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Non-Retaliatory Reasons Make Firing OK: 10th Circuit

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By Betty Wang, JD on August 22, 2013 3:57 PM

Plaintiff Jerry Keeler was employed by ARAMARK, a food service provider. While employed there, he felt that they did not appreciate him as an employee, because of the fact that he was never made employee of the month, nor was he allowed to work overtime hours.

So, Keeler decided to make this matter a personal one. He sent a slew of threatening letters to upper management -- one letter claimed that it would be the "final warning," while another ensured a riot if Keeler were to die from a diabetic attack caused by stress. On top of this, Keeler also filed charges with the EEOC and the Kansas Human Rights Commission.

Prompted by this series of events, ARAMARK launched an investigation into Keeler's matter and decided that he was not actually getting the short end of the stick at work. But, rather, Keeler himself was actually intimidating many other ARAMARK employees with this behavior. ARAMARK then terminated Keeler.

In turn, Keeler filed a number of allegations with the district court, including a claim under Title VII, which protects against retaliation, and a wrongful discharge suit, among many other claims. The district court didn't see any merit to any of his claims, however.

When the Tenth Circuit looked at the case, they only echoed the lower court's decision, essentially stating that they saw no error in their result or reasoning. They claimed that even had Keeler shown a prima facie face of retaliatory discharge, ARAMARK still had legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for firing him.

Retaliatory discharge, under Title VII, occurs when an employer, in retaliation, fires an employee for acting in (legal) way that the employer doesn't approve of. Common examples of this include criticizing company policies, or filing a discrimination charge. The reasoning behind the protection and bundle of rights under Title VII is to allow an employee to freely engage in the protected activity in the workplace.

However, this isn't the case with Mr. Keeler, who went beyond just engaging in a protected activity by writing a letter to the higher-ups, but also gave ARAMARK many other legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons to let him go.

Furthermore, the courts did not find that ARAMARK acted in bad faith when they decided to inquire into Keeler's situation. "The relevant inquiry" in Title VII retaliation cases, the court cited, "is not whether the employer's proffered reasons were wise, fair or correct, but whether the employer honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon those beliefs." Proctor v. United Parcel Service.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed, and Keeler's motion was denied.

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