Fire Chiefs Accused of Sex Discrimination Challenge Own Terminations
In an interesting turn of events, three former fire chiefs of the Monarch Fire Protection District in Missouri filed a lawsuit against their employer claiming they were terminated without due process. This case, Crews v. Monarch Fire Protection District, presents an interesting twist on employment discrimination, primarily because these three men were terminated after being found guilty of sex discrimination against their subordinates.
Terminated following jury verdict finding sex discrimination
The three fire chiefs were accused of sex discrimination in a lawsuit filed by several female firefighters employed by the Monarch Fire Protection District. The jury found in favor of the female firefighters and the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. Soon after the decision was handed down, the chiefs were given the choice to resign, but all refused. They were then terminated.
The three men challenged their terminations in a lawsuit of their own, claiming procedural due process violations and defamation. Of course, the fire department responded that the chiefs were all terminated for "promoting an environment of unacceptable discrimination."
The fire chiefs did not have express employment contracts
The fundamental problem with the fire chiefs' argument was that they lived and worked in an employment "at-will" state. In Missouri, an employee can be discharged from employment at the will of his employer, unless he had a valid employment contract that states otherwise.
In their case, there was no evidence of an enforceable contract. As such, the fire chiefs did not have a property interest in their continued employment, which meant they were not entitled to due process before their employment could be terminated.
What does "at-will" employment mean?
The term means precisely what it says: your employer can end your employment at will, or whenever he chooses, for nearly any reason. The law in most states presumes that you are employed "at-will" unless you have reliable evidence that your employer intended otherwise. Like Missouri, Alabama is an employment at-will state.
What rights, if any, do employees have in at-will states?
There are several very important exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine that are provided by various federal anti-discrimination laws. Essentially, you cannot be terminated for illegal reasons, even if you are an at-will employee. These federal laws protect certain employees who work at covered employers. In other words, if you work for a company that is large enough to be subject to these federal laws, you are protected under specific circumstances.
Generally speaking, protected employees cannot be terminated for belonging to a certain category of individuals, such as African-Americans or women. Employees are also protected from being terminated for complaining about discrimination, harassment, or other illegal activities engaged in by their employer.
Protection from discrimination and harassment
There are several federal laws that protect employees from discrimination based on protected categories, including race, sex (gender), age (over 40), religion, national origin, and disability. Federal laws also protect against harassment in the workplace, based on these same characteristics.
Protection against different forms of retaliation
Another component of these federal protections is the prohibition against retaliation. Employers are prohibited from taking any adverse employment actions against an employee who complains about discrimination or harassment, as described above. This includes discipline or pay cuts, as well as termination and demotions.
The same protection against retaliation applies to employees who file Worker's Compensation claims. Also, employees who become aware of various types of illegal activity being engaged in by their employer, and who report that activity to the government cannot be retaliated against, either.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.