Pennsylvania Federal Court Finds Former Burger King Manager Has Triable Disability Claim

In the disability discrimination case of Buffington v. PEC Mgmt. II LLP, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania had to decide whether reasonable minds could differ over whether a former Burger King manager was fired for violating a company rule or for taking too much time off to care for her teenage son who was battling a cancer relapse.   The former manager alleged that Burger King fired her for tending to her sick son, but that the company used her violation of a company policy as a pretext for the firing, which firing was in violation of the American with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

How did we arrive at this mess?  Well, the former manager had been employed by Burger King for seven years with no written or oral warnings regarding her performance, but then she violated a company policy by sending an employee out to pick up product from another Burger King that the manager’s Burger King had run out of.  At that time, the former manager was the only manager on duty and the employee that she choose to pick up the product drove his own car to the nearby Burger King.  Unfortunately, the employee got into an accident while running the errand.  Yikes!  I guess you can’t always have it your way.

Anyway, the accident resulted in the former manager’s firing.  Burger King’s corporate policy forbid nonmanager employees from driving for restaurant business.  The company claimed that this violation of the corporate policy coupled with the former manager’s allegedly declining, but undocumented performance, was was grounds for termination.  The former manager disagreed and claimed that the company just used her violation of the policy as an excuse to fire her because she had been tending to her sick son.  In fact, the former manager alleged that the rule prohibiting nonmanager employees from driving for restaurant business was never enforced and that it was common practice for managers to send staff on errands to other restaurants.  The former manager also presented evidence that other mananagers outside of her protected class (i.e. employees who were not caring for sick children)had violated the policy, but were not fired.  If true, these allegations create a problem for Burger King.

It gets worse.  The former manager alleges that her supervisor met with her before her firing and that during this meeting the former manager’s supervisor commented that the restaurant needed “someone whose head is there 100 percent,” and said that now the former manager could spend more time with her son.  Ouch.  For the employer’s sake, let’s hope this isn’t true.

Based upon the above facts, following her termination, the former manager sued Burger King.  Burger King claimed that the manager was fired because her performance had been steadily declining and the violation of the company policy was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Nonetheless, in denying Burger King’s motion for summary judgment, the Court found that the former manager sufficiently raised questions of genuine material fact regarding Burger King’s true motivation for firing the manager.  If the true reason for the termination of the manager was the manager spending time with her son, then a jury might find that Burger King relied on unfounded stereotypes or assumptions about the type of care the manager would need to give to her son in the future.

Employers’ Takeaway: 

First, enforce policies uniformly and consistently.  The former manager claimed that other managers outside of her protected class violated the vehicle policy without being fired.  Although this is merely an allegation, it serves as a reminder of the importance of uniform policy enforcement.

Second, keep good records of employee performance. Burger King claims that the manager’s performance had been declining.  If this was the case, Burger King should have kept a better record of her allegedly declining performance in the form of warnings and written evaluations.

Third, ensure that supervisors receive anti-discrimination training.  If the supervisor truly made the comments that the manager alleges she made, such comments were inappropriate.  Supervisor training might have helped to avoid such unwanted comments.

The attorneys at Harmon & Davies are here to advise employers on policy enforcement issues, performance evaluations, and supervisor training.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply