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Friday, May 25, 2018

Employee Caught Lying Wins Retaliation Claim for Employer


Wennoa Peebles, an accounts payroll clerk, claimed that her boss, CEO of the Greene County Hospital Board located in Eutaw, Alabama, would repeatedly demean her and other women in the office, calling them “opossums” and at one point saying Peebles’ “brain was so small it could fit up a gnat’s behind,” according to a Federal District Judge’s Order issued Thursday.  Peebles also claimed he made sexually charged remarks, including commenting on the size of one woman’s breasts and buttocks.

Peebles’ counsel had sent a letter to the CEO and the Board Chairperson, stating that Peebles had (1) previously reported to them “the deteriorating working conditions to which she is subjected” and (2) “experienced discrimination and retaliation at the hands of the CEO and others within management.” The letter also stated that counsel had begun the process of involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

But the Judge on Thursday held that Peebles was fired for giving board members’ personal email addresses to a debt collector, not because she complained to the EEOC about being sexually harassed by her boss.  The Judge held that many of the actions or statements Peebles cited had nothing to do with her being a woman, and those that did were not severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment based on her sex, and that her sex discrimination complaint was to be thrown out because she was replaced by a woman.

In his Order the Judge discussed Peebles’ retaliation claim, ruling that she didn’t make out a prima facie basic case that the Hospital fired her for complaining, or cast doubt on its explanation for doing so. He noted Peebles was fired nearly three months after she complained to the EEOC, which is too long a delay to connect her complaint to the firing. And because the CEO, who made the decision to fire her, didn’t know about Peebles’ other complaints, he could not have been retaliating against her, ruled the Judge.

The court found that the Hospital had met its ‘exceedingly light’ burden in articulating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Peebles. The Hospital claimed it fired Peebles because she violated a rule against giving out personal email addresses, and because she initially lied about doing so, noting that the debt collector said Peebles had given out the emails. Peebles offered nothing to rebut the hospital’s claim that it fired her for lying, the Judge held.


Common Sense Counsel: The case presents four teaching points for employers: 1) patience in not taking action against Peebles until more than 3 months after her protected action was fatal to her retaliation claim. The Eleventh Circuit Court of appeals has ruled in numerous cases that a three month time period extinguishes the essential causal connection between the protected conduct and retaliation event; 2) make sure you can articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for termination that will win the unemployment claim as your first skirmish with the ex-employee; 3) replacing an employee with one of the same sex, age, race, etc. will typically eliminate that claim; and 4) with regards to retaliation claims, ignorance of the claim is bliss.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901 and blog at www.alabamaatwork.com with link to full court opinion.


Click here to access the Wennoa Peebles v. Greene County Hospital Board case.