and harassment against her, which included filing unsubstantiated complaints and telling others they wanted Vesey fired.

In September 2016, another co-worker (who the employee claims was pressured by the general manager) complained that Vesey was abusing Envoy Air’s travel benefits, which included flying standby for free. A subsequent investigation revealed that Vesey abused her travel privileges on several occasions, including booking flights with no actual intent to travel in order to receive a travel voucher, boarding flights for which she already held non-standby reservations, or using her employee access to cancel her paid reservation so that a standby spot would open. The investigators recommended the airline terminate Vesey given the abuse of travel benefits as well as the active 2014 reprimand for driving a jet bridge into an aircraft. The airline discharged Vesey.

Thereafter, Vesey filed suit alleging claims of retaliatory discharge and hostile work environment. Her retaliatory discharge claim was based on her belief that her general manager harbored retaliatory animus and encouraged a co-worker to file the anonymous complaint regarding abuse of travel benefits. However, even when an original complaint comes from a biased supervisor, an employer who possesses independently sufficient reasons to take an adverse employment action may do so. In this case, even if Vesey’s general manager had a retaliatory motive for encouraging a co-worker to file the complaint, the investigators only relied on the complaint to initiate the investigation. The investigators then only recommended termination on the basis of actual evidence collected during the investigation that showed Vesey abused her travel benefits and defrauded the airline. Because the investigation revealed independently sufficient reasons for the employee’s discharge, the airline could not be held liable.

Next, the court rejected the employee’s hostile work environment claim, finding that Envoy Air avoided liability for the racist remarks of the co-worker because it promptly investigated the complaint and terminated the offending co-worker. The court also reiterated its prior finding that a standoffish, unfriendly, and unapproachable supervisor does not establish an objectively hostile environment.

Contact an attorney in the Labor/Personnel practice group with questions.

Source: Vesey v. Envoy Air, Inc., 2021WL 2176792 (7th Cir. May 28, 2021)